Overland editors speak out

The 200th issue of Overland has arrived! Well, in the office, at least. You, dear reader, can buy it tomorrow at ‘Magazine’, a free Overland session at the Melbourne Writers Festival. It promises to be a scintillating morning filled with interviews, conversations and special guest writers with monikers like Alison Croggon, Maria Tumarkin, Kalinda Ashton and Peter Beinart. It kicks off at 10am.

This will be followed the following Saturday by Overland‘s grand 200 party – Saturday 4 September, Feddish, 7 pm.

Which reminds me of the point of this post. We asked some of Overland’s past editors to share their proudest moments of their editorship, and Overland in general. Here’s what they said:

Katherine Wilson

One of my proudest moments at Overland wasn’t while I was editor, but while working as assistant editor to Ian Syson. It was the publication of Ray Evans and Bill Thorpe’s epic essay which, using a calm evidential approach, comprehensively debunked Keith Windschuttle’s savage attack on Aboriginal history (and frontier historians).

But the biggest fun was Bias and Bullies (Overland 176), published at the nadir of the Howard government’s media intimidation crusade, with a superb essay by David Marr and also one by Martin Hirst and Robert Schutze that documented Australian columnist Greg Sheridan’s evidence-free campaign for the Iraq War. This issue provoked the geezers at the Australian to write an editorial in which they branded Overland ‘one of Australia’s loopy-left little magazines’ – an endorsement proudly published on the jacket of subsequent issues.

Nathan Hollier

The first is Raewyn Connell’s ‘Moloch Mutates’ in Overland 167. This was during the period of Ian’s editorship, but I edited that issue. We launched it in conjunction with a conference on the ruling class. Connell presented the article as a keynote address in the conference. The lecture and some other pieces were excerpted in the Age. Radio National recorded a panel discussion with (from memory) Connell, Verity Burgmann, Stephen Mayne and Craig McGregor. This was hosted by Michael Cathcart and run as part of the ‘Big Ideas’ series. The conference was a success. It brought together a lot of terrific people, we eventually got a book out of it, and I got to meet Raewyn, so I look back on that moment with real fondness.

The article itself, I should say, was breathtakingly good: comprehensive, insightful, learned, spot-on politically and, at the same time, accessible. I thought it should have been a real rallying point for the left-progressive movement.

The second is Barry Hill’s essay for our fiftieth anniversary edition, during Kath’s and my editorship. Barry is such a gifted and original thinker and such a stylish writer and he really ‘put in’ for that edition, which was of course a very important one for us. His piece – ‘The Mood We’re In: circa Australia Day 2004’ – was ambitious, deeply thought-provoking, and advanced a politics that was notably different from those of any conventional Australian analytical frameworks. That essay won the Premier’s Award for the best essay that year, so it was another case of a number of positive things seeming to come together at the same time.

Ian Syson

Perhaps the best and most important essay I published was by Ray Evans and Bill Thorpe, ‘Indigenocide and the Massacre of Australian History’, published in Overland 163. It was the first substantial response to Windschuttle’s Fabrication and the piece really blew him out of the water. Or rather, it should have blown him out of the water! It had a curious lack of purchase despite being excerpted in the Age (eliciting a woeful response by the Fabricator himself). It failed to find many champions on the left and was strangely absent in discussions about the controversy.

It was one of those pieces that was offered at the right time and while I was somewhat fazed by the length (13000 words) its importance swayed me.

The length also gave rise to a brief public argument between myself and Don Watson. At the Premier’s Literary Award, Watson accepted his prize for the best essay, published by Black Inc. In his speech he claimed that Black Inc. was the only place that would publish substantial essays, at which point I interjected, ‘Bullshit!’

Afterwards I approached Watson to explain myself. He suggested that calling out ‘Bullshit’ was no way to get him to write for Overland. I replied that spouting bullshit was no way to get me to invite him. This story points to one of the great difficulties of editing a small magazine, that of getting people to judge you on your present performance and not on some assumed track record.

Another essay I adored was Bob Ellis’s rejoinder to Michael Warby, also published in 163. Ellis, in his inimitable rolling, nasty, coruscating style managed to turn Warby’s biography of Ellis into a weak structure of so many holes by merely pointing out many of its 200 errors. I am sure that the essay ruined Warby’s career to the point that he is now reduced to working for right-wing think tanks and being published in Quadrant. At that stage I was on the phone every second week trying to talk Ellis into writing for Overland and he saw in the magazine an opportunity to get his revenge in very early.

John McLaren

‘Just a paragraph or two about some pieces you were proud to publish’: that’s what the editor said, and all he wanted. The trouble is, there are so many I remember – Overland has had so many great writers over the years, and they have been so generous with their words and time – so I made the mistake of going back to the files to check. There I found so many more that I had forgotten, but that come back to mind and make me proud as I read them. Yet perhaps the piece I am most proud of commissioning was not in Overland at all, but in ABR. It was a review of the biography of a notorious Australian politician, and it attracted a libel writ from the book’s author. As he is still alive, I cannot give further details, but it is a cause for editorial rejoicing when the truth hurts so deeply.

Looking back through Overland, I am struck by how much we have published about the directions Australia was taking, and how much remains pertinent. Brian Matthews on millenarianism manages to bring Azaria Chamberlain together with Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating, both in prophetic and optimistic mood. The American poet John Ridland tours the Kelly country with Ned and finds, amid the fine food, tourism and nostalgia, a painter restoring what was once there. As far back as 1997, Andrew Moore examined the cultural destruction wrought by the commercial takeover of Rugby League.

Then there was the reportage. Six writers documented the Melbourne docklands dispute. Tom Heenan recalled growing up in a Collingwood pub, and Gwen Kelly remembered the dogs of childhood and the years between the wars. Judith Rodriguez, Robin Gerster, Fiona Capp and Georgia Savage all contributed to a reassessment of the place of the Second World War in our memory. We were privileged to publish a special issue on black writing, and a fourfold poem by Mudrooroo on attending a post-colonial literary conference in Sri Lanka.

Then there were the short story writers, and all the other poets. For a complete work of art, there was the combination of words and photos by Robert Adamson and Juno Gemes in response to life on the Hawkesbury, and then there was … but I can’t go on. I’ve run out of space, and I want to go back and re-read more of those old issues.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. “The article itself, I should say, was breathtakingly good: comprehensive, insightful, learned, spot-on politically and, at the same time, accessible. I thought it should have been a real rallying point for the left-progressive movement.”

    Maybe time for a reprint, then?

    Interesting post, editors, thank you.

  2. Thanks for taking the time, eds. Most of the high points relate to non-fiction. Interesting. No fiction worthy of mention?

  3. Hi Boris,
    It’s an interesting point.
    It’s possible that editors have more ownership of non-fiction, in the sense that it’s more often commissioned and so the editor feels (rightly or wrongly) that he or she has contributed to its final shape.
    I guess it’s also sometimes easier to see the impact that an essay makes — if, say, it’s widely quoted or something — as opposed to a story.

  4. Hi Jeff,
    Yeah, I take your point. Makes me wonder about the relative power of fiction though. Is it that contemporary Oz fiction generally fails to bite into the political zeitgeist the way non-fiction can? It’s a lot to ask, I know, but wouldn’t it be good to see fiction widely quoted as a measure of the times? The political power of fiction seems to have been diluted to homeopathic proportions. Perhaps OL could commission more short fiction within the scope of its editorial policy i.e. privileging political engagement the way it does non-fiction. This need not mean a lessening of artistic quality. Or maybe I’m just way off track.

  5. HI Boris,
    It’s funny you should say that. Have been thinking about this a lot lately.
    In the early days, of course, it didn’t really matter, because the people sending fiction to OL were, by and large, part of a particular political milieu, a broad left community.
    Today, though, it’s kinda different. I reckon an awful lot of short story writers simply draw up lists of the various journals and send their work out in turn, which means that we all end up publishing very similar stuff.
    I do think we need to start thinking more about what progressive fiction might be and what we can do to foster it.

  6. My copy of Overland 200 arrived in my letterbox yesterday and it makes for great reading. I wanted to commend the terrific piece by Marion Rankine that considers the importance of place in Australian writing – all writers should read it. I also enjoyed Rjurik’s thought provoking piece on the commodification of creative writing in our universities. I’m settling in on a rainy Melbourne morning to read Boris Kelly’s discussion of alcohol and a much needed analysis of climate denial at the ABC written by Clive Hamilton. Congrats to all who worked on producing such great reading.

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