Have we forgotten Australia’s most successful writer ever?

Having sold over 70 million books around the world, why is there so little discussion of Australia’s biggest selling author in their home country? Our publisher Elizabeth discusses the incredible legacy of Morris West: 

In the 1970s my grandmother eagerly anticipated every new Morris West novel. I remember the row of smart hardback copies, which my mother later squeezed into her own bookcase. Back then, Morris West was one of the big international authors everyone had read. But he was in fact Australian.

Morris West’s books have sold 70 million copies around the world in 28 languages. That’s an extraordinary achievement, and I wondered how it compared with other popular Australian authors like Colleen McCullough, Thomas Keneally, Bryce Courtenay and Jon Cleary?

It’s difficult to find reliable information about Australian book sales prior to 2001, let alone international sales, but it seems Morris West may be Australia’s most successful book author ever (but please correct me if you know otherwise)!

Why isn’t this common knowledge in the Australian book industry? Why has Morris West’s name faded so much since his death in 1999 that my younger colleagues at Allen & Unwin haven’t heard of him?

West was determined to build a career as a writer, and as for so many artists, musicians and writers before the 1980s, the only way to do that was to move overseas. Aside from a couple of early novels, all his books are set in elsewhere: in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the US, the Pacific, Japan. Most likely his international publishers didn’t want him to write about Australia anyway. Is Australian literary culture reluctant to acknowledge a novelist who doesn’t write about Australia?

Or is it that an increasingly secular Australia is now uncomfortable reading fiction which takes religion seriously? Morris West’s best-known novels, The Devil’s Advocate, Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God, and Lazarus, all focus on the Catholic Church – with deep insight and a critical eye.

Morris West’s novels sold in truck loads. That alone would be enough to inspire the snobbery of the literary gatekeepers of his generation. I can’t imagine the former Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University, Dame Leonie Kramer, ever considering him worthy of scholarly review. The AustLit database wryly notes, ‘West’s fiction has not received a great deal of critical attention’.

Or is it that his books have been out of print in Australia for decades? This year we reissued 26 Morris West titles in new livery both in Australia and overseas, in both print and ebook editions. Today’s readers can decide for themselves where Morris West belongs in the Australian literary canon.

More on Morris West

You can hear Elizabeth and Morris West’s daughter Melanie discussing his legacy with RN Books and Arts below, while The Monthly recently looked at his back catalogue and its relevance today, saying: 

his writing is always full blooded and remarkably fluent… the best of West’s novels are fresh and alive

Morris West's daughter Melanie Bryan with some of her father's books
Morris West’s daughter Melanie Bryan with some of her father’s republished books
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