Malcolm Bradbury was offered a lot of money by an American university for the manuscript of The History Man. He’d thrown it out. He produced another version, complete with crossings out and corrections, and got the dough.
I’ve never pulled off such a coup, but I have regularly sold my manuscripts, correspondence and related material to the State Library of New South Wales for more than 30 years.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was producing three or more books a year, a few years’ worth of manuscripts amounted to fair swag. The first drafts contained hand-written comments and corrections, mostly by Jean Bedford, and were supplemented by publishers’ edits and page proofs.
We were still writing letters in those days, and I corresponded with British authors Robert Goddard and Robert Barnard and American writers like Robert B Parker, Tony Hillerman and others. I exchanged letters with journalists, among them Elizabeth Riddell, James Hall and Stuart Sayers, and local writers like Barry Hill, Damien Broderick, Murray Bail and John Baxter, and with the preeminent critic of crime writing, Stephen Knight. There was, I think, one exchange with Patrick White.
I sold the material in batches every five years or so, and correspondence with my agent, Rosemary Creswell, together with financial statements, figured prominently. The archives also accepted material from conferences I attended, reviews I’d written and received and research notes for the novels (always very scanty).
Faxes were a problem; they faded quickly. There was one correspondent who stipulated that I wasn’t to include his letters. I obliged him. Historian and folklorist Edgar Waters told me he knew some people wrote to him only to get replies they could sell. Although I hadn’t done that, out of respect I kept a great letter he wrote me aside until after his death. It deserved preservation.
It wasn’t just a matter of bundling the stuff up any old how. I prepared a careful inventory of each batch and provided explanatory notes for some of the correspondence. The exercise of going through the letters after a lapse of time was interesting. Some things were best excluded to protect the living. In recent times letters have been replaced by printed emails – not as atmospheric but at least they don’t fade, like faxes, and they can be salty as well as personal, entertaining and informative.
I once had occasion to go to the archives to check on something I’d deposited. I was impressed by the scrupulous way the material had been catalogued and stored. I was surprised to see that one folder was listed as ‘Confessions’. I could imagine a biographer, if there happened to be one, falling on it. He or she would be disappointed: the archivist had mis-transcribed my scrawled identification– ‘Conferences’.
I suppose the archives will continue to buy the ever-diminishing material for ever- diminishing sums of money, as they value completeness. I have diaries stretching over several decades, which I hope my survivors can make a quid from. There is some heavy, tortured stuff there from my turbulent years, but of late the entries mostly come down to not much more than notes of doctors’ appointments and a record of the mixed results.