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Growing Content

Every year I end my writing classes by exhorting my students to subscribe to a couple of literary magazines. The argument I put to them is simple: historically literary magazines have been the principal forum for serious new work by less-established writers, so supporting them is, in a very real sense, a way for new writers to invest in their own future.

In the past year or two this advice has been supplemented by the suggestion they explore online publication, whether by setting up blogs or by investigating the various web-based ventures publishing or sharing new writing. At one level this is unsurprising: as the economic structures that created the contemporary publishing industry are supplanted by new models for delivering content, the barriers that have traditionally kept neophyte writers out of the game are collapsing. Writers, particularly fledgling ones, no longer need editors or publishers to see potential in their work before it receives a readership. Anyone can publish anything, usually for free, and if it’s good, people will come.

Of course the brave new world of online publishing isn’t all beer and skittles. Exactly how anyone makes a living in this new environment is unclear, to say the least. And despite the uncertain future, including the approaching tsunami of ebooks, traditional publishers continue to offer advantages, not least well-established distribution channels, professional editorial and marketing support, and (if rarely as much as authors hope it will be) remuneration.

But all the same, one could be forgiven for thinking the future of traditional forums such as the literary magazine is bleak. If, as the magazines themselves would argue, their raison d’etre is the publication of new writing, how sustainable is that commitment in a world where writers are no longer hostage to the whims of editors and publishers, and where publishing is being brutally democratised? And, in a historical moment when the multinational publishing giants are struggling, how are tiny magazines with readerships of a few thousand and Spartan marketing budgets supposed to survive?

Yet, counter-intuitively, literary magazines are thriving. While still small, the readerships of more than a few are not just not in decline, but actually increasing. Sales of Overland, for instance, are currently at a 15-year high. Through public events such as lectures, readings and Writers Festival panels, many are actively engaged in public debate, and not just about literary questions, an engagement also reflected in the increasing number of articles and essays originally published by literary magazines that are reprinted in mainstream newspapers. Magazines such as Meanjin and Overland have established lively websites, attracting a new audience and so extending their reach and the potential readership for the writers they publish.

It is a heartening sight. And, perhaps predictably, the reasons behind it are complex, reflecting not just the decisions of funding bodies such as the Australia Council whose support underwrites the continued existence of many of the magazines, but larger shifts in the economics of publishing, and _ importantly _ strong editorial teams at the magazines themselves.

But simultaneously Australia’s literary magazines exist, and to some extent reflect, a series of larger changes in the cultural economy surrounding Australian writers and writing. Some of these changes, perhaps not least the increasingly globalised nature of writing, and the increasingly complex interdependency of online and print delivery of content are obvious. Others, notably the ongoing absorption of the writing culture into the Academy, are less immediately apparent, but no less important.

Getting a handle on how many literary magazines are being published in Australia at any particular time isn’t easy. But in broad terms, local literary magazines divide into three main groups.

The first is comprised of what one might call the big four: Griffith Review, Heat, Meanjin and Overland. All have permanent editorial staff, healthy circulations and a degree of recognition outside the relatively narrow confines of the literary world.

The second group is made up of respected and often venerable journals such as Southerly, Westerly, Island and Going Down Swinging. Often more cautious in tone, usually more deliberately literary, these publications seem content to cater to smaller audiences and often emphasise regional rather than national identity.

And then there is the amorphous group of new or emerging magazines such as Indigo, Wet Ink, Etchings, dotdotdash and Cutwater. Often transitory, these journals sometimes aspire to broader longer-term relevance in the way Etchings or Wet Ink clearly do, but more often speak to narrow audiences or even coteries. Exactly how many magazines make up this third group isn’t a simple question. Many small magazines only last a few issues before folding, and even those that endure often appear at irregular and unpredictable intervals. And, more broadly, many are only tangentially literary, focussing to a greater or lesser degree on design or art or photography as well as books and ideas.

This blurriness is a reflection of a larger difficulty of defining what is, and what is not, a literary magazine. Meanjin and  Southerly are indisputably literary magazines but what about Quadrant, which uses Les Murray’s poetry to offset its right-wing victimology? Or a more academic publication such as Text, the online journal of the Australian Association of Writing Courses, which publishes articles about the teaching of writing alongside new fiction and poetry? And as the balance between fiction and non-fiction in journals such as Griffith Review and Meanjin continues to shift in the favour of the latter, what really distinguishes The Monthly, or even the journal you are reading now, published by a global media giant, from a literary magazine?

One answer, as Stefan Collini pointed out in a recent review of Oxford’s new Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, might be that literary magazines exist to publish the work of talented new and lesser-known writers. There is a pleasing simplicity to this definition, not least because the notion of newness is central to the identity of almost all literary magazines. Yet as Collini correctly observes, one might also define the literary magazine rather differently, by emphasising its role as a forum for the intelligent discussion of books and ideas.

Obviously these two definitions are not antithetical, and indeed most literary magazines have traditionally managed to publish new writing and articles discussing books and ideas. Yet both serve to define the literary magazine as a space outside the mainstream, a forum for writing and ideas that might not otherwise find expression. In this context, “new” takes on a political as well as an aesthetic dimension, suggesting a desire to push back against the blandishments of the marketplace and conventional wisdom (not for nothing does that grand old dame of the lit mag scene, Southerly, take its name from Sydney’s southerly busters, the sudden and often violent winds that break the heavy summer heat).

Sometimes, particularly in magazines such as Sam Twyford-Moore’s engaging and exuberant start-up, Cutwater, this can mean an emphasis on new and often formally innovative work by younger writers; writing that draws its energy from the urgency of its relationship of those writers’ lives. Cutwater and its ilk are the James Deans of the literary world: sometimes joyous, sometimes angry, at once impossible and delightful, ephemeral and curiously timeless in their enactment of the freedoms and ambitions of youth. And while Cutwater is a professional looking production, such magazines also exist on a spectrum that extends outwards, into the underworld of the zines, amateur and often magnificently idiosyncratic publications with circulations of a few dozen or a few hundred.

Yet as even a cursory glance at the history of magazines such as Meanjin and Overland (or even more recent rivals such as Griffith Review) demonstrates, this situation outside the mainstream is more often about a larger political or aesthetic project. With the notable exception of Quadrant, which was founded under the auspices of the Australian arm of the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom, this project has traditionally been that of the Left. Overland, for instance, grew at least partly out of the old Melbourne Realist Writers Group, an organisation conceived by Frank Hardy in the early 1950s to further the ambitions of the Communist Party.

Overland founder Stephen Murray-Smith ended the magazine’s association with the Communist Party in 1958, but it remains the most overtly political of the Australian literary magazines, explicitly committed, as it says on its website, to giving:

a voice to the experiences that are excluded from the mainstream media and publishing outlets … [as] part of an ongoing attempt to document lesser-known stories and histories, dissect media hysteria and dishonesty, debunk the populist hype of politicians, give a voice to those whose stories are otherwise marginalised, misrepresented or ignored, and point public debate in alternative directions

Perhaps ironically the result is one of the least doctrinaire and liveliest of the Australian literary magazines. Under editor Jeff Sparrow Overland has published non-fiction by writers ranging from Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Bob Ellis, as well as new fiction by then-unknowns Nam Le and Kalinda Ashton (who is also an associate editor of the magazine). Alongside these it has commissioned major essays by the likes of Mark Davis and Germaine Greer and continues to run an important lecture series and other public events. Yet despite the standard (and indeed stature) of its many contributors, the magazine is distinguished by its deliberately oppositional and punkish edge, qualities that not only give its contributions an urgency more august publications often lack, but a sense of connection with the contemporary incarnations of the radical politics that were its genesis.

As with Overland, the origins of Meanjin, founded in Brisbane in 1940, are hopelessly entwined in the aspirations and rivalries of the Australian Left. In her 1984 history of Meanjin, Just City and the Mirrors , Lynne Strahan described founder Clem Christensen’s vision for the magazine as an “open forum”, in which “personalities of all persuasions mingled and ideas of all complexions were debated”. Yet as Strahan also notes, this commitment was frequently tested, not just by the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, but by the conflicts within the Left itself.

Meanjin’s history also offers a case study in the tangled tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism that has helped shape so much of our intellectual life. The days when Frank Moorhouse’s famous quip that Meanjin was an Aboriginal word for “rejected by The New Yorker” may be long past, but there is little doubt that for much of its history the magazine has reflected the conflict between what Strahan describes as “T.S. Eliot’s equivocal ‘Chinese jar’,” and Banjo Paterson’s `merry billy’.”

This tension between the national and the international has never fully subsided, as the deliberately outward-looking Heat demonstrates. The most self-consciously literary of the big four, Heat was established in 1996 by Ivor Indyk as a self-declared antidote to the timidity and conservatism of Australian publishing.

Even in its first incarnation, which lasted 15 issues, Heat was a strikingly professional creation. Yet since its relaunch in 2001, it has established itself as a distinctive and often idiosyncratic presence. In part this is a function of the magazine’s very particular aesthetic. In recent years Indyk has established himself as a champion of a notion of the literary that looks outwards to Asia and Europe, and emphasises the crossing of cultural boundaries as a source of creative energy.

In practical terms this has meant an emphasis on translation, with recent issues featuring work by Chinese writers such as Ah Jian and Sheng Keyi alongside established locals such as Mark Mordue, Mandy Sayer and Booker Prize winner Aravand Adiga. But it has also meant a focus on fiction and non-fiction that explores family and cultural history from less traditional perspectives, such as Elizabeth Bryer’s ’Peru’s Heartbeat’, about a Peruvian drum called the cajon, or Adam Aitken’s fascinating dissection of the pictorial record of his Thai mother and Australian father’s relationship, ‘An Essay on Fashion’ (both in Heat 20: Plain Vanilla Futures)

Significantly, Heat has also benefited from the many successes of Indyk’s thriving Giramondo press, frequently featuring excerpts from upcoming work by writers such as Robert Gray and John Hughes, poetry by Judith Beveridge, Alan Wearne and J.S. Harry, as well as essays by writers within the Giramondo stable such as Brian Castro.

It’s interesting to contrast Heat with the equally self-consciously literary Southerly, published by the English Association and Brandl and Schlesinger, and edited by David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon. Like Heat, Southerly seeks to create a space not just for the intelligent discussion of literature, but also new fiction and poetry from new and established writers. Recent issues have featured papers drawn from academic conferences on Mallarme, Christopher Brennan and A.D. Hope, as well as poetry by John Kinsella and Bruce Dawe, and a lively collection of short stories compiled by guest editors John Dale and Debra Adelaide.

The oldest of Australia’s literary magazines, Southerly, founded in 1939, has always been more conservative than Overland or Meanjin. But despite a strong track record of new fiction and poetry, it lacks the rackety energy of its competitors, their sense of engagement and even confrontation. This is at least partly due to the increasing disconnect between Australian literary studies and Australian literature. As a writer and critic I’m consistently dismayed by the tendency of literature academics to focus on post-modern writers of the 1980s and early-1990s, such as Gerald Murnane, while the larger body of Australian writing that enjoys local and international success _ by Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville and David Malouf, and newer writers such as Malcolm Knox, Delia Falconer, Georgia Blain, Nam Le and others _ goes largely undiscussed.

But it is also a reminder that the distance between the aesthetic project of a Heat and the political program of an Overland is not so great as it might seem. New writing seeks, by its nature, to test limits, to find new ways of representing and interrogating the world it is shaped by. The ways it does this can differ widely, yet in some deep sense, new writing, and by extension the magazines that publish it, draw their energy from the urgency of this engagement. They are testing grounds for ideas, stylistic and political. When Heat draws Chinese writers into conversation with Australian readers and writers it is making a space for new connections and new ideas, just as Overland is when it publishes essays by Ganglandsauthor, Mark Davis, about the changing face of publishing, or commissions futurist fiction from writers such as Margo Lanagan.

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IN many ways the vitality of the Australian literary magazine is intimately connected to the broader transformation of Australian and international publishing over the past decade. Itself only the latest chapter in a longer process of deregulation that began with the loosening of the stranglehold of British publishers on the Australian market by figures such as Penguin’s Brian Johns in the 1970s and 1980s, and was accelerated by the end of the old book bounty system and the introduction of the 30-day rule, which obliged local publishers to exercise their rights within 30 days of the publication of a book elsewhere in the world or lose exclusivity, this transformation has been marked by two seemingly contrary, but interrelated processes. On the one hand it has seen a continuing consolidation of the top end of the industry, initially driven by the wave of mergers and acquisitions that took place through the late 1990s, and subsequently by the increasingly hard-headed business models of the newly constituted multinationals which evolved out of that process of amalgamation.

At least at first, this process of consolidation drove a rationalization of the industry as a whole, a rationalization clearly visible in the disappearance of poetry lists such as Heinemann’s (absorbed first by Reed, and then by Random House) or the local literary list of Angus & Robertson (absorbed by Harper Collins).

But it soon became visible in other ways as well. Tighter fiscal discipline drove more control over expenses, and greater emphasis upon profitability. And this, in turn, drove a shift in the lists of the major publishers away from riskier and less profitable titles.

It is worth noting, at least in passing, that this process has actually seen the number of books, and more importantly the number of books by Australians, both in numerical terms and as a proportion of the whole increase considerably over the last ten years. Yet that growth has been largely underpinned by sales of non-literary books, and books by popular and celebrity writers. Nor have the major publishers abandoned Australian fiction: I am only one of many Australian writers who enjoy the support of a major publisher. Yet it is, unarguably, more difficult for writers whose work does not sell in large numbers to find a home with the major publishers than it was even a decade ago, and the price of failure is often high.

But this consolidation and rationalization has also created the space in which new, independent publishers such as Text, Scribe, Giramondo could grow. Less risk-averse (and, one assumes, considerably less profitable) than the multinationals, the independents have  underpinned a larger renaissance in Australian writing, which is arguably more vital and certainly more diverse than ever before.

Not coincidentally, the literary magazines have flourished in this same space. This is plainly evident in the calibre of the writing being published. The back issues of Heat, for instance, read like a roll call of Australia’s most celebrated writers, with names such as Malouf, Castro, Alexis Wright and Helen Garner appearing regularly. Meanjin regularly publishes writers of the calibre of Alex Miller and Georgia Blain.

This success is also visible in the way publications such as Heat and The Sleepers Almanac have developed writers who might otherwise have struggled to find a forum. The story of Sleepers Publishing is instructive. The brainchild of Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner, Sleepers Publishing began six years ago as a series of literary readings in a Melbourne pub. Encouraged by the success of the readings, Swinn and Dattner began publishing The Sleepers Almanac, an annual collection of stories and poetry showcasing the best of the readings. In its five editions to date The Sleepers Almanac has demonstrated an enviable ability to draw together established writers and striking work by new writers. Its success led to Sleepers Publishing branching out into novels, with Stephen Armstrong’s Things We Didn’t See Coming winning The Age Book of the Year Award and Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game receiving good reviews.

There can be little doubt that the success of publishers such as Sleepers and Giramondo is at least partly attributable to the changing economics of publishing. Where once the skills and infrastructure required to publish books were concentrated and expensive, technological change has democratised both. Desktop publishers can operate from a suburban bedroom, while the changing economics of printing have made smaller print runs economically viable, a process that will only accelerated with the spread of print-on-demand technologies.

While the success of the literary magazines in fostering an increasingly diverse and dynamic culture of new fiction and poetry is important, increasingly it is overshadowed by their role as forums for public discussion of contemporary political and social issues.

As the histories of Meanjin, Quadrant and Overland demonstrate, literary magazines have always been places for debate. Yet in recent years their role has grown more prominent. In part this increased prominence is a reflection of the growth in non-fiction generally, which has seen it usurp fiction, and more specifically the novel, as the dominant form.

But it is also a reflection of larger changes in the media landscape. As the wave of closures across the US, and the slow death of the once-proud Fairfax papers in Australia starkly demonstrates, the newspaper is – with a few notable exceptions – in serious and almost certainly terminal decline.

The reasons for this decline are simple, and centre upon declining revenues and competition from  online media. Yet, as the success of online ventures such as Crikey!, left-of-centre website Larvatus Prodeo, or even (loath as I am to admit it) Andrew Bolt’s enormously successful blog demonstrate, people are increasingly hungry not just for news, but for forums in which to discuss politics and culture more generally.

With their literate and politically engaged readerships, and the freedom to explore larger ideas and arguments not usually available to print publications such as newspapers, the literary magazines have also sought to provide such a forum in recent years.

This is particularly visible in the success of Griffith Review. Established less than a decade ago, and edited by Julianne Schultz, Griffith Review describes itself as “iconoclastic and non-partisan, with a sceptical eye and a pragmatically reforming heart and a commitment to public discussion”. In practice this means a focus on non-fiction, mostly from a broadly left-of-centre perspective, and a vigorous engagement with contemporary issues.

Like Granta, presumably one of the original models for Griffith Review, issues are themed, addressing topics such as the GFC (Edition 25: After the Crisis), cultural policy (Edition 23: Essentially Creative) and the changing nature of politics and political engagement (Edition 24: Participation Society). These themes are anchored by major essays, such as Gideon Haigh’s ‘Stupid Money’, a penetrating account of the factors that triggered the global financial crisis, and supplemented with memoir and reportage (and some fiction) that speak to the subject to a greater or lesser degree.

Despite the overall quality of the writing, the tone of Griffith Review is less literary and more topical than its competitors. In part this is explained by its use of essentially non-literary writers such as Ryan Heath, George Williams and Cheryl Kernot. But it is also about the magazine’s aspirations. Overland and Meanjin, which have traditionally provided forums for the discussion of politics and ideas, deliberately situate themselves outside (and in Overland’s case, in opposition to) mainstream debate. By contrast Griffith Review seeks to capitalise on the increasingly sclerotic nature of the mainstream media by placing itself at the centre of that debate. That it succeeds, even to a limited degree, is a powerful reminder not just of the vital role literary magazines play in the larger cultural economy, but of the changes in the larger media landscape over the past decade.

Yet the changes of the past decade are just the beginning. Publishing – like the media more generally – is on the cusp of transformation on an unprecedented scale. Exactly what lies ahead is uncertain but some trends are clear. The large media companies, under pressure from declining revenue, will continue to rationalise their operations. As this newspaper’s very visible support for the ALR, and its recent expansion of its weekend Review section demonstrates, some newspapers will grasp that the solution to that pressure is not to abandon their traditional role as spaces for the discussion of culture and ideas; most will not. The quantity and quality of online media will continue to grow, and as the market matures, financial models will begin to emerge, accelerating the process of professionalisation that is already visible, consolidating the new diversity. And the old division between print and online will dissolve further, with content delivered in a variety of formats for different platforms.

In such an environment the role of the literary magazine inevitably is altered. As the success of Overland and Griffith Review shows, in a world where anyone can publish anything, instantaneously and for free, it is no longer enough simply to publish new work. Instead literary magazines must reconceive themselves as spaces for debate and discussion, sites of intellectual and aesthetic encounter. This is not to say such forums will not develop anyway. But in an environment in which the business models for online media are still embryonic, the literary magazines, most of which draw a substantial portion of their income from public and institutional backers, are uniquely equipped.

It is interesting, in this context, to observe the strategies of Overland and Meanjin, which have established vibrant blogs. There is nothing new about literary magazines moving online. Indeed John Tranter’s poetry journal, Jacket, arguably the one Australian literary magazine with a real international profile, was deliberately conceived as an online-only venture, and even relatively staid journals such as Southerly have an internet presence.

What distinguishes the Meanjin blog, Spike, and to a lesser extent the Overland Blog, is their desire to do more than republish print material online. Instead both successfully deliver new content specifically created for the online environment. This might not sound like a radical strategy but it is. For embedded within it is a recognition that the medium defines the message. Poetry might work online, but fiction by and large does not, and neither, interestingly, does a lot of serious non-fiction.

To say this is not to suggest content developed for online is inferior to content developed for print. It is instead to recognise that new forms and new modes of writing are developing to suit the online environment, ones that leverage the possibilities of the medium in exactly the way older forms, such as the novel or the short story, leverage the possibilities of the codex book and the magazine.

This embrace of the possibilities of the medium is not new. Underpinned by the possibilities of desktop publishing, and the decreasing cost of boutique printing, literary magazines in Australia and overseas have been recreating themselves as aesthetic objects in their own right for some time. Part of a larger transformation of the material culture of the physical book that is being driven by its displacement by the virtual, it is a process that has been most fully realised in Dave Eggers’ gloriously mutable journal, McSweeney’s, which has been, among other incarnations, a box, a pile of mail and a collection of eight illustrated books.

The same thinking is clearly visible in Meanjin’s deliberately unconventional design. But in Meanjin’s case it is connected to a realisation that the literary magazine in the traditional sense is dead, and that despite the rhetoric the future is not just digital. It is instead about creating a space in which a wide variety of writing can flourish. Part of this process is the creation of forums such as Spike but it will also be about delivering fiction, non-fiction, poetry and new, hybrid forms such as graphic fiction in the medium to which each is best suited.

It is a strategy that rejects the partition between print and online content, believing instead that the two can interrelate and interact in mutually beneficial ways. It is also contains a vision of the future of the literary magazine, one that is inextricably bound up in the development of devices such as the Kindle and Apple’s as-yet-unseen e-reader. It is a future that is taking shape in things like McSweeney’s iPhone app, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, or American magazine Electric Literature, which is published direct to Kindle and the iPhone via custom-built apps. In such a future the literary magazine is no longer a static thing, but something closer to what it has always been, in some essential way: a community, a forum for debate, a space in which the new can be shared, and tested.

Originally published in The Australian’s Review of Books, December 2009.

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