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Long Hot Summer

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Image: © Kawita Vatanajyankur The Scale 2 (video still), 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney. Part of the exhibition Feast until 19 December 2015.

How to begin the final SRB Week in Review for 2015? It’s been a month of disappointments for the Australian literary world amid bad news generally for the arts sector. After the pomp of the PM’s Literary Awards: announcements of further cuts to the Australia Council’s budget and to Mitch Fifield’s Communications portfolios. Restrictions on parallel imports of books are out. The Book Council, which never was, is out. Ultimately the only tangible outcome of Tony Abbott’s surprise 2014 announcement of the establishment of a Book Council was the surgical removal of $6 million from the budget of the Australia Council. That funding has not been restored and no advocacy body for the literary sector, one to fill the role formerly performed by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, has emerged. Members of the literary community spent the year lobbying first George Brandis and Tony Abbott and then Mitch Fifield and Malcolm Turnbull via the media, open letters, the Senate Inquiry into Arts funding and all manner of back channels. It’s disheartening to register how little policy impact they have had. The hopes invested in Malcolm Turnbull, patron and one-time defender of the arts, have come to nought.

Dire predictions were made about the future of the independent arts sector in May when Brandis’ major cuts to OzCo were announced. Now we’re seeing the consequences of the cuts as arts organisations announce cutbacks, downscaling and closure. The tidings for the youth arts sector are particularly grim.  Appeals for reader funds and crowdfunding initiatives are on the up and competition for existing grant funding is very tight.

Literary journals did not fare well in the latest round of Australia Council program funding. In his SRB essay on the literary magazine in Australia, Emmett Stinson summed up the business challenges facing literary journals in one pithy paragraph. ‘Business challenges’, clunky term that it is, isn’t Stinson’s usage, but it seems appropriate to a policy environment that asks arts organisations to be entrepreneurial, agile, innovative and feverishly efficient:

Lit mags today face many of the same problems as they did in 1968: the expense of distribution in a large country with a small population; the difficulty of publicising journals beyond local regions or coteries; and the predicament of securing funding to pay editors and contributors adequately. Because no viable market-based model exists for the literary magazine, dependence on a mix of subsidy, institutional support, patronage and especially volunteerism remains a necessity.

As literary journals take a break for the summer, editors and their boards will have a chance to reflect on this ever more demanding predicament of securing funding. We should be grateful that the Pay the Writers campaign has gained such traction over the past 18 months. It’s made visible the material conditions of writers’ lives and started useful conversations about what sustainable literary careers and ventures look like. The thing is, if no one is funding literary journals, the question, who will pay the writers (not to mention the editors, the printers, the postage bills, the web hosting costs and so on), gets much harder to answer.

It hardly feels like the season to be jolly but as Phillip Edmonds’s Tilting at Windmills, a history of Australian literary magazines and the occasion for Emmett Stinson’s essay reminds us, the Australian literary world is nothing if not resilient. The history that Edmonds traces is a hopeful one, in that it shows that literary culture can survive in conditions of adversity. They’re clearly not the optimal conditions, however, and much as Turnbull and his cadre might wish that all the literary journals and other small publishing ventures that will be so direly affected by ongoing funding cuts would just keep calm and carry on, without the buffer provided by federal funding, many will simply not be able to do so – and we’ll all be the worse off for that. For now, we’ll leave the lamentations to the new year and instead send good cheer to our comrades in literary arms. We salute the writers who persist, undeterred, and wish them well for 2016.

The SRB will be observing the Australian summer holiday tradition. We won’t publish any new essays on the site until February and in the meantime, we’ll post highlights from 2015 on our Facebook and Twitter pages and prepare for the launch of a revamped website early in the year.

This, then, is the time for me to express some personal thanks. Firstly, I’d like to thank SRB’s very distinguished cohort of 2015 contributors – and to point to their role in shaping a continuing conversation about Australian and international literature. It is upon their critical work that the reputation of the SRB has been built. I’m particularly grateful to those who have worked patiently with me since my appointment as editor in July. I’d also like to acknowledge the support and sound advice I’ve received from my predecessor James Ley in settling into this role, as well as my colleagues at the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, Ivor Indyk, Alice Grundy, Ben Denham, Suzanne Gapps, Rachel Morley, Matt McGuire and Ben Etherington.

This week we conclude an editorial project that has been a feature of the site through 2015: Matthew Thompson’s reportage from the Sulu Archipelago, a violent, beautiful and contested region of the southern Philippines, where US colonial troops first faced Islamic warriors and suicide attackers more than a hundred years ago. The final instalment of this series is the culmination of Thompson’s quest to reach the troubled island of Jolo, in spite of many warnings not to do so:

Mike has worked with enough Westerners to know to get blunt. ‘Matt, if you cannot get military protection, don’t go to Jolo. Do you understand? Look at you; before you even get off the ferry; even when you are boarding here, there will be people telling their contacts in Jolo to expect you. You are a marked man. The only white civilians in Jolo are hostages in pits.’

For readers wishing to start Don’t Go To Jolo at the beginning, the first instalment of the series appears here.  You’ll find links to subsequent installments in each essay.

Our second essay this week is by Chris Conti, and takes a new book about the historical frontier romance as its subject. James J. Donahue’s Failed Frontiersmen guides Conti’s discussion of the mythological frontier in American culture: ‘As the mythic space of the American imagination, the frontier has never closed. It remains the place where America conceives its identity, its values, and its destiny.’

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were announced on Monday night. It would be a shame for the sorry news about arts funding to overshadow the winners. You can read a full list of the winners here. Joan London’s The Golden Age received the prize for fiction. This novel was the subject of a luminous 2014 essay by Tegan Bennett Daylight that was also selected for inclusion in Black Inc’s Best Australian Essays 2015. She writes:

The best word that I can come up with to describe London’s voice is mature, which has not much to do with the author’s age, and everything to do with her skill. It is the sort of writing that does not immediately invite a mental reply, whether that reply is how wonderful! or how awful! It does not obscure its subject – no chorus line of verbs or orchestra of adjectives gets in the way of what she is writing about. Her writing, which calls attention to itself only by its precision, gives you an opportunity, the way silence sometimes does, to reflect productively. Best of all, it returns you to an early pleasure: the pleasure of story, of wanting to know what happens next.

The winner of the prize for poetry was Geoffrey Lehmann, for Poems 1957-2013, also the subject of an SRB essay by Geoff Page. If Poems 1957-2013 is, in Page’s words, an opportunity to ‘examine the trajectory of a long and now completed career’, Page’s essay makes the most of the occasion to review Lehmann’s life in letters:

Sydney-born Lehmann was only eighteen when his remarkable poem, ‘An Image’ was published in the London Magazine. At only 25, he shared his first collection, The Ilex Tree(1965), with Les Murray. Several other collections, strangely not referred to in this summation of them, followed… Like almost all Australian poets, Geoffrey Lehmann has also had a day job — in his case as a tax lawyer and partner in an international accounting firm. He published a classic text on taxation and, for a time, had a column in theAustralian on related matters. As his more autobiographical poems attest, Lehmann also raised five children through two marriages (and the space between them). Over this time, he also produced the 364 pages of this new collected edition which, he says, ‘contains all the poetry written by me that I think is worthwhile including in a book’. Now, quite reasonably, Lehmann has decided to retire from these parallel lives. Poems 1957–2013 is thus a definitive statement of a life’s work.