Friday, October 25, 2013

Morrissey makes a literary hit


Morrissey: His story hailed and pooh-poohed.

It's been quite a week for the credibility of Steven Patrick Morrissey, the creative driving force of gloom-ridden '80s band the Smiths.

The Queen is Dead was voted the best album of all time by readers of British music magazine New Musical Express and almost 35,000 copies of Morrissey's Autobiography were sold within a few days of publication. Heaven knows, Morrissey can't be miserable now.

Whether the credibility of publisher Penguin is still intact remains to be seen. Immediate publication of the book under its Penguin Classics imprint - one more associated with literary greats than rock musicians - has been greeted with amazement in some quarters. Morrissey's stablemates include the three Bronte sisters, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Karen Blixen, Katherine Mansfield and at least one other with a musical bent, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

But no one can doubt the enthusiasm for the book. Brunswick Street Bookstore owner Peter Mews said: ''Young men in raincoats emerged from everywhere. We've had huge interest. I haven't known a book to be so anticipated; we had dozens of calls in the lead-up. We got loads in and have another order in and are expecting it to run all the way to Christmas.''


A few years ago, then Penguin Classics publisher Adam Freudenheim told Fairfax Media his idea of a classic was ''a book [that] has stood the test of time''. So while he had bought rights to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera for his list, he demurred at Zadie Smith's 2000 novel, White Teeth, thinking it was a bit too early. You can bet he'd have thought the same about Autobiography.

Text publisher Michael Heyward, who has created the Text Classics imprint for neglected Australian works, said he took an inclusive view of what a classic could be. ''Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a classic crime novel, but it is also a penny dreadful. The definition of a classic is wide ranging and interesting.''

However, he said, time was one of the tests of a classic. ''To put a book in a classics list on first publication seems to me to stretch the term to breaking point.''

Reviews of Autobiography in Britain have been mixed, with The Observer finding echoes of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas in the early pages - first paragraph more than four pages long - about Morrissey's Manchester childhood, but also comedian Les Dawson and the fictional character Adrian Mole, and The Daily Telegraph calling it ''the best written musical autobiography since Bob Dylan's Chronicles''.

But Independent literary editor Boyd Tonkin said it deteriorated into a ''predictable whine of self-pity and self-justification''. And he reserved his greatest scorn for Penguin for ''debauching its list with this book'' and concludes ''the droning narcissism of the later stages … may harm his [Morrissey's] name a little. It ruins that of his publisher.''

Penguin almost lost the Morrissey book, which was completed two years ago. Last month it was announced that a ''content dispute'' between the miserable Mancunian and the publisher had resulted in Morrissey being ''now in search of a new publisher''.

A few weeks later he had found one - Penguin Classics. Reports suggest Morrissey insisted it appear with the distinctive black livery and orange lettering.
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