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16 December 2016

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The Sydney Review of Books ends 2016, a year of defeated prognostications globally and locally, on a firmer footing than that from which we set out. Whatever their ambitions, all literary journals require a stable foundation of funding to thrive. A cohort of contributors and a community of readers usually come first, and many journals do rely on volunteer labour, credit card advances, and the gift economy – but eventually, bills need to be paid. Writers need to be paid. Since our establishment in 2013 the Sydney Review of Books has been generously supported by the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, where we are based. This year we were named a key organisation by the Australia Council, which means we have, for the first time, a base of funding assured until 2020.

We’ve welcomed many new writers to the site this year, many through two initiatives: essays on place published as part of our Writing NSW series, and the CA-SRB Emerging Critics Fellowships. In their responses to a broad invitation to write on place, the contributors to the Writing NSW series demonstrated both the malleability and vitality of the form of the literary essay. We’ve had a tremendous response to these essays, both from readers who recognised the contours of places like St Peters, Cronulla, Kingsgrove and Dungog, and from those for whom the essays were a trip somewhere new. The series culminated in a day-long set of discussions at the Bankstown Arts Centre about the literature of place, a rare occasion for SRB writers and readers to meet in person.

Ben Brooker, Ali Jane Smith and James Halford were the 2016 recipients of the CA-SRB Emerging Critics Fellowships, and their work reflects a range of critical practice and interests. We established these fellowships to provide opportunities for emerging critics to refine their skills; the applications we received far exceeded our expectations, both numerically and in terms of their quality. It’s exciting to witness a group of vigorous and intelligent new critics emerging to shape our shared cultural conversations, and we look forward to working with many of them in the future. We’re grateful to Arts NSW and the Copyright Agency for their support for these two projects.

For many in the literary world, 2016 has been a bruising year. If George Brandis as arts minister dismayed arts workers with his hands-on approach, his successor Mitch Fifield has appeared somewhat blasé about his portfolio. One of his colleagues memorably cautioned against a career in the creative arts as a ‘lifestyle choice’. Several literary organisations lost Australia Council funding. Policy settings that affect the incomes of publishers and writers have been up for debate and as such, discussions about the value of literature have been largely framed in terms of financial returns.

In this context, the December issue of The Lifted Brow is a welcome intervention, in that it exposes the costs of making literature, via a ledger  that tallies income against costs, and includes an ‘effort analysis’ of the hours of labour required to produce the magazine. Of the 1729 labour hours devoted to one issue of the magazine, over half were unpaid.

Most contributors to the Sydney Review of Books also write from time to time for other local literary journals (such as The Lifted Brow), for newspapers or for academic journals. We all share readers and often compete for their attention. Editors and writers may disagree on certain matters but our present and future health is intertwined: we all benefit from an eclectic and robust local publishing scene – so please consider taking out a 2017 subscription to a local literary journal. You don’t need to become a financial contributor to support the Sydney Review of Books in the year ahead. All essays are available free of charge to all readers so it’s easy to share our essays on social media. You can also sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter.

A Sydney Review of Books ledger would look a little different to the one published in The Lifted Brow, not least because we are an online-only publication with no print or distribution costs. The  broad point holds: it all takes a lot of work – and so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues in the Writing and Society Research Centre who have helped shape the Sydney Review of Books in 2016, in particular Ben Denham, Suzanne Gapps and Ivor Indyk. Katherine Barnsley gamely stepped up to the editor’s desk while I was on maternity leave and also worked on the Writing NSW project. I’m grateful to the Director of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University Anthony Uhlmann and our Dean Peter Hutchings for their commitment to the Sydney Review of Books and for the Centre’s ongoing support of the journal. It’s a privilege to work in a vibrant environment in which intellectual inquiry and creative endeavour are both valued. I’d also like to thank Rachel Morley, Ben Etherington, Matt McGuire, Melinda Jewell and James Ley for their help, guidance and support. And finally, I’d like to thank all the writers who have contributed to the Sydney Review of Books in 2016; it’s their fine work on which the reputation of the Sydney Review of Books has been made.

This week on the Sydney Review of Books

We end the year with three strong essays by Australian writers. Injuries and Usurpations by SRB founding editor James Ley addresses two American novels that won major prizes in 2016: Man Booker winner Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won the National Book Award. Ley writes, ‘There is no subject that exposes the tensions, hypocrisies and flat-out contradictions of the United States’ defining myths – manifest destiny, individual liberty, self-reliance, exceptionalism – as starkly as that of race.’ Beatty and Whitehead’s novels were written during the Obama years; Ley’s reading unfurls in the aftermath of ‘what is widely regarded as the most vicious, sleazy and dishonest presidential election campaign in its history, with the Ku Klux Klan’s preferred candidate emerging victorious.’

Race politics in the United States is one of the contexts for Michelle Cahill’s essay on Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race and a re-issue of B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, True Colours: Reflections on Race and Caste. She writes: ‘For those who are peripheral to official history, for those whose ancestors and their communities have been assigned to the footnotes by colonialism, by slavery or caste oppressions, it is difficult to even begin to grasp the extent to which race inscribes us, through trauma, broken time, creolised language and diasporic interruptions. Yet, by necessity, this is the task of our writing.’

And finally, in First Person Feminism, historian Zora Simic situates Ford’s debut Fight Like A Girl, and a slew of recent popular feminist releases, in the history of ‘lightbulb’ feminist texts: ‘Writing – whether a book, a blog, a column, or all three – has become the primary platform for getting feminism ‘out there’ and the publication of Fight Like A Girl consolidates Ford’s status as Australia’s go-to feminist. However, while the public feminist is now most often a writer, she is not always taken seriously or understood as such.’

We’ll be taking a break from publishing new essays over the festive season. Keep up with the best of our archive via our Facebook page  – and have a great summer!