Essay: Jill Joneson national literary culture

Over the Range, and Out of Range

My provocation and my concerns are with some specific material conditions for certain Australian writers (poets, primarily but not exclusively). With bodies and places. About showing up, or not having that opportunity, once something is written and published. About being a writer in public spaces where readers are, where collegial or even unfriendly interlocutors are, where gatekeepers are. Or not. About Hicksville, the sticks, the badlands. Somewhere over the range and far away.

Place and provinciality have long been pivotal to ideas around Australian literature. Robert Dixon, writing on the trope of place in Australian literary criticism, points out that in the 1920s and 1930s writers and critics such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, and later Miles Franklin, were arguing for a distinctively national literature, a cultural-nationalist project. Dixon notes that Nettie Palmer was also worried that this could become provincial in a negative sense. Nonetheless, she argued for what Dixon calls a strategic provincialism, one that would provide a focus and a context that was Australian but still aware of how it related to world literature.

On the other hand, Dixon notes that Miles Franklin at a later stage castigated Henry Handel Richardson and Christina Stead as writers who variously, in her view, ‘turned their backs’ on Australia and its culture. Dixon calls this defensive provincialism. It isn’t hard to argue that there has always been an anxiety threaded through Australian literature, not simply an anxiety over whether Australia is even a place, but whether its literature can make it beyond the borders, or if indeed it should, and on whose terms?

However, I’d like to engage in some offensive provincialism, examining different borders, the literary tick gates, and ask if anything exists beyond Sydney or Melbourne. I suspect not a lot does. I mean, where is Adelaide, anyway? And what is Hobart, Darwin or Perth?

My provocation is also a complaint, in its older sense of lament or protest, a poet’s complaint. I am relying on anecdote, experience and personal feeling as much as data, and make no apology for that. The field of making art and taking part in culture is an affective realm. And, indeed, is full of complaint of all kinds.

Tasmanian Ben Walter, in a recent Overland article, with is anxious title, ‘You can be a successful writer, but only if you live in Melbourne or Sydney’, claims:

Discourses of privilege are widespread in Australian literary circles, but this rarely extends to simple, old-fashioned geography.

Geography, especially in Australia, is not simple. Borders and state boundaries are all evidence of our invader colonialist history; in most cases they neither take much account of significant geographical features, nor the way this island continent’s lands were managed by many nations for thousands upon thousands of years prior to white colonisation. This is always crucial to acknowledge, to remember.

However, while doing so, I also take Walter’s point that, given the colonialist and white settler subdivision of this continent, we have, currently, a specific arrangement of states and territories, and more specifically, two cities in the east of the country that have the largest populations, where most readers live and buy their books, and most writers live and produce their work.

They are also centres of high economic and financial activity and that money generated by the New South Wales and Victorian economies makes available more dollars to support the greater number of arts organisations and institutions, including literary ones. It is not really a simple or old-fashioned geographical issue but can certainly be characterised by reference to cities, to population and infrastructure density, to state borders, to distances, in this case distances from the eastern part of the island, or continent, whichever geographical marker you prefer.

Playwright Mary Anne Butler, based in Darwin for many years, notes in an interview, regarding the reception of her recent play, Broken:

I remember feeling the frustration of being a regional playwright and no one beyond Darwin seeing the play when it premiered here in 2015. Yet it was such a cracking production. Sometimes it feels like our work up here is invisible, and that can be challenging on a number of levels.

This frustration led her to submit Broken to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which it eventually won. So, this is a success story, isn’t it? But Mary Anne Butler has been working in Darwin, and before that in Brisbane and other places, for many years. I recall standing with her, years and years ago, on the shore at Nightcliff Beach, looking out into the sunset over the Arafura Sea and feeling how much closer Darwin was to Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Indonesia than to Sydney or Melbourne, let alone Adelaide or Brisbane.

I’d spent that day in Darwin, on behalf of the then Literature Board of the Australia Council, speaking to Darwin-based writers, some of whom were Indigenous writers and some of whom were from, either recently or generationally, Timor, Papua, Indonesia. I had, shamefully, not heard of many of them at that point. At that time, Butler was running the NT Writers Centre and I was, at least, aware not only of her frustrations on behalf of these writers as well as her own, but her determination to do something about it. This was well over a decade ago. Going on the interview above, I would presume Butler still experiences these frustrations as a writer. And it’s a frustration not due to simplicities but complexities of both distance and the local.

Darwin and Perth are very distant for most Australians. It costs more for anyone to get there from out of the east. It costs more for writers from there to get out towards the east. Their local writing communities have quite distinct histories, concerns, issues. They develop their own ways of doing things, of publishing, of performing. They’re doing great things, Butler’s success is only one example. Essentially, however, almost no-one outside their locale is ever going to hear, see or read it.

Of course, you could argue, there are obvious examples that contradict all this parochial angst. And I’m not just thinking of Bunyah, or Goroke. We know Meanjin began in Brisbane and amongst its early contributors was a young poet born at Thalgarrah Station, near Armidale, but who at that stage, the 1940s, was living in Brisbane. I refer, of course, to Judith Wright. Later Meanjin headed to Melbourne, while Wright ended her days in Braidwood, a fair way from New England or indeed Mt Tambourine where she lived for many years. Of course, some writers don’t leave Brisbane for Melbourne. Gwen Harwood, (of ‘So long Bulletin fuck all editors’ fame, apropos possibly in this context) moved from Brisbane to Hobart.

But by-and-large the movement is from the smaller to the larger. There are a lot of well-published Australian writers who were born in the smaller Australian cities or regional Australia but who made for the big city. Sticking with poets, there’s John Tranter (Cooma), Pam Brown (Seymour), Michael Farrell (Bombala), Tom Shapcott (Ipswich). Writers, many of them, head to Sydney or Melbourne for a reason, well, for many reasons, including being closer to gatekeepers, publishers, agents, or simply critical mass.

Just to show that I’m not only focussing on poetry, I’ll briefly look at literary agents. If you go to the website of the Australian Literary Agents Association you’ll find a list of their members which shows, among other things, where these agents are based. Here’s the list:

Surry Hills x 2
Paddington x 2 (one with a Melbourne office as well)
Strawberry Hills
Moore Park
North Fitzroy

Most of these agents, as you can see, are based in Sydney. Some of them are agents for script/screen writers, by the way. Even literary agents not in the Association are almost exclusively based in Sydney or Melbourne or at some point on the east coast (I mean this in one sense quite literally, as one agent not on the above list has an address in Bermagui).

Indeed, literary agents in Australian have mostly been operating only since the late 1960s. This, in itself, indicates how subservient Australian literature was to, chiefly, the United Kingdom and, essentially, London up until that time. So much for the cultural-nationalist project.

Of course, I’m not suggesting for one moment that these agents only accept clients from Sydney or Melbourne, or Terrigal or Woodend for that matter. They quite obviously don’t. It would be a completely daft business model. Nonetheless, I recall the tenor of a series of conversations I had in Perth years ago, again when I was working for the Literature Board. These were for the most part prose writers, novelists essentially. More than one of them told me that, even though they had been well-published, happily so, by their WA publishers, they were considering moving to Sydney or Melbourne because they felt they needed to establish a more personal on-the-ground presence to be considered by a literary agent let alone publishers and, in general, the literary ecosystem.

Those conversations in that room in Perth brought home to me very clearly how isolated these, in local terms ‘successful’, writers felt. In those days, of course, I was a Sydneysider and I was also struck, on various trips I made for the Board, when meeting the WA poets in Perth, by how their generational traditions of poetry and criticism bore only some relation to my own. There were revered figures I knew very little of, and realised I ought to have known far more of. It was definitely ‘my bad’ but also a function of how the ‘local’ works. Although to an extent, social media, blogs, websites or plain and simple email have changed some of this, physical presence is important, showing up to this and that event creates a profile, if you will.

The primary ways that writers in Australia get noticed by an agent, or a reader, or publisher, will be via publication of some kind, and for emerging writers this is most likely to be in a literary magazine, periodical or newspaper, whether in print or online. And most of these publications are based in … you guessed it, Sydney or Melbourne.

Airtime is also useful as a promotional vehicle for writers, and most radio and TV producers of the kinds of shows that might feature writers these days (times have changed) are based in … you guessed it again. In this regard, Australian poets do still mourn the passing of the ABC’s poetry program, Poetica, and Mike Ladd’s production oversight of it out of the ABC studios in Adelaide.

And finally, writers’ festivals have become a major venue for writers to promote and discuss their work, and to sell books (though emerging writers will struggle more than others to get on these programs, and poets of any place and level of reputation will struggle even harder). Maybe it doesn’t matter if a writer doesn’t get to stand on a stage in front of a live audience to read their work or talk about it or be seen together with other writers. After all, it’s the books that matter (assuming we’re talking about writers who publish rather than perform). However, writers’ festivals do actually generate significant book sales as part of the event, apart from anything else. If you don’t get to turn up, it could be argued, you have to work harder. If you’re not actually physically around the cultural gates that are being kept, does anyone think about you, read you, ask you to do other writerly stuff? Names are simply names, not real faces and bodies you can have a yarn with over a coffee or something stronger, while balancing said beverage with some event-style finger food and a serviette. Or simply in the festival bar or café.

So, it is to writers’ festivals I’ll now turn.

Of course, you could comb through writers’ festival websites ad infinitum looking to create statistics and find contradictions. For instance, not all writers’ biographical notes mention their current place of residence, and some writers bill themselves as poets amongst a list of other genres, so the question is, are they presenting poetry at a particular event or some other form of writing. Also, some writer’s festival websites are difficult to negotiate cleanly and may not provide complete details of certain kinds of events, including poetry readings. However, I think there is a pattern, even if some of the data is not completely available or transparent and, thus, has required me to make a few educated guesses.

Of course, writers’ festivals will feature more writers from their home city because it is cheaper to do so, and these writers are knowns. (In Australia, there is one significant exception to this.) In the same vein, writers from cities that are further away from a particular city-based festival will be less likely to get a gig as flights, for a start, are more expensive. These are perfectly understandable economic and cultural circumstances.

For the purposes of this exercise, I am focusing now on poets. It is a smaller subset for the purposes of combing through data, and is also the group of writers I am most concerned with, for obvious reasons. And I am only focusing on events over 2017 and 2018. It’s a quick snapshot but it tells a story.

Thus, in the last couple of years, here is how Australian poets have been represented at major Australian writers’ festivals, so far as I could determine, given the caveats I’ve noted above. In some instances, these numbers include poets who are also prose writers, mostly fiction, and their presence in some festivals was in sessions relating to prose not poetry.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2018

NSW: 12 | VIC: 4 | QLD: 1 | ACT: 1 | WA: 1

Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2017

VIC: 13 | NSW: 1 | QLD: 1

Perth Writers’ Festival 2018

WA: 10 | NSW: 2 | VIC: 1 | QLD:1 | International: 1

Brisbane Writers’ Festival 2017

QLD: 3 | NSW: 1

Canberra Writers’ Festival 2017

ACT: 1 | VIC: 1

Wordstorm (NT Writers’ Festival) 2018

NT: 3+possibly more | QLD: 1 | VIC: 1

Adelaide Writers’ Week 2018

SA: 5 | NSW: 1 | VIC: 1 |QLD: 1

(Note: The five South Australian poets all appeared at the same event, a specifically themed ‘poetry reading’ featuring SA poets which has been on the AWW program from 2016 until 2018. In previous years, the participation by SA poets was not this high. Also, for the record, four other SA writers who are not poets were on the AWW program.)

It’s clear that the traffic is mostly one way and WA, NT and SA poets don’t really get the gigs over east. From an Adelaide perspective, this seems about right and has been for a long time.

Also, to simply check if it is different for other writers, I did a quick scan for other writers (ie prose writers) from SA and WA at the most recent Sydney and Melbourne Festivals. They are big events so I was assuming prose writers from elsewhere may get a gig even if poets wouldn’t. Again, the usual caveats apply re writers revealing their place of residence and so on.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2018

SA: 1 | WA: 2

Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2017

SA: 1 + 1 ? | WA: 3 (unclear if one of the ‘SA writers’ was living in SA)

So, not much representation there either. I was a little surprised.

Thus, maybe it is the case as Ben Walter suggests: ‘You can be a successful writer, but only if you live in Melbourne or Sydney’. Or at least, get noticed in real life. ‘Success’ can certainly come, at times, to the reclusive and almost invisible writer. A subject for another time, however, would be to look a little more closely at this, as I suspect that most famous so-called reclusive or isolated writers achieve fame through well-established cultural networks, possibly formed in earlier life before they became ‘reclusive’, or more rural or distant. It’s an area where a lot of myth-making happens but, again, a side issue to what’s at stake here.

What about periodicals and magazine publishing? You don’t have to be seen in the foyer of the writers’ festival launch venue to get published, do you? Or the well-established writers’ watering-hole?

Again, I’m focusing on poetry.

Of course, by noting the place of publication of journals does not mean that I am suggesting that only writers of that place are published in said journals. That would be an absurd claim. Still, being known, heard, bumped into at events, etc, does create a presence that distance doesn’t offer, as I’ve noted above. For instance, when I mention emerging, or even established South Australian poets to non-SA editors, writers and readers, they’re often a bit, ‘umm, oh yeah, have heard of them …’ and then trail off. It’s obvious who’s on the radar and who isn’t.

Here is a list of periodicals, print and online, that currently (as of May 2018) publish poetry either exclusively or alongside prose work. Undoubtedly, there are some I have missed, including any number of zines and other more ephemeral print or online publications, and possibly those which have moved from one city to another or operate out of more than one city. Also, online journals could be said not to operate out of a place at all, but in most instances they clearly do have a specific location with which they’re either associated, or the bulk of their editorial activity occurs in one specific place. I’ve simply made a decision, in these cases, based around this.

Periodicals publishing poetry


SA: Transnational Literature

WA: Westerly

Tas: Communion, Island

ACT: Axon, Meniscus, Not Very Quiet, The Canberra Times

Qld: Bareknuckle Poet Journal of Letters, foam:e, Otoliths, Pencilled In, Stilts, StylusLit, Text, The Griffith Review

NSW: 4W, Blue Pepper, Ibis House, Journal of Poetics Research, Mascara Literary Review, Pink Cover Zine, Quadrant, Southerly, The Australian, The Marrickville Pause, Verity La

Vic: Antithesis, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Flash Cove, Going Down Swinging, Golfo, Malevolant Soap, Meanjin, Overland, Peril, Rabbit, Plumwood Mountain, Scum, The Lifted Brow, The Suburban Review, Verandah, Voiceworks, Writing From Below

Of course, all the above publish writers from all over Australia (and many feature international writers as well), though a proportional tally would be an interesting exercise. Of particular interest, also, would be a proportional or representative comparison between those journals that require their editors to assess submissions anonymously and those that don’t. And it can also be argued that, especially for those magazines that don’t receive government monies tied to some form of ‘national’ or ‘community’ representation, they can publish whomever they want.

But it is clear where the critical mass of literary magazine publishing is and, thus, who has the greater opportunity to become better known by, say, being seen at readings or launches, and thus who might be asked to edit a special edition of a magazine, write a feature, or be asked to review something. Certainly, and to be fair, I’ve been solicited to review or edit from a distance, but sometimes that has quite specifically occurred because I raised my complaint, my objection, to being less visible as either an individual or part of that half-forgotten cohort of ‘poets from Adelaide’. Or I was asked to do x, y or z because I happened to be in the presence of an east coast editor. A lot of ‘hiring’ goes on over drinks, and I wouldn’t be the only person to have experienced it directly, or seen it happen. In part, it is the natural outcome of people being together, bodies in one place – which is my point.

What does this all tell us? To me, all this is saying is that there is, if not a simple geography of gatekeeping, a complexity of gatekeeping that is skewed towards writers from Sydney and Melbourne. If you are from WA, Tasmania, SA, the NT especially, or from any regional centre not within spitting distance of Sydney or Melbourne, it is far harder to show up and be noticed by ‘the gatekeepers’, and of course by readers, especially those readers who like to hear the words spoken aloud and/or look forward to hearing writers (presumably this includes poets) talk about their work.

Of course, a lot of writers do manage to show up, even if for some it’s a long time between drinks. It is certainly so for most of the poets I know in Adelaide and, quite probably, other writers here as well.

Is there anything that can be done about this? No, is the short answer, if we’re talking about simply getting more poets, and other writers, out of the margins into the centre, even if for just short bursts of time. The money, and I suspect the will, is simply not there. Government arts funding, as we all know, does not have the political cachet that it may, ever so briefly, have had for both sides of politics and it is fast diminishing. That particular last gasp of the cultural-nationalist project was exhaled quite a while ago. Some may argue that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that’s another provocation for someone else at another time.

As an aside, I recall a meeting specially convened by the Literature Board at which Board, staff and interested parties were discussing these very issues regarding poetry. It was suggested that a form of poetry touring circuit be funded to enable poets to do gigs outside their own locals. It was a good, practical idea but it didn’t happen then – this was about 15 years ago – and I can’t see it happening now.

Support from Australian universities comes and goes. Given the current bean-counting outputs model of most Australian universities I think, while there will be some lucky moments of institutional support (and a supportive VC can make all the difference), they aren’t and will not be common. Nonetheless, there are good examples currently within the academy including the Writing and Society Research Centre at University of Western Sydney, the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra and, at my own university, the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, among others. These centres, while having a scholarly focus, as one would expect, offer opportunities of writers’ residencies, as well as some speaking and reading engagements for writers outside the academy as well as within. By and large, however, the audience focus is not usually on the general reader, or promoting or selling books. They are, after all, academic institutions.

As for writers festivals, they will always cry poor, and quite reasonably so. However, they depend not just on cash but also the personal vision of their director.

I am aware of writers’ and poets’ organisations trying to work in with festivals, with varying levels of success, to get writers from other than their local area onto programs. It does depend on mutual interest and goodwill and, while that is sometimes there, it’s just as often lacking in this dog-eat-dog environment, this neoliberal, late capitalist moment, this time of focus on celebrity, the issues of the moment, and the shiny social media instant. And with always that whiff of the parochial.

Does it matter? After all, it’s all online these days. (But, it simply isn’t.)

Do we want to play? If you’re a writer who wants to be read in any way, yes.

If you’re a writer who simply wants to write, you can presumably do that anywhere, and it’s probably cheaper and more pleasant to do that away from Sydney and Melbourne.

Otherwise, the large populated locales are where the peak mass is, where more books and magazines are available and sold, where writers gather to talk more often, where writers can get on radio or, heck, even TV, where writers can share a stage, small or large, with others to discuss their work, the work of others, to reach out to readers. Or, the means to reach them are primarily created in those places. My frustrations are like Ben Walter’s, like Mary Anne Butler’s, like I’d presume, a number of writers throughout Australia. We do good stuff but no-one beyond us, frankly, gives a stuff for our stuff. They. Just. Don’t.

One answer, if you want to move from my stark ‘no’, is to revert to thinking along the lines of ‘small is beautiful’ – what I’d call the retro approach. I’ve been involved over the years in various small publishing projects in Sydney. And, now here in Adelaide, fellow poet Alison Flett and I have established a chapbook publishing series called Little Windows. Our idea is to publish four poets a time, at least one of whom is South Australian, and another one or two are Australian (whatever that might mean) and one who is not Australian. Given Alison’s Scots background, these latter non-Australians have been Scottish, at least so far. So, the local and the international.

This approach is our way of saying, no, we’re not doing the cultural-nationalist project. The two of us live here in various parts of Adelaide but our backgrounds are elsewhere, which is both a not so simple geographical fact but also a stance, a position, a context. We produce these chapbooks here and, sometimes, even sell them not just here but elsewhere (Australian postage costs are a huge issue, by the way). It is an example of not playing the game but also playing the game, from a specific local that is also informed by our individual and very different backgrounds. And this local is, for us, our centre. It’s not an outpost, it’s not even provincial, it’s a different kind of place, where the work happens, aware of where it is in the larger scheme of things but also not constrained by that. So, the longer answer is for the non-east coast poet or other writer is to do things something like this: small production, big idea. This personal example is only one of many happening around the country, I am sure.

Another way could be to consider other kinds of collectivities as a focus for community, discussion, promotion, reading, mutual gathering. Poets from everywhere, for instance, took to the internet very early in the piece and have been organising, discussing and publishing online variously for decades, via email discussion groups, blogs, online zines, etc. Recently, the so-called Instapoets have done well in this regard, using Instagram as a way of disseminating various kinds of short-form poetry to, if the click counts are correct, a startlingly huge audience world-wide, even those Instapoets out of Adelaide. Maybe there’s other media, either extant or about to emerge, which can be turned in other ways to a similar effect. Perhaps there will be media that can get closer to bringing real bodies together virtually (though there may be some scary thoughts contained in that idea as well).

Of course, one can simply learn to like being a bit lonely and just a bit unread, just enough but not entirely, just enough so one doesn’t quite give up. Which feels a bit as it’s always been. But now, with emojis.

This essay was first presented as part of Provocations, a new public forum initiated by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Culture at the University of Adelaide tackling controversies in the arts and humanities.  The theme of the first series was ‘Who Shot the Albatross?: Gate-keeping in Australian culture’.

Works cited

Dixon, R. ‘Home or away? The trope of place in Australian literary criticism and literary history’, Westerly, 54:1, pp 12-17
Sefton-Rowston, A, ‘Scenes from the Top End: Mary Anne Butler’, Sydney Review of Books, 2 September, 2016
Walter, B, ‘You can be a successful writer, but only if you live in Melbourne or Sydney’, Overland, 12 April, 2017

Published October 10, 2018
Part of Provocations: Selected proceedings from the Provocations Symposium hosted by the J.M Coetzee Centre at the University of Adelaide. All Provocations essays →
Jill Jones

Jill Jones has published eleven full-length books of poetry, including Viva the Real (UQP...

Essays by Jill Jones →