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Subscriberthon 2012: Dennis Altman on journals as communities of ideas and people

When I first started writing small journals – Meanjin, Arena, Dissent (now online-only)seemed enormously important as ways of being published and read by several thousand people. This was of course long before electronic media, and the ability of anyone with enough self-importance to start a blog.

Overland was already a presence in Australian literary life in those halcyon days of the early 1970s, and indeed one of the first extensive interviews I did when my first book, Homosexual: Oppression & liberation, was published was in its winter 1973 edition (the interviewer was Chris Hector, then an honours student at Monash who had been part of a group with whom I discovered the importance of Herbert Marcuse’s writings). Almost forty years later I returned to Overland to publish a piece on my disquiet about support for Israel in the wake of the Gaza incursion (‘Escaping the tribe?’ Overland 196: spring 2009).

I begin with my own connections to the journal because small journals are in effect communities of ideas and people, and depend enormously on personal connections to develop a certain persona. When I look back over my own CV, I see there are periods, such as when Judith Brett was editor of Meanjin, or now with Peter Rose at ABR, when that became a natural outlet for some of my writings. Small magazines are the equivalents of literary salons, and they need genial hosts, but unlike salons they need speak to more than their own immediate circle. For a time I was a regular attendee at Arena’s annual end of year parties, an important way of connecting with other writers and activists.

Small magazines also need a particular position, even if it is one as bizarrely reactionary as the current Quadrant. Overland began fifty years ago with the slogan ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’, and if today this seems rather parochial it also reminds us that to publish in Overland is to commit to both a literary and a political community.

What attracts me to Overland is that it is both a literary and a political magazine, that it publishes both new and established writers, and that it no longer looks like the earnest print only journals that leftists used to churn out. In an age of instant electronic media we still need print journals, which become real artefacts that survive in ways websites can’t. Physical journals lie around on tables, in libraries, in cafes, and are picked up and leafed through in quite different ways to how we might search the web.

It strikes me that we need a concerted attempt to get our small journals into those spaces where people do still pick up and read printed materials: airport lounges, doctors’ waiting rooms, hairdressers etc. Imagine a young person, looking for political and literary inspiration, could wander into a cafe in a small country town, or perhaps an outer suburb, and pick up the latest Overland. Yes, they may also come across it online, but my hunch is this would not have equal importance. Maybe free distribution of a bundle of our small magazines into those parts of Australia not much frequented by the intelligentsia would be a project worth putting to the Australia Council?

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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Dennis Altman is a writer and academic who first came to attention with the publication of his book Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation in 1972, which was published in eight countries. He has written eleven books. He is Director of the Institute for Human Security at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, and is well known as a commentator on the ABC and Australian newspapers.

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