I liked how rigorous [the PhB] was. I like the independent study and independent research projects that allowed you to do essentially what you wanted to do.
Rachel Chopping loves literature. When she was younger, she wanted to be a writer. Then, when she got a bit older, she saw that working in publishing was an option – one that she would quite enjoy.
“It's kind of the best of both worlds because you can still write your own work and you have the advantage of being in the industry and helping other people's work get out, which is just as fulfilling,” she says.
Since her dream took shape, many years ago now, Rachel has been methodically working to turn it into a reality.
A key part of that was choosing to study the prestigious Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) (PhB) at The Australian National University, and major in English Literature.
“I always knew what I wanted to do at ANU,” Rachel says of the PhB. “I liked how rigorous it was. I like the independent study and independent research projects that allowed you to do essentially what you wanted to do.”
Truth be told, Rachel had been weighing up whether to pursue books and writing on a more practical level (attending a TAFE-like university) or on a more theoretical level (at ANU), straight out of high school. ANU won out.
“It’s such a good uni, and to have it so close it kind of felt like a missed opportunity to not take advantage of that,” says Rachel, who was born and raised in Canberra.
Four years on, she’s graduating with her PhB – and she still managed to get the practical experience in editing and publishing that she wanted, by working on the student newspaper.
When asked if there’s a PhB research project she wants to mention in particular, Rachel singles out one she did in her third year, supervised by ANU literary scholar Dr Millicent Weber. It was in the field of publishing studies and reception studies – looking at what Rachel describes as “the history of the book as an object”.
“So, when a book is published, who's reading it, who's reviewing it, and what kind of impact it's had over time,” Rachel explains.
She incorporated aspects of that into her Honours thesis, which explored the figure of the ‘madwoman’ in illness writing, focusing on three memoirs by contemporary Australian women feminist writers. What she found through her research was that the madwoman and mental illness are represented very differently these days, especially in Australian memoirs versus memoirs published in the US and UK.
“The madwoman was a really big feminist figure around second wave feminism,” Rachel says. “She was all strength and rage and really cathartic, but now in illness writing, it's kind of a doomed circle: being a figure of rage like that is actually not very helpful to recovery and telling stories.”
“There are actually other methods like networking with other unwell people and crafting your story in a different way and using social media a lot – that's the direction illness memoirs are going in now, I found.”
Studying Australian literature in her second year was “life-changing” for Rachel. She’d previously been much more interested in works by American and British authors, but now she’s a convert – and she wants to show other people how great Australian authors are too. That’s part of her future goal.
“I think there's a real sense that Australian fiction is all kind of colonial and very depressing and I think I'd like to try and help change that,” she says. “There's a lot of other stuff, and especially older books – so moving away from the Banjo Paterson kind of stereotype – there's other poets, other writers like women and Indigenous writers that are really worth getting back into print and getting them back on bookshelves.”
Rachel wound up receiving the highest grade in her class in that life-changing Australian literature course; winning the Grahame Johnston prize for Australian Literature in the process. She also went on to receive the highest marks in her English Honours cohort, securing her the Leslie Holdsworth Allen Memorial Prize.
Rachel’s time at university wasn’t all about studying – although books and writing were constants. She worked at the Harry Hartog bookstore across all four years of her degree; even helping to set up their store on the ANU campus. And she joined the ANU student newspaper Woroni – working her way up to Editor-in-Chief in 2021.
She feels bittersweet about graduating: “I loved my time at ANU. But it is nice that no more assessments are due.”
Soon, she’ll move to Melbourne to begin a Master of Writing and Publishing, having created a solid foundation for her aspirations in Australian publishing.
“I was always a little bit worried I'd kind of picked this passion and actually what if I didn't enjoy it?” Rachel wonders. “But once I actually did start doing it, I was very relieved to find that I do really enjoy this and can see myself making a career out of it.”
She adds with a laugh: “But hopefully I won't have a crisis in five years and decide that I hate it and want to do something else!”
Written by Evana Ho