October 2013

Arts & Letters

Puzzling the purpose of Australian literary magazines

By Robyn Annear

Unripe fruit

Because there is for poets no equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider – a speculative venture supported by billions of dollars from world governments, with no certainty of outcomes that can be monetised or weaponised – literary magazines exist.

At least, that was my supposition as I assembled a pile of ten Australian literary magazines for reading. How to account for these oddball miscellanies except as buffered delivery systems for that hardest to swallow of literary art forms? Truly, I still can’t say.

“Government has a role to play in enabling us to realise our right to create and express ourselves creatively,” writes Julianne Schultz in Island #132 (‘Towards a National Cultural Policy’). Last year, the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts gave literary magazines around $500,000 in grants to offset writers’ fees and a modicum of production costs. Funding also comes from state and local government arts agencies, universities and philanthropic bodies, and from “curated” advertising that meshes with a magazine’s creative content. Depending wholly on sales and subscriptions would seem to be no way for a literary magazine to thrive.

Conventional wisdom has it that journals are a hatchery for new talent. That partly explains the rationale for government support, as does the view that the genre is a “worthy” one, in the sense of being non-commercial. Back in 2010, the Australia Council set up an online portal, Literary Magazines Australia (litmags.com.au), branding ten leading (and funded) journals as “The Best Australian Writing”. Dennis Haskell, then chair of the literature board, spruiked the product:

Magazines are thermometers of a society’s vitality, culture, interests and concerns. But looking around any Australian newsagency, you might think the temperature is pretty low; many of the biggest selling magazines contain no more than trite gossip and glossy pictures.

Australia’s literary magazines provide an antidote to all that; they are a meeting place in print or pixels of imaginative explorations of our lives and our languages. They provide an opportunity for experiment that the economics of book publishing might not allow. They can stir your conscience while you stir your tea.

Of my ten magazines, four – Meanjin, Island, Westerly and Southerly – rank as scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Reputational gatekeepers, in other words. Meanjin is the most nimble of them, managing to be serious and playful at once. Mark McKenna reflects on the biographer’s art, histor-ian Andrew Lemon on jumps racing, Anna Heyward on the letters of Mary Gilmore, philosopher Damon Young on the ethical dilemmas faced by superheroes. But Meanjin’s zestful kick is best captured in Ronnie Scott’s account of his escape from the narcissistic vortex of the Instagram “selfie”. By contrast, Benjamin Law’s introduction to social media, in Westerly, comes off as condescending and puerile.

While its reviews are interspersed with commentary and poems, Australian Book Review (ABR) is essentially the trade journal that its name suggests. The reviews overwhelmingly favour small and university presses, the high tone broken only by naff full-page advertisements for vanity publishers.

Kill Your Darlings, with its graphic novel–like cover, looks fun. Inside, though … well, I was reminded of a line from Portlandia, the American hipster-backlash comedy: “the city where young people go to retire”. Kill Your Darlings feels like that: burdened by the earnestness of young fogeydom.

Several of last year’s Literature Board grants went to online journals. So it’s all the more astonishing to find an abundance of literary magazines available in print at independent bookshops. Each of the ten printed titles I chose has an online presence; some have full digital doppelgängers. Only one, the slick and youthful Seizure, in directing readers to its website, refers to its paper self as “this printed artefact”.

We tend to think of an artefact in the archaeological sense, as something left behind, but the word’s dictionary definition – “a product of human workmanship”, from the Latin ars (art) + facere (to make) – links it to that hippest of all adjectives, “artisanal”. Both meanings have a bearing on why printed-on-paper literary magazines continue not only to exist, but to proliferate.

Magazines are supposed to be ephemeral, but there’s a solidity and permanence about paper that, for many writers – particularly those just starting out – trumps digital publication. Twenty-three-year-old Kat Muscat told Books+Publishing last year that the print format was what she loved most about Voiceworks, the magazine of which she’d just been appointed editor. Back issues, she said, “act as time capsules. Physical, real-as-life products to be proud of, to show your friends the first time you get published.” Chances are that retrieval in ten years’ time can more safely be relied upon – silverfish notwithstanding – from a box stored at your parents’ place than from some antique URL.

Take a look at Voiceworks, or at Seizure (“A launchpad for Australian writing”), or Ampersand Magazine, or The Canary Press. All feature writing: short stories, essays, poems, reviews and interviews. Much of it is knockabout enough to be blog-fodder that would read well from a screen. The writing is privileged by its being fixed to the page and by the lack of distractions: no scrollbar, no sponsored links, no pop-ups, no tabs, no beckoning video, no comments.

So, ink on paper is real, incorruptible and enduring. Solid proof. Something left behind. And then there’s the other artefactual aspect of the print format: its made-by-human-handedness. In Ampersand (a self-described “curiosity journal”) one reader’s letter salutes “Dear Ampersand Artisans” and likens the magazine’s format to “those old paperbacks they used to sell – before digital currency”. Paper rivals micro-brews and crochet for artisanal clout. Just look at the flourishing zine scene – short-run, handmade books and comics, cheap to make, buy and distribute, exquisite in their imperfection. As Muscat says: “It’s so punk rock. That approach of not waiting for someone else to say your writing or art is ready to be in the world.”

“Ready to be in the world” is a nice way of saying “good enough to be published”. More than anything else, Being Published is what literary magazines are for. With the creative writing industry running full tilt, the pressure has never been greater to find and create outlets for publication. Attendees at a creative writing workshop in my local church hall interrogate each other: “Have you been published?” From undergraduates to PhD candidates, creative writing students are sharpened like pencils and pointed towards publication. In fact, it starts even earlier: my daughter’s Year 4 teacher told her class, “You are all writers!” Actually, they were emerging writers.

Literary magazines can act as a proving ground for emerging writers. That’s the express purpose of Voiceworks, whose contributors are all aged 25 and under. It could be said that Hannah Kent, author of the bestselling novel Burial Rites, emerged from Kill Your Darlings, the magazine she co-founded, but as she is still KYD’s deputy editor, her “emergence” is beside the point. In Seizure’s music issue, concert pianist Simon Tedeschi (the “hands in Shine”) profiles Lindsay McDougall, lead guitarist of the Sydney punk outfit Frenzal Rhomb. Tedeschi asks, in a plaintive footnote, “As an emerging writer … how do I know when I have emerged?”

The first step towards emergence as a writer must surely be to find something to say. Groping towards that goal may be what creative writing groups and workshops and university degrees are good for. It is one of the things that writing for yourself is good for. Getting older is good for it, too. But it oughtn’t to be what publication – at least, publication with a cover price – is for.

Robert Skinner and Andy Josselyn, joint editors of The Canary Press, admit that, when they met at a creative writing class in Adelaide five years ago, “neither of us had anything to write about”. That insight (albeit after the fact) cheered me, as did a more subtle observation by the masterly John Kinsella. Ubiquitous across the literary magazines, Kinsella is a writer with plenty to say, and he says it, in poems, short stories, essays and reviews that stand out wherever they appear. In an essay ‘On the Use and Abuse of Poetry’ in Island #132, he describes a moment of perfect silence in nature, then this: “I was inside a poem that didn’t need writing.” Hallelujah. I heard an echo of that reflective restraint in the autobiographical line of Brendan McDougall, whose fine story ‘Two Little Fishes’ appears in Voiceworks #92: “He thinks too much on trains.” Better to think too much than write too much, I say.

I’ve dwelt a good deal on what motivates the contributors and funders of literary magazines in print. But what about readers? The fact is, there aren’t a lot of them. My hunch is that the absence of printed magazines – or literary magazines, full stop – would discommode contributors, and potential contributors, far more than it would readers.

But what of the view, espoused by the Australia Council, that literary magazines are a mark of cultural vitality? Are they really all that stands between us and philistinism? In a word, no. There will always be literary magazines – by that or another name, on paper or in pixels – no matter what.

There’s an essential unevenness to even the best of these magazines that makes reading them feel disorienting. Or perhaps the jolts are the point: perhaps they’re the interstices of experimentation and creative exploration, the edges that give edgy its name. Probably, though, my mistake was in reading them from cover to cover.

I felt, at the end of it, like Tedeschi leaving a Frenzal Rhomb performance (his first) after just four songs. “I know I’m being rude,” he wrote, “but ... I desperately need to get back and listen to Bach.”

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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