Tilting at Windmills: The Literary Magazine in Australia, 1968-2012
by Phillip Edmonds
University of Adelaide Press
Published March, 2015
The Lifted Brow, Issue 27
by Stephanie Van Schilt, Ellena Savage, and Gillian Terzis (eds.)
- Overland, Issue 220 by Jacinda Woodhead (ed.)
Island, Issue 142
by Matthew Lamb (ed.)
- The Canary Press, Issue 8 by Robert Skinner (ed.)
Phillip Edmonds’ short story, ‘The Soapbox’, published in the Griffith Review in 2008, is about an Australian named Warwick who moves to London and works at the Ministry of the Arts, where he takes ‘responsibility’ for the public forums at Speakers Corner — a task necessary because ‘the number of voluntary speakers at Hyde Park’ has ‘been dwindling, perhaps due to people getting older and the internet’. Warwick tries different strategies, but nothing draws audiences beyond groups of confused tourists. The ministry seems pleased with his efforts (‘the important thing’, he is told is ‘that things be seen to be done as much as being done’), but Warwick resigns in frustration and decides to return to Australia, though not before erecting a homemade soapbox in Hyde Park as a symbolic protest. The story ends with the narrator telling us that Warwick ‘stopped stressing about whether anyone was listening and gave up on being ashamed of daring to dream’.
This final line could also serve as excellent advice to those brave souls who dream of starting a literary magazine. As Edmonds argues in Tilting at Windmills: The Literary Magazine in Australia, 1968-2012, lit mags are idealistic gestures that speak to niche audiences: they are quiet conversations in a very noisy room. Perhaps no-one in Australia understands this better than Edmonds, who was an editor of Contempa in the 1970s, of the Melbourne version of Tabloid Story in the 1980s, and of Wet Ink in the 2000s. That the main themes of ‘The Soapbox’ — the erosion of the public sphere, the internet as an individualized or libertarian medium, the relative insignificance of Australia in the global order, the problem of overreliance on state support for the arts, and the desire to locate moments of idealism in a world that encourages cynicism — are also central themes of Edmond’s study of lit mags suggests that his scholarly work reflects a set of passionately held positions that derive from personal experience.
The passionate nature of Tilting at Windmills produces both formidable strengths and notable weaknesses. From a scholarly perspective, Edmonds’ study can be frustrating. For all of its research and arcane knowledge of long-defunct journals, it is not as comprehensive as one might expect it to be. It omits such recent journals as Chris Flynn’s Torpedo (seven issues, 2007-10, and a ‘greatest hits’ anthology in 2010), Tiggy Johnson’s Page Seventeen (eleven issues, 2005-11), Miriam Zolin’s extempore journal (five issues, 2008-10), Lisa Dempster’s Mini Shots (twenty issues, 2007-08), Alice Grundy and David Henley’s Seizure (six issues, 2011-13, now a website), and Jessica Wilkinson’s Rabbit (thirteen issues, 2011-present), which are all listed in the AustLit database. It lacks an index or even a complete list of journals discussed. Its analysis of the digital disruption of print largely ignores the significant media theory on the topic; in particular, Henry Jenkins’ conception of the digital convergence of media as a process driven both by economic monopolization and a populist anarchy seems relevant to many of Edmonds’ claims.
But its deficiencies also make Tilting at Windmills an engaging work that appeals to a readership beyond a narrow community of scholars. Edmonds is unafraid to make big claims. He critiques post-structuralist theory and post-modern irony as complicit with neoliberalism. He attacks liberal identity politics that argue for inclusivity while resisting the structural change that might enable it. He sees the cultural cringe as still determining the production and reception of Australian art. He criticizes the increasing specialization of academics, which discourages their participation in public debates. He is sceptical, above all, of cultural hierarchies that register value in an idealized elsewhere, typically overseas. That these claims are made plausible through a material history of Australia’s literary magazines testifies to his restless and piercing intellect. Rather than producing a flawless work of scholarship, Edmonds has written an actual book that—just like literary journals it analyses—would interest actual readers, rather than insiders and academics. It is compulsory for anyone who cares about contemporary Australian literature.
Edmonds approaches literary magazines through the lens of political economy, tracing larger economic shifts that have conditioned the cultural form of literary journals. He eschews extended theoretical Marxist debates and sticks to material history, asserting that literary magazines, though marginal, offer a privileged insight into the relation between Australian culture and economics:
the small magazine has traditionally been . . . a canary in a coal mine, a precursor to what can follow, an irritant, and a site of guilt for the intellectual class when they fail.
Edmonds views literary journals as simultaneously commodities and idealistic expressions of non-economic values, which may be political, communitarian, libertarian, or aesthetic.
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. Edmonds argues volunteerism ‘is a vexed notion’ and unsustainable since it excludes people who ‘have children to look after, and full-time jobs’ — a claim substantiated by the historical disappearance of almost every lit mag except those long-running journals — like Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant, and Southerly — that have managed to attract institutional or government support (though Going Down Swinging presents one notable counter-example). But subsidy and institutional support are no panacea; Edmonds quotes Stephen Murray-Smith:
You can become allied to an institution. Quadrant has the CIA, Meanjin has the University of Melbourne, Westerly had the student union of the UWA, and so on. It sounds a good idea but [it] is a hell of a lot of sack for a very little bit of bread.
Perhaps fragility remains lit mags’ defining feature.
Although such difficulties persist, Edmonds charts the major historical shifts in literary journals over the last four decades. In the 1970s, the large network of individual booksellers who believed in supporting local culture meant that ‘little magazines of the time, broadly speaking, could afford to resist commodification and homogenisation’ —producing a golden age of literary magazine activity that Edmonds also seeks to de-romanticise; he highlights the ‘central paradox’ of the 1970s lit mag, which often functioned simultaneously as a ‘democratic transgression’ and a ‘beautiful aristocratic gesture’. Moreover, even if ‘some little magazines were dreams nurtured in the idealism of the 1970s’, he notes that their libertarian character resonated with subsequent neoliberal economic reforms.
By the 1980s, ‘market values predominated, and little magazines were increasingly niche publications’. This moment of capital’s expansion constituted the ‘triumph of bourgeois individuality over all other ways of social construction’, producing a climate inhospitable to literary magazines. These neoliberal tendencies were consolidated in the 1990s through the arrival of large chain bookstores in shopping malls that made centralized purchasing decisions based on the point-of-sale data collated by Nielsen Bookscan. Edmonds argues such journals as Heat, Southerly and Meanjin responded to the times by adopting a ‘chunky’ and ‘book-like’ format, thereby making themselves ‘sites of prestige in a disposable age’. Increasing commercial demands on lit mags could also be seen in their privileging of essays — which tend to be topical and ‘relevant’ — over the less certain commodities of fiction and poetry.
Edmonds ends his study by analysing a second flowering of literary magazines after 2005, which I will call the ‘Class of ’05’, a designation I would apply both to the new and largely Melbourne-based publications that arose in this period —such as Wet Ink, The Sleepers Almanac, Harvest, The Lifted Brow, Etchings, Mini Shots, Page Seventeen, Torpedo — and to many longer-running journals — like Overland, Heat, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Voiceworks — which experienced a resurgence of activity around this time. There was a strong sense of community shared by these magazines, particularly in Melbourne: editors were on familiar terms, attended the same events, and exchanged ideas. This increased co-operation resulted in the creation of the Small Press Network (then called the Small Press Underground Networking Community, or SPUNC), an organisation proposed by Tom Doig (editor of Voiceworks from 2004-06) and Lou Swinn (Sleepers Publishing), which most of the above publications were directly involved with.
Edmonds sees the Class of ’05, paradoxically, as both a return to idealism and the culmination of the previous decades’ neoliberal and libertarian tendencies. For him, these contradictions are thrown into relief by the relationship of lit mags to the internet:
Technological change had also created a fracturing of the public sphere and instigated narrow communities of interest, and a frantic, repressed desire for hierarchical distinction.
Despite their communitarian impulses, the Class of ‘05 still ‘felt they needed to be validated by those higher up’ with the result that lit mags have increasingly become ‘high-cultural commodity[ies] in print form’ rather than anarchic formations that might resist, at least partially, late capitalism’s privatization of all public space. Here, he essentially expands upon Stephen Murray-Smith’s insight that ‘Most of what passes for radicalism in contemporary Australian magazine publishing is simply petit-bourgeois fundamentalism.’
If this seems a slightly gloomy conclusion for Edmonds’ study, then it’s worth noting that his prime motivations would appear to be the demise of the journal Wet Ink: The Magazine of New Writing (27 issues, 2007-12). Writing from the perspective of his experience with Wet Ink has advantages; in particular, it enables him to judge developments in Sydney and Melbourne with an outsider’s objectivity. At the same time, Edmonds sometimes takes Wet Ink’s experience as paradigmatic, when it was unusual: the magazine’s contents were almost entirely made up of fiction and poetry; it was produced in Adelaide, rather than Sydney or Melbourne; it sought to generate revenue through advertising income; and it was structured as a community organisation that privileged group decision-making.
This dedication to communality had virtues and demerits. On the one hand, Wet Ink’s democratic orientation meant that it overwhelmingly published new and lesser-known writers. On the other hand, its complex committee structure was a bureaucratic nightmare: there were two sub-editors for each category of poetry, essay, and fiction, who made separate recommendations that were later assessed by the two managing editors, who then decided the final contents of the magazine. Even difficult-to-secure submissions by prominent authors were subjected to rigorous editorial review, and sometimes rejected — a fact that, along with the sheer exhaustion of trawling through thousands of unpublished short stories, prompted my departure from the magazine in 2010, after serving as a fiction editor for five years.
Despite its fierce proclamations of independence from institutions, Wet Ink was mostly created and staffed by students and faculty attached to the University of Adelaide’s postgraduate Creative Writing program. As a result, Edmonds spends a great deal of time examining the fraught relationship between creative writing programs and little magazines. This is an interesting topic, but few members of the Class of ’05 had direct connections to tertiary creative writing. Instead, many pursued careers in arts administration: small publishers Steve Grimwade (Going Down Swinging) and Lisa Dempster (Vignette Press) both became Directors of the Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF) and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (MWF). Sam Twyford-Moore (Cutwater) also directed the EWF. Chris Flynn worked at the MWF and became a prolific book reviewer/de facto book promoter. Zoe Dattner served as General Manager of the Small Press Network for several years. Many others found employment in the book industry in various roles. Running a literary magazine in this period was a way to get your foot in the door, build a wider literary network and establish your name. Compared to the ivory-tower experience of a creative writing degree, editing a lit mag — and organising its associated public events — constituted on-the-job training for the arts administration sector.
Literary mags have continued to be an effective means for establishing literary credentials. Consider, for example, the original editors of the journal Kill Your Darlings: Hannah Kent, Jo Case, and Rebecca Starford. While Kent landed a mega-advance on a multinational book deal, both Case and Starford signed book contracts with prominent publishers (Hardie Grant and Allen & Unwin respectively) and have inhabited prominent roles as cultural intermediaries (Case has worked for the Wheeler Centre and the Melbourne Writers Festival, while Starford has been an editor for the Australian Book Review, Affirm Press and Text Publishing). All three are exceptionally talented and hard-working, but the networks they established through Kill Your Darlings have indubitably assisted the development of their careers, even if this was not the intent. I also benefitted materially from what I thought was ‘idealistic’ work with Wet Ink and the Small Press Network, which helped me gain my first academic position in the University of Melbourne’s Publishing and Communications program. Such voluntary labour at lit mags constitutes what Italian post-Marxists call ‘immaterial labour’, which, despite existing outside of traditional wage structures, still produces value for the worker, albeit in more uncertain terms. In this sense, the revival of lit mags relates to what Maurizio Lazzarato has described as the rise of the ‘“intellectual worker” who is him or herself an entrepreneur, inserted within a market that is constantly shifting and within networks that are changeable in time and space’.
Edmonds’ critical dismissal of the ‘monumental’ gesture of producing journals as book-like artefacts similarly overlooks the contradictory impulses behind the design-rich tendencies of contemporary lit mags, which seek to foreground their status as sensuous, aesthetic objects. While Edmonds describes Wet Ink as an attractive journal (and it was, in 2005), by 2012 its design was stale in comparison to most east coast journals, which had sought to attract younger audiences through more innovative (or hipster-ish) designs, which included experiments with formatting, illustration, paper stock and the like. For example, Kill Your Darlings (whose design Edmonds oddly calls ‘generic’) innovated by crafting a graphic narrative across the early covers of the journal, which was extended with each new issue. While these gestures were commodifying, they were also what Florian Cramer has called ‘post-digital’; in a time increasingly characterized by the ephemeral experience of the internet, lit mags sought to emphasize their materiality in ways that both responded to and resisted the prevalence of online media. This print fetishism does signal a desire for a lost Benjaminian aura, but it is also a genuine yearning for a simpler relation to media. These are complex attachments, which cannot simply be reduced to either an aristocratic monumentalism or a fetish for retro styles, even if both elements play a role.
A similar point pertains to the economic value of literary events in the digital age. When Sleepers Publishing started running its salons in 2005, such events, even in Melbourne, seemed new; not only are they now commonplace but also they have been consecrated by the creation of the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, which regularly holds readings, talks, interviews, and public discussions related to books. Edmonds rightly describes festivals as a kind of cultural tourism, but he ignores the broader significance of the experience economy as a way of generating funds in a post-digital moment. In various cities, recurring readings and literary event series — such as Sydney’s Penguin Plays Rough, Adelaide’s Wordfire and Melbourne’s Dog’s Tails and Slow Canoe Readings — appeared without being directly supported by existing institutions or literary magazines. When I was President of the Small Press Network from 2009-13, we were constantly feeding on scraps of funding; with the creation of the Independent Publishing Conference in 2011, however, we were suddenly able to generate significant revenue through sponsorships, attendance fees, workshops and the like. Many journals, such as Kill Your Darlings, now supplement their published literary offerings with paid writing workshops that start at around $175 per participant—a cost of $100 more than an annual subscription. Events are thus simultaneously communitarian and neoliberal: they are both community-building activities, and an essential source of income that can offset the costs of journal production.
I think Edmonds ignores these aspects because he too quickly conflates contemporary individualism with a 1970s libertarianism, without noting key intermediary shifts. In particular, I suspect that much of the Class of ’05’s approach to lit mags was motivated—either directly or indirectly — by indie music promotion models. While 90s indie music culture — as represented by overseas figures, such as Steve Albini of Shellac and Ian MacKaye of Fugazi — embraced a vulgarized, Adorno-lite critique of mainstream music, its anarchic response took the form of entrepreneurialism, in the mistaken belief that a dedicated underground of independent, true believers could locate an equivalence between exchange value and aesthetic value.
The appropriation of indie music promotion techniques was already pioneered by the U.S. journal McSweeney’s whose events often had a ‘underground’ atmosphere and, in many cases, even included performances by prominent indie bands, such as The Delta 72. In Australia, The Lifted Brow’s connection with music represents a similar model: many of its launches are shows, to which the price of admission includes an issue of the magazine. The broader point, though, is that, for the Class of ’05 and their followers, cooperative entrepreneurialism became, ironically, a mode of dissent from other cultural orthodoxies, resulting in a paradox that is similar but different to the confusion of anarchy and aristocracy Edmonds identifies. Given this, I would suggest that Edmonds’ conclusions, if anything, are too rosy. It is unclear, any longer, whether the literary magazine is a genuine site of idealism, or just another form of bourgeois Bildung — a pathway to one kind of literary career for ambitious, risk-takers operating on the fringes of more established institutions.
Whether or not little magazines are idealistic enterprises, they are essential to contemporary literary culture: they showcase new and emerging writers; provide a training ground for editors and administrators; offer more extended literary debates and discussions than the broadsheets; comprise a venue for journalism that contains views outside of the liberal mainstream; serve as rallying points for different communities of readers and coteries of authors; and present a steady stream of readings, events, panel discussions, and online conversations through social media. Although they lack the visibility of literary awards or writers’ festivals, literary journals are arguably more important in fostering the everyday cultural discussions in Australian literary communities off which higher-profile institutions ultimately feed. Although lit mags have a small readership, their subscribers are often ‘media influencers’. Not only do topical essays in literary journals get picked up by radio and other media, but literary editors also read them to scout new talent. This is no exaggeration: I myself have been interviewed by Radio National based on an article I wrote for Overland, and, when I first met the editor of my book of short stories, she was already familiar with work I had published in lit mags and anthologies.
If the value of little magazines is clear, however, the fortunes of individual magazines vary wildly. As Edmonds’ study bears out, the vast majority of them — even those that receive government funding or attain some degree of notoriety — will not endure. For a literary magazine to survive for more than a few issues constitutes a major achievement. That most magazines fail, however, does not make them failures. Magazines serve as both a transient commodity and a historical record, but their failures are often instructive in practical ways: the struggle of supporting a new magazine is often an eye-opening experience for novice editors and administrators. For those involved, creating a literary journal provides a valuable object lesson in possibility, necessity and contingency, as well as a deep appreciation for the economically precarious nature of literary enterprises. These are important lessons for those who will continue in the industry, so the redundancy of effort that results from journals’ high attrition is arguably a fertile inefficiency.
If there is one constant among literary journals in Australia, though, it’s that no one likes Meanjin except for those authors who have recently written for it. I haven’t published there since 2006, so my opinion should be obvious. But there are less subjective reasons to be suspicious of its current incarnation. Between 1987 and 2008, Meanjin had four editors. Since 2008, when the magazine was brought in-house at Melbourne University Publishing, it has had five editors — more than the number of people who have been Prime Minister in that same period. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the magazine has varied significantly over this span, and its place in the larger schema is increasingly uncertain. While Meanjin used to be the material expression of Melbourne’s Brahmin literary community by combining highbrow cultural elitism with middlebrow literary tastes, it has increasingly focused on political interviews and commentary. Reading recent issues is almost as thrilling as perusing a transcript of Q&A. The current edition is edited by Glyn Davis — whose main literary credential appears to be that he is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, the institution of which Meanjin is a subsidiary. The new cover features a complicated cartoon parody of Tony Abbott and his cabinet, a gesture that would have been topical but for the fact that the edition was launched on September 17, 2015, two days after Abbott had ceased being prime minister. Aside from tarnishing the legacy of one of Australia’s most storied (if secretly despised) literary journals, Meanjin’s new direction is also puzzling in that it replicates other existing publications. If you are really desperate to spend $100 reading dull, left-ish ‘hot takes’ on contemporary politics, why not just subscribe to The Monthly? At least it comes out more regularly.
Other magazines, such as Kill Your Darlings, which has continued to thrive under new editor Brigid Mullane, have increasingly taken on Meanjin’s role as the standard-bearer of Melbourne’s middlebrow. (I am not employing this term pejoratively, but rather descriptively, following Beth Driscoll’s definition of the middlebrow as ‘feminised, middle-class, reverent, commercial, mediated, emotional, recreational and earnest’.) Few magazines, though, could be more different from Meanjin than Melbourne-via-Brisbane journal The Lifted Brow, which describes itself as ‘a quarterly attack journal from Australia and the world’. One could call it a plucky upstart, but this would be both patronising and untrue. Founded in 2007, the Brow remains one Australia’s longer-running unaffiliated mags, which has endured despite changes in format and editors, managing a transition from founder Ronnie Scott to Sam Cooney in 2012, and again in 2015, to the triumvirate of Stephanie Van Schilt, Ellena Savage and Gillian Terzis. Cooney remains the magazine’s publisher. It runs as a quarterly print mag complemented by web content that is updated bi-weekly. The current issue contains a tribute to former Voiceworks editor, Kat Muscat, who died earlier this year and much of it revolves around themes of grief and loss, as a result.
Edmonds discusses The Lifted Brow in his own study, noting,
The contents were largely the ironic journalism of Generation X and Y— almost exclusively a type of lifestyle non-fiction with, in this case, very little fiction, some cartoons, and an eye on popular culture and alternative celebrities, all of which incorporated “retro” tendencies.
This is broadly accurate, if ungenerous. Although, The Lifted Brow clearly targets younger readers, its contents are not apolitical, as Edmonds’ implies. The current issue’s strongest pieces — Dion Kagan’s progressive critique of marriage equality in ‘The Rainbow Connection’, Stephanie Convery’s attempt to empathise with disgraced media entrepreneur Belle Gibson in ‘True Lies’, and refugees’ stories of their time in detention in ‘Behind the Wire’ — all examine political issues from engaged positions.
Much of the journalism in the Brow, rather than being ‘ironic’, displays the clear influence of academic cultural studies, and is pitched at a very high level in terms of content and style. Many pieces — such as Briohny Doyle’s intriguing (if maddeningly digressive) ‘What If the Animal Said No?’ on non-human agency — rely heavily on theory. Such passionate engagements with theory, though accompanied by a whiff of upper-middle class elitism, constitute a serious attempt to locate external viewpoints for self-reflexively reconsidering the relationship between self and other. They have an inherently political character. There are occasionally pieces that do feel hermetically personal and overly sentimentalized, such as Jennifer Down’s ‘Funny Family’, which, among other things, seem unaware of the privileged experience it conjures in referencing a specific set of locations: the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe, Carlton’s Lygon Street, East Melbourne’s Darling Street, and London. But this is not the norm. There are also many submissions by overseas authors; while these are often very polished, they also — much to their detriment — seem to take fewer risks than the local pieces.
Part of the reason for The Lifted Brow’s success (and, as the editors noted in a recent bit of publicity, their newest issue was available from newsagents in airports across Australia where it quickly sold out) stems from the fact that, by incorporating fashionable design and graphic narratives, commenting on popular culture, and embedding itself in music culture through events, the Brow gets into the hands of many readers who might not otherwise pick up a literary magazine. This, in and of itself, is a testament to its ambition, and presents a model that other magazines would do well to copy. The Lifted Brow also has very high production values (and also, it has to be said, some pretty dodgy copyediting), which make it a handsome object. As Edmonds suggests, fiction and poetry do feel more marginalized here than in other publications, but this may derive from the fact that the magazine does not impose paratextual genre designations by labelling its contents as fiction, essay, poetry, or memoir.
Overland occupies a unique cultural space: among the oldest and most established of Australian lit mags, it nonetheless embraces a radical leftist politics. Edmonds resolves this contradiction by quoting (again) the very quotable Stephen Murray-Smith: ‘Overland is less “establishment” than some of the smaller magazines, in the sense that they are looking up their own arse-holes.’ I will admit a pre-existing bias here: Overland is, by a wide margin, the literary journal I read most frequently and with the greatest interest, because of both its political leanings and its willingness to publish perspectives and arguments not usually voiced in the broader media.
Edmonds examines Overland’s history in great depth: although it began life as The Realist Writer, a publication officially linked to the Communist Party, he notes how Overland has sought, in recent decades, to incorporate a broad variety of left-wing perspectives. This process began under Ian Syson, who, along with deep investments in working-class writing, also championed leftist ‘grunge’ writers like Christos Tsiolkas. As Edmonds notes, Syson was aware of ‘new social formations where class was a determinant but had slippery manifestations with the advent of post-industrial layers of the workforce’. This broadening of content and perspective continued under Nathan Hollier, and became even more evident under Jeff Sparrow, who appeared to manage Overland as a collective: not only did his deputy editors often pen the magazine’s editorial, but also he oversaw the transformation of Overland’s website into a broader community forum that encouraged less-experienced authors to have their say, and actively sought to publish work by writers from diverse economic, social and cultural backgrounds. In general, the magazine’s approach came to favour discussion and debate over didacticism.
Jacinda Woodhead, Overland’s new editor (who was deputy editor under Sparrow) has continued this trend. She regularly posts topics of interest and calls for open pitches on them — thereby democratizing editorial practices. Overland thankfully still publishes explicit critiques of capitalism, such as Jennifer Mills’ ‘Detroit, I Do Mind: In Capitalism’s Graveyard’, Luke Stegemann’s article on the internal political troubles that threaten the European Union, and Anwen Crawford’s article on the effects of removing communities from public housing in Central Sydney. But broader left-wing perspectives are also voiced. A moving, anonymous essay on misogyny-driven violence invokes Kathleen Hanna and the Riot Grrrl movement as a mode of resistance. Jason Wilson’s provocative essay on the need to embrace human intervention in the environment draws both on Marx’s rejection of agrarian socialism and a post-Deleuzian anarchism as exemplified by McKenzie Wark.
Edmonds argues that Overland’s readership derives from its political commitments. This appears true, but the fiction and poetry in this issue are very strong. Zahid Gamieldien’s ‘Pyrene’ is a wonderfully odd story about corruption in rural New South Wales that is critical of existing social orders but also hard to pin down, since it is both politically engaged and comically grotesque. It ends with a description of an exclusive men’s club, called Pyrene, whose ‘shadow stretched farther than it should have, as if through some topographical trick it would suddenly reappear in my mirror long after it had passed from view’—a description that could well apply to the story itself. ‘No Breaks’ by Omar Musa (who also has a piece in the current Brow) unfolds a phantasmagoric plot that doesn’t withstand logical scrutiny, but nonetheless compels the reader to identify with an abject character with startling results. The poetry is also excellent, but the standout is Michael Farrell’s ‘The Bush and the Internet are Interchangeable’—which opens with the line: ‘A wife looks at her husband; a treefrog at a modem.’ I doubt I will read a better Australian poem this year.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the new Overland, however, is smuggled into its back pages, where it publishes the winners of the Fair Australia Prize, sponsored by the National Union of Workers. This prize, as Tim Kennedy states, exists to make the point that ‘culture is not exclusionary’ and thus also the province of ordinary people. This initiative reflects what Edmonds calls the ‘evangelical Left tradition’ that Overland has always supported, which desires ‘to reach beyond middle-class readers’. On the one hand, this is an important political gesture. On the other hand, the pieces are, unsurprisingly, not the most compelling in the magazine. This is a problem that has plagued labourist aesthetics for over a century; Overland was not likely to solve it in one issue.
Island — a journal that nearly went under in 2012 after the state government withdrew its grant support — has had a resurgence under editor Matthew Lamb, who also runs the digital-only Review of Australian Fiction. In March of this year, the magazine also revealed that it would enter a partnership with David Walsh, who made his fortune as a professional gambler before establishing the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. While the details of the partnership are not entirely clear, patronage of this sort is not unheard of in Australian publishing: Morry Schwartz’s relationship with Black Inc, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper and Graeme Wise’s patronage of The Big Issue provide similar examples. Walsh, however, has openly sought to provoke Island readers, asking, ‘So, do you want Island to stay an island or do you want us to build a bridge (but be aware that we might send an occupation force over the bridge)?’ One immediate result is that Island has discontinued all web publication, deciding instead to double its print run. This seems a paradigmatically ‘post-digital’ gesture: Island’s new focus on its own materiality could only appear rebellious in a post-internet culture where digital technology is omnipresent. At the same time, the foregrounding of the literary journal as artefact also seems a handy tie-in with Walsh’s art museum, and thus serves pragmatic ends, too.
Of all the magazines considered here, Island perhaps hews most closely to the traditional ideal of a literary journal, and its stately re-design reflects its highbrow contents. There is a focus on Tasmanian issues in James Boyce’s essay on war and settlement in Tasmania and Peter Pierce’s article on gothic tendencies in recent Tasmanian historical fiction; both are interesting even though they are invested in scholarly disputes. Ruth Quibell’s ‘Failed Intellectuals’ and Damon Young’s ‘We’re All Fucked’ examine the problems of yoking intellectualism to success within a neoliberal university structure. Frank Moorhouse evokes the paucity of reading material available to rural Australians in the 1940s, while an anonymous author describes his struggle to overcome illiteracy as an adult. Geordie Williamson’s interview with Neil Gaiman is as notable for Williamson’s deft questioning and lightly-worn erudition as it is for Gaiman’s responses, including his admiration for James Joyce and Modernist writing more broadly.
The fiction and poetry generally complements the tone of the non-fiction. The poetry is high quality and includes strong poems by two poets, Corey Wakeling and Michael Farrell, who also appear in Overland. H.T. Thomas’s story, ‘Chalk’, which won the 2014 Olga Masters Short Story Award, is a carefully-constructed realist short story that incorporates some Faulknerian narration and a brutal scene of emotional domestic violence, which concludes with a predictably note-perfect, epiphanic image. While there is nothing to critique in Thomas’s execution, the story also draws on a well-worn tradition of institutional creative writing; it is a prize-winning story in every sense of the term. S. J. Finn’s ‘Arrest Assured’ provides an interesting stream-of-consciousness portrait of a psychologically-damaged character.
Perhaps the most distinctive, and ongoing, feature of Island is its interest in recuperating once-renowned Australian authors whose works have fallen into obscurity. Gabrielle Carey argues for the importance of Randolph Stow’s post-apocalyptic fable Tourmaline (1963), continuing a reclamation of the author among both scholars and general readers due, at least partially, to Text Publishing’s reissuing of his work (and, indeed, Carey’s essay appears as an introduction to Text’s republication of Tourmaline). Stow was a very good — and sometimes excellent — writer. I have read and enjoyed most of his books, including Tourmaline, but the pendulum may currently be swinging too far in his revival. I once heard him described as ‘a second-rate Patrick White,’ a description that, though perhaps unfair to the author of To the Islands, is also not untrue. More significantly, Island has serially published David Ireland’s first new novel in eighteen years. The section in the current issue takes the form of diary entries with funny and often quotable lines: ‘We are all genetically family, however culturally foreign to each other: man, bacterium, dog and banana.’ Enabling Ireland’s return demonstrates lit mags’ power to shape literary culture in ways that go beyond providing a venue for new and emerging writers.
The Canary Press is the newest magazine under review — this is only its eighth issue — and also the shortest, at a svelte 52 pages. Its cover design is intricate and fashionable, but it feels like a magazine: you could easily roll it up and fit it in your back pocket. Although the (very funny) editorial takes a swipe at the commercialization of relationships through greeting cards, it eschews overt politics. Canary Press’ subtitle describes it as a ‘story magazine’, and the journal, aside from its lone editorial and full-colour artwork is entirely composed of fiction. Even in Newcastle, where I live, I have seen real human beings reading the Canary Press, and several local cafes stock the magazine for patrons to peruse—unusual for a mag that is 100% fiction.
The authors are a mixed bunch. There are both more established and less-known Australian writers, who are also mixed in with overseas authors. Like The Lifted Brow, Canary Press does not make obvious distinctions between the local and the overseas. This presents, again, a way of both reaffirming and resisting the cultural cringe. On the one hand, the simple juxtaposition — which avoids overt anxiety or browbeating nationalism — implies that Australian authors are the equal of overseas counterparts. On the other hand, the inclusion of overseas authors in every issue, which emphasises both journals as existing beyond the purely local, still partakes of the ‘needless comparisons’ that Arthur Phillips thought constituted the cringe in the first place. But the cringe’s logic is so ingrained — and so totalizing — that virtually all attempts to surpass it end up reaffirming its central tension. In this sense, these journals are doing their best to present a cosmopolitan mix without reproducing the cringe’s most obvious insecurities.
The contents appear to be carefully selected to include stories that will appeal to both rusted-on fans of the short story and more casual readers. There is also not a bad story in the magazine. Kevin Brown’s ‘How to Tell Your Aunt and Uncle You Want to Marry Their Daughter’ has a McSweeney’s-style absurdist humour, but avoids venturing into twee territory through a simple but effective inversion. Karin Tidbeck’s ‘Beatrice’ a steampunk-flavoured tale about two people who fall in love with objects, also employs a narrative revelation that overturns the reader’s expectation. Ellen Van Neerven’s ‘Blueglass’ has less narrative charge, but relies on an arresting and surreal central image of a beach whose sand has turned into blue glass. In selecting stories with obvious ‘hooks’ and narrative payoff, The Canary Press resonates with broader ‘retro’ cultural tendencies (i.e. the prevalence of fixie bikes and barbershops) by returning to an older idea of story — which is to say a tale in which events unfold in unexpected and thrilling ways. Although ‘retro’ in one sense, this preference also cuts against the grain of much institutional creative writing and actually constitutes a populist gesture that might include more general (though probably still middle-class) readers.
More complicated is the journal’s decision to reprint a ‘classic’ story in every issue—a gesture that pragmatically appeals to readers but also cements the magazine’s status by allowing the aura of such ‘classic’ works to illuminate the newer fictions. The current issue features one of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults, ‘Vengeance Is Mine, Inc.’, an excellent story, though I would have preferred ‘The Man from the South’ or ‘The Great Switcheroo’ to fit in with the ‘relationships’ theme of the issue. Canary Press, like Island, also seeks to assist the recuperation of another ‘lost’ Australian author by presenting Elizabeth Harrower’s previously unpublished work, ‘The North Sea’ — probably the strongest work in the issue (although once again an excerpt from Text’s forthcoming collection of Harrower’s unpublished stories).
If literary magazines are an uncertain commodity, they are continuing to flourish in Australia, despite generally unfavourable commercial environments and newly uncertain federal funding structures. While most new journals will not survive, the last five years have seen even established periodicals, such as Meanjin and Island, stumble. Newer, prominent magazines, like Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow, have persisted despite significant administrative changes thus far — an unusual development — but it is unclear whether or not these resilient publications will endure without external, institutional support. History would not suggest that the prospects are rosy. Although they continue to shape Australian literary culture, the fate of individual publications will always be tenuous. Aside from their fragility, the only other certainty with lit mags is this: despite their best efforts, not many people will read them.
Florian Cramer. ‘What is “Post-Digital”?’ A Peer-Reviewed Journal About 3.1 (2014).
Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave, 2014).
Phillip Edmonds. Tilting at Windmills: The Literary Magazine in Australia, 1968-2012 . University of Adelaide Press, 2015.
Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, 2006.
Maurizio Lazzarato. ‘Immaterial Labor’. Generation Online.