This is a review of Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers by Ryan O'Neill. 

My first encounter with Ryan O Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers was in a copy of The Lifted Brow, where I discovered the humorous and dramatic biography of an author I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of before: Claudia Gunn. Her many interesting traits included the frequent blackmailing of the guests at her literary commune, the secrets of whom she discovers through holes about her house. Halfway through reading, I ran a Google check and confirmed that, like each and every one of the biographies in Their Brilliant Careers, the biography of Claudia Gunn is a fiction.

In Careers, Ryan O’ Neill has composed a witty, detailed, and intricate alternative Australian literary history, featuring such memorable characters as Rand Washington, a virulently racist L. Ron Hubbardesque peddler of sci-fi stories, and Vivian Darkbloom, who for a significant period of Australian literary history, sneaks her way into the pages of the many authors she sleeps with. The writers tend to be characterised by a singularly distinctive characteristic (Historical revisionism, agoraphobia, nonexistence, etcetera), from which O’ Neill draws out the rest of his story. For instance, there is, among my personal favourites, Addison Tiller, the pseudonym of a Henry Lawson parody whose career launches after he begins writing extremely sentimental stories about the Australian bush, despite never having been there:

“Both Tiller and his publisher were keen to capitalise on their success, and more short-story collections followed: Around Our Homestead, (1893), Beyond Our Homestead (1895), Behind Our Homestead (1897), Towards Our Homestead (1898) and Athwart Our Homestead (1900.)

  While this approach, taken by a lesser writer, may have made the biographies monotonous and overly similar, the author’s gift for structure: brilliant twists and endings dripping with irony means that the book remains a fun, light read. Each of the fictive authors’ idiosyncrasies is brought to its absurd, often hilarious logical extremes, often gifting keen literary scholars with references to actual Australian figures. There is also a healthy dose of incisive pot-shots of aspects of Australian literary culture — The naming of a critical work being named Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings: A History of Australian Short Fiction, for instance.

In fiction, writers writing about other writers tends to lend itself to severe acts of literary onanism, but O’ Neill’s creations are satirised, absurd, and differentiated enough to swerve away from being dull: Among them are plagiarists, cult-leaders, socialists, chronic adulterers, and countrymen who’ve done deals with the devil. Multiple rereads will be rewarded with the impressive amount of interconnection between the biographies: Many of the authors interact with one another at some point, and I’m sure there are one or two plotlines that I missed, surreptitiously buried underneath the surface.

This is a difficult book to review, in that I have never really come across a book attempting to do the same things as Their Brilliant Careers, so there’s not much to compare it to: There are no other satirical, fictional biography collections of Australian authors I can think of, but, in any case, O' Neill has constructed something very special and very worthwhile. If the author set out to parody the common need for readers to expect writers to have just as interesting lives as their characters, he has done so, extraordinarily well. Ultimately, the judgment I cast must remain based on whether or not it has managed to do those things: In this case, Ryan O’ Neill has embarked on the task of creating a satirical, funny alternative history to Australian literature, an exercise he has achieved admirably and with brilliance.

Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers will be released in August.


(Black Inc. Books, RRP: $27.99)

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Cameron Colwell's picture

Cameron Colwell

Cameron Colwell is a writer, critic, and poet from Sydney, Australia. He has appeared on a panel at National Young Writers Festival, has had work published in The Writer's Quarterly, Heaps Gay, and The Star Observer, and was the 2013 winner of the Mavis Thorpe Clark award for a collection of short stories. His Twitter is @cameron___c and his work can be found at