There have been several reviews of literary journals on the Overland blog of late. I reviewed the newest kid on the block, Kill Your Darlings, and others have reviewed the latest issues of harvest and Wet Ink. I now find myself in the rather strange position of reviewing a journal that is about to fold. I have been handed volume 5 of indigo rather late as it was released in February, and it’s next – and at this stage last – issue will be published in December. The decision has kicked up a storm of controversy.
What makes this journal unique – and what ultimately resulted in its downfall – is that it published writing only by West Australian authors. The idea was to showcase WA’s emerging writers alongside its established writers, to promote the state’s literary prowess throughout Australia and beyond. Each issue saw three guest editors in creative non-fiction, poetry and short stories (for volume 5 it’s Carmen Lawrence, Caroline Caddy, and Ray Coffey respectively). One of the noteworthy aspects of this journal was that all work was read blind, therefore avoiding any parochialism and bias towards well-known writers. Furthermore, all shortlisted writers received feedback on their work. This is an unusual approach and one that has the potential to help writers hone their craft.
The press release accompanying my review copy reels off a list of indigo’s success stories, and boasts continued ‘unprecedented success’. Obviously the WA Department of Culture and the Arts (DCA) didn’t agree. On 7 June indigo announced that DCA had decided not to fund the production costs of the next two issues and it could therefore no longer continue to operate.
Working on these kinds of publications is truly a labour of love. Budgets are always tight, staff are few and usually ridiculously overworked, and expectations are high. So I really feel for managing editor, Donna Ward. When I spoke to her recently I was surprised to hear that, unlike editors of other literary journals, she has never received a salary because of budget limitations. So it was most definitely a labour of love.
In the wake of DCA’s decision she says she has received an ‘overwhelming response’, an outpouring of outrage, and not just from WA residents but also from many prominent Eastern States authors. The funding body’s decision was based on its assessment that the journal was not ‘well known in the Eastern States and should receive submissions from around Australia’ in order to better promote WA writers. But Westerly has already done this very successfully since 1956, and indigo was established primarily to provide a space for WA’s emerging writers to get their work into print.
It is also important to note that building an audience takes time, and DCA made their decision on the back of only five issues. Did they give the fledgling publication enough time to build that wider audience? Personally, I don’t think so.
Audiences for literary journals are traditionally very small. indigo currently has a print run of 800, 70 percent of which is sold through bookshops across Australia. As a comparison, an article in The Australian in 2008 revealed Meanjin’s subscription stats. The journal – which has been on the Australian literary landscape since 1940 and is considered a highly desirable place for writers to get their work published – has under 1000 subscribers. Depending on the issue, bookshop sales can add another 500–1500 to the total. But that’s still only a total of 1500–2500 copies (it should be noted that literary journal print runs do not accurately reflect readership). What I’m getting at here is that these journals are by their very nature niche publications. And it seems to me that DCA’s expectations of what indigo could achieve in such a short time were unrealistic.
The sad fact remains that journals come and go. Some – like Overland – have managed to stay the course. But our history is littered with journals that have fallen by the wayside. However, after a well-deserved break, Ward intends to meet with the Arts Minister to discuss the future of indigo. If (and it’s a big if) funds are found to support the journal, Ward is no longer prepared to continue without a salary and administrative support. And rightly so. But will indigo get a second chance? That remains to be seen.
Let’s step back from all this controversy now and get to the contents of the latest issue. It opens with a revealing interview with WA’s most famous author, Tim Winton, on the novel. I was fascinated by his description of the freedom and liberation of writing, particularly in moments that he describes as ‘the eternal present tense’ where he is at his best. He compares this state to that of a child playing in the sandpit, where time ceases to exist. This, to me, is a perfect analogy, and one to which I suspect many writers can relate. His gripes about the PhD novel, and all the novels about writers and writing, are well worth a read, as are his thoughts on the profound influence his isolated location has had on his work. His honesty on the business of writing is refreshing. For example, he admits that winning his fourth Miles Franklin Award for Breath means ‘much less’ to him ‘than people imagine’ because he understands ‘how arbitrary these judgments are’. The interview manages to cover a lot of ground and Winton’s openness makes for a rewarding read.
This volume also contains a substantial section of creative non-fiction, a relatively new genre that I have come to love. For me, Helen Garner is indisputably the master of creative non-fiction, and I couldn’t help comparing her sharply observed prose with the six works offered here. This is perhaps unfair, and certainly none of them proved to be her equal. However, Catherine Wright’s sensuous prose is definitely worth noting. She captures the textures, smells, sounds and feel of the Carpenteria so beautifully that I almost felt I was standing alongside her. Having thus captivated the reader, she then plunges us into a darker place where the threats of this remote location become visceral, pulling us inside her ‘corset of fright’. It is a powerful, entrancing work – a highlight of this issue.
The short stories, however, were a little disappointing. I was hoping to discover brilliance but instead found writing that was competent and enjoyable but not particularly memorable. Cecily Scutt’s ‘The Lighthouse’ proved to be the exception. This story demonstrates an observational authenticity as it leads the reader towards its disquieting resolution. As with many of the works in this issue, the landscape is so vividly rendered that it becomes a character in its own right.
There is a sizable poetry section in volume 5 which includes placegetters from the Out of the Asylum Writers’ Group Spilt Ink Competition. The quality of the sixteen poems varies greatly but that is to be expected in a journal that showcases both emerging and experienced writers. Flora Smith’s ‘Fifth Generation’ was the standout with its beautifully observed and striking imagery. The issue also includes a substantial review section and an excerpt from Alex Miller’s novel Lovesong which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award this year.
Overall, this issue of indigo proves that Western Australia punches above its literary weight for a population of its size. I’ll be sorry to see it go.