A new issue of Overland (205) is out this week and marks the end of my first year as its fiction editor. So I thought it would be a good moment to reflect on this year of fiction, especially in light of the debates last year about the possibility of ‘politically engaged fiction’, which I said was the sort of fiction I was hoping to publish in Overland.
At the time I made it clear that by this phrase I didn’t mean social realism. I gave a few examples of the sort of fiction I did mean, including Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, Zamyatin’s We, The Master and Margarita, 100 Years of Solitude, Brave New World, 1984. Other examples that spring to mind are Animal Farm, Catch-22, Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse-5 and Player Piano, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe. These are among my all-time favourite novels. I think of them as ‘politically engaged fiction’.
Before I started at Overland, I’d given up working as an editor. The last book I edited was Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap in 2007. But when Jeff Sparrow asked if I’d be interested in becoming Overland’s fiction editor, much to my surprise I said yes, immediately – because it was for Overland.
I love Overland’s political bent, its passion, argumentation, provocation, vision, big-picture writing about things that matter. I’ve especially enjoyed its feisty engagements with literature – as if literature had weight, really mattered – such as Alexis Wright’s essay on Oodgeroo Noonuccal, ‘A Weapon of Poetry’, and its meaty 3-person review of Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe. Nothing less would have enticed me back to editing other people’s writing.
The first ever issue of Overland, Spring 1954, announced: ‘Overland is a new magazine, devoted to creative writing … It will make a special point of developing writing talent in people of diverse background. We ask of our readers, however inexpert, that they write for us; that they share our love of living, our optimism, our belief in the traditional dream of a better Australia.’ I like this ethos, its inclusiveness.
The early magazine’s focus on Realist fiction and its enthrallment to the 1890s Australia of Joseph Furphy, Henry Lawson and the Bulletin have been left behind, but its guiding vision has not. For me these words from Overland 7 best capture its view: ‘Writers are men and women who record the storms of history as they rage through the lives and minds of people.’ I think Overland continues to record the storms of history, be they political, economic, social, technological, cultural, environmental.
This year I’ve been looking for stories which grapple with, oh, the issues of the day, the times, the era (these were contested terms in 2010). I don’t think all literature must or should do this, but I do think it’s appropriate that Overland publishes fiction that attempts to do so – and when it does not, then I’m no longer interested in the job.
In the four issues of 2011, I’ve published eight stories and two novel extracts. I’ve published stories I love, stories that have moved me in one way or another, to laughter, tears, rage, wonder, astonishment, or all and more. And of course, given the above, I’ve tried to publish stories with a political dimension, however loose. And I’ve also tried to publish from across Australia and across genres – realist, surreal, science fiction, spoof, satire, comedy, historical – with a mix of established and new voices.
Here are the stories I’ve published this year:
Issue 202: ‘Finders, Keepers’ by Clare Strahan, a brilliant sci-fi reduction ad absurdum of consumer capitalism.
Issue 203: ‘Under skin, in blood’ by Larissa Behrendt, her first published short story, about hidden lethal invasions of Indigenous Australia.
‘The long way’, Paul Mitchell’s poignant story about men, land and cars in the aftermath of the Victorian bushfires.
‘Daylight’, Susan Bennett’s funny, angry spoof of the contentious blockbuster Twilight.
Issue 204: ‘How to tell if you’re the red herring’ – Jacinda Woodhead’s fierce and surreal vision of the illogic of racism.
An extract from Charlotte Wood’s rollercoaster new novel Animal People about the fine lines we draw between animals and humans.
‘Reading coffee’ by Anthony Panegyres, his powerful story of a young girl on the goldfields of Western Australia during the anti-Greek uprisings of 1916.
Issue 205: ‘Experiment No. 1 in Animal Tourism’ by Stephen Muecke, his elliptical fragments on the transportation of a Tasmanian devil.
‘Letter to a small village’, Louise Pine’s disturbing tale of the death of a child on a road in Africa.
The first published extract (a fragment) from Alexis Wright’s forthcoming novel The Swan Book.
Being Overland fiction editor is an exciting and agonising job. I’ve had to turn down many good stories – dozens arrive each month and we can only publish a dozen a year. I don’t see every story that’s submitted to Overland. They are read by a dedicated team of volunteers now guided by Clare Strahan. All of us who work with Overland’s fiction do it for love, not money, so I’d like to give a huge thank you to all those who have devoted their time this year to this important activity: publishing and promoting new short fiction in Australia.
I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank by name the following tireless volunteers: Clare Strahan, Joshua Mostafa, Kathleen McLeod, SJ Finn, Trish Bolton, Miranda Camboni, Boris Kelly, Emily Laidlaw, Louise Pine, Mark William Jackson, Lina Vale, Elizabeth Reichhardt, Claire Zorn, Julie Perrin and Georgia Claire. THANK YOU SO MUCH. As I’m sure you’re only too aware, we couldn’t do it without you.
And the fiction doesn’t stop here. First up in 2012 Overland will be publishing James Bradley’s first zombie story, Paul Dawson’s spoof of twenty-first century academia and SJ Finn’s story of living beyond the law. So stay tuned.