On the 71-year-old literary journal Meanjin

Meanjin, Vol 70 No 4 (December 2011)
Sally Heath (ed)

The seventy-one-year-old literary journal Meanjin is looking elegant and rejuvenated since Sally Heath took over as editor in 2011. This is the third edition she has edited and the second to enjoy the new design makeover. White paper stock and clear typeface, use of blank space at the head of each pages (used for notes in red where necessary) and elegant cover design are all welcome improvements.

As for the content, the editorial choices are not significantly changed. An imprint of Melbourne University Press, Meanjin still feels scholarly. The preferred genre is the essay, dealing not just with literature but with broader social, political and cultural issues. The first 130 pages of the 200-page journal are devoted to essays, punctuated by the occasional poem. This is followed by a selection of memoir; a fascinating text/image collaboration between a poet and a photographer; three pieces of fiction; and finally an interview between Heath and Simon Crean, Minister for the Arts.

Heath’s editorial does not clearly indicate any theme for this edition, just a challenge to the reader ‘to imagine alterative view points and perspectives’ as a lead into Marcia Langton’s essay on recognising Aboriginal Australians in the constitution. This starts out as a personal point of view but soon becomes submerged in an analysis of the constitution that reads remarkably like a government report. Instructive for those involved in the debate, but too academic for the rest of us.

Heath is one of several editors who have had to grapple with the problem of how to preserve Meanjin in the digital age. I am coming late to this debate on the fate of our literary journals – Ali Alizadeh and Peter Craven are worth looking at on this subject – but my immediate response on reading this journal is that a clever correlation between the print issue and the online version will guarantee Meanjin’s survival, and its intellectual clout. The print version needs to attract subscribers and bookshop buyers and may need culling in the essay section, with the extra material available online. Heath’s background in journalism will be valuable when sorting out how to allocate the essay material to each version of the journal.

In the current issue, the essayists seem to have the freedom to expound their viewpoints without being restricted to a word limit or edited for clarity. This gives a fine platform for academics who want to publish their papers to the wider world, but is bound to alienate more general readers who come to Meanjin for its literary content. Heath states on the Meanjin website that Meanjin ‘can, and should, communicate with as wide an interested public as it can, by as many means as possible, be they print, text on the internet, video or live events.’ Hopefully this can be achieved without reserving the most academic texts for the print version.

It is usual for readers of such journals to be selective about the pieces they read, but there is little editorial guidance for the reader to make such a selection. Each ‘story’, whether it be non-fiction or fiction, is preceded by a title and an author but lacks any other kind of introduction, not even a one-liner. A case in point is the extended essay ‘My Hero’ by Dean Ashenden, where the title gives little away. However, it soon becomes apparent that the ‘hero’ is WEH Stanner and his work in Aboriginal studies. The essay devotes a disproportionate amount of words to appraising Stanner’s slim (63-page) volume After the Dreaming, which, ironically, Ashenden describes as ‘so dense, evocative, and moving as to be a kind of prose poem’. After wending its way through myriad methodologies, the essay ends predictably with a paradox.

Artists Christopher Hodges and Tom Carment have a more fluent writing style. Hodges’ history of the Aboriginal group, Papunya Tula Artists, has particular relevance in its link to their exhibition at NGV, although that closes in early February. Carment’s rhythmic account of the artist’s modus operandi and his fine paintings, well reproduced on this paper stock, is a little oasis in the journal.

Like Marcia Langton, Helen Camakaris starts her essay ‘The Poisoned Chalice’ on genetics by looking at Darwin’s relevance to our environmental problems, before obfuscating this topical issue with references to cultural studies and anthropological publications. Along the way, Camakaris makes intriguing references to related topics such as game theory and the concept of fairness. One of these topics could have made a stronger focus for the essay. The switch to examining climate change does in fact rekindle the argument and leads to a clear call to action.

The most engaging essay is Ivor Indyk’s ‘The Book and Its Time’. With so much written about the imminent demise of the book, this essay has new insights, launching off with a colourful account of a bricks-and-mortar bookshop in a novel by Arnold Bennett: Riceyman Steps. The essay is timely, appearing after the recent death of George Whitman of Shakespeare and Company, that warren of books on the banks of the Seine. Indyk is a skilled essayist, moving smoothly from the personal to the general, from literary allusion to his own library, from history to current issues, never losing sight of his reader and her needs.

Richard King’s well-researched essay ‘Offence Goes Viral’ is an astute up-to-the-minute examination of the latest invidious strains of political correctness, centred on the use of the word ‘offence’. King’s writing is a model of good style, mixing colourful language with abstract vocabulary to craft a lucid and compelling plea for freedom of speech and intellectual rigour, where feelings should not dominate – or worse, silence – debate.

Juliana Engberg continues the theme of political correctness and its effect on freedom of expression in her light-hearted satirical account of censorship, using the Sistine Chapel as a case study. Other essays that are refreshing in their approach are Peter Pierce’s, in which he posits our era as a ‘silver age of Australian fiction’, and Alex Miller’s intimate account of how he came to write Autumn Laing.

The peppering of poems between essays gives a welcome change of pace. Fine lyrical pieces by Nathan Curnow and Mark Tredinnick bookend the anthology, and Adrian Wiggins boldly and playfully brings the sonnet into the twenty-first century.

The memoir section begins with a refreshing voice. Sonya Voumard’s journalistic style with its rhythmic sentences and vivid imagery takes us into the heart of her experience as a reporter reviewing her coverage of Queensland in 1989. It’s the inside story on journalism, its motivations, quandaries and eye-openers.

In ‘The Road’ Rachel Buchanan examines the daily commute, dismantling the romance of the road and exposing the price we pay for our mobility. This excellent memoir is a compassionate look at the compromises and conflicts of modern life, as well as an ode to the Ring Road and its democratic nature, where we all have to wait. ‘And wait. And wait.’

Patrick McCaughey’s memoir about his home in Connecticut seems out of place and parochial in Meanjin, and may owe its inclusion to the fact that McCaughey has some connection with Melbourne, particularly as director of the Festivals of Ideas in 2009 and 2010. It would have benefitted from a link to his Australian experience, not just a rather laboured reference to the Yarra. And an editorial note would have helped give the piece some context.

Arriving, after reading so much non-fiction, at the final section of the journal devoted to fiction, it becomes apparent how persuasive fiction can be. With no need to argue a case, fiction writers can present us with all the facets of human experience and help us learn from our own. In Josephine Rowe’s harrowing and brief story ‘Hotels’, it is the aggressive and passive aspects of an abusive relationship, reminiscent of Lolita, that is under the spotlight, and our own lies that are unearthed. Brooke Dunnell’s short story about the personal dramas in a local cricket club is a delicious tale full of surprises and vivid sensual detail, with a gentle satirical probing of the little man with a big ego, his nemesis and his revenge.

If I have singled out literary rather than cultural items for praise, it is not just personal preference or that I value style over content. Neither is it a question of dumbing down. It’s more a plea for good writing. It is not enough to lighten up an essay with a personal anecdote at the beginning. The reader needs to be kept in mind throughout. The edition of Meanjin is packed with information, opinion and insight, but needs an editorial torch to illuminate the way.

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