Growing like weeds: literary magazines today

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when reading Robyn Annear’s piece for The Monthly, ‘Puzzling the Purpose of Australian Literary Magazines – Unripe Fruit’.

The death knell rings for literature every day and has been ringing for the last hundred years. A hammer fits anyone’s hand and is the easiest tool to use, so literature rings every time you whack it – a death knell that sounds Wagnerian in its apocalyptic register. The annihilation of angels and words rings from every book. It seems so simple for the author of Whelan the Wrecker but all we hear is a little more of that familiar whack, whack, whack.

Another title for Annear’s piece might have been ‘Go Big or Go Home’. The contention of her essay (beyond, most grassroots Australian literature ‘has nothing to say’) is that if literary journals can’t generate more than a few hundred readers an issue, they’re worthless.

At what point does literature become worthy? When there are tens of thousands of readers – sports-scale audiences – or must we measure units moving through cash registers in the millions? In that regard, we’ve seen the modern masterpiece that is Fifty Shades of … No, we need not fall into mockery. Suffice to say, literary value is not determined by commerce.

What’s particularly repugnant about Annear’s piece is the notion that Australian literary journals don’t even have readers, merely contributors. Annear paints a pathetic scene at her local church hall as would-be writers inquire of each other, ‘Have you been published?’ That is the only glimpse we get of what literary community means to this well-published author as she eavesdrops on dismal hopes and aspirations. Also apparent is the cliché resentment of creative writing students, not dissimilar to hordes charging into the literary world with their pencils sharpened in a Roman children’s game of spears, of Barbarian siege and conquest.

Literature is not a commodity. It is an act of faith, even for the most lowly, whose experiences cannot be easily marketed or turned into films for Hollywood. The faith is that ordinary lives have meaning and that they might reach for art. Whether they are published or not does not speak to the central value of the literary experience in their lives. Despite Annear’s ridicule, there is a profound act of humanity in the simple act of reading – a dignity in that sharing of words and sentences, characters and stories, and moving beyond the isolated ego.

Annear recently read ten literary journals and was not greatly impressed – and so her article emerged, in a magazine, which presumably merits a readership. Research done, her conclusion is that whether grassroots Australian literature is cultivated or not, appreciated or ignored, it is akin to a hardy weed so ‘there will always be literary magazines’.

A more interesting proposition would be to ask: what if we did care? What if we thought of homegrown literature as being a resource that, with attention and nurturing, might grow into something that feeds our culture? Or the less grandiose notion that looking after domestic literature ensures the future of writing and reading in our country?

We might benefit from considering Sturgeons Law (though it’s also a basic truth for anyone who honestly examines film, music, fashion, etc etc), which decrees that ‘90 per cent of everything is crap’. A law that allows us to notice how very wide are the margins of mediocrity. That 10 per cent chance of brilliance is the salient point. That 10 per cent chance is what we’re all hoping to find every time we open a book. Mostly we’re disappointed. And yet we go on searching for that next book that reminds us why we read, despite everything else the world offers us by way of distractions and amusements.

It’s a miserable image we are left with after reading ‘Puzzling the Purpose of Australian Literary Magazines’. After the clamour of Robyn Annear sounding the death knell for Australian literary journals, she walks away, listening to Bach on her headphones.

While Annear puzzles the purpose, it’s obvious to many that Australian literary journals are a record of Australian lives. They capture the voices of our communities as they speak to each other and reveal a literary culture that has not been demolished by the internet. These ‘artefacts’ continue to be made with care, to little fanfare, and certainly with no prospect of financial reward. What do we call the urge to knock these people down and scatter their ‘artefacts’? Annear provides both question and answer. Are Australian literary journals ‘really all that stands between us and philistinism? In a word: no.’

Alec Patric

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

More by Alec Patric ›

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  1. Somewhat in the mode on an Andrew Bolt, (originally a liberal thinker who re-invented himself as a red neck), Robyn Annear appears to be reaching for her own modus operandi of notoriety by slamming the pages of the small independents from where a writer like her would perhaps have originated. She had to start somewhere, surely. Or was she born wrapped in a gold plated best seller? I know the modern reality… any publicity is good publicity, isn’t?

  2. Alec, many thanks for your excellent response to Annear’s article. From my vantage point, teaching Australian literature in the United States, it is obvious that Australian literature is thriving and an abundance of great work is being published, much of it in literary journals and by small, independent publishers.

  3. A few hundred copies…From a poetry point of view, that’s often quite a few.

    By Annear’s logic, poetry itself would be fairly worthless. Except for Pam Ayres and similar luminaries. (That word luminaries seems to be in the air at the moment!)

  4. Nice to see two contributors to Tincture Journal have already commented on this piece 🙂

    Great response by Alec, adding to the list of other great responses seen elsewhere. I’ve chosen not to respond, because our humble journal wasn’t mentioned in the original piece and because I’m happy to just keep doing what I’m doing. For readers AND writers.

  5. Wonderful to read your response to Annear and I agree with you – why the desire to exclude people from contributing (seems to pop up all over the place) to ‘literature’ – the gatekeepers can’t help themselves it seems – if you don’t like what you see you can simply change the channel (no need to delete the entire channel so that no-one can view).

  6. “(Literary journals) capture the voices of our communities as they speak to each other and reveal a literary culture that has not been demolished by the internet.”

    That reads like Annear, on another war front, the very same forum being used here.

  7. Okay, so Morrie Schwartz is the publisher of The Monthly, and also of the “Best Australian” anthologies which derive their content almost exclusively from the very same literary journals Annear is bagging? I recall reading a review of one such edition of Best Australian stories that noted every story within its pages had either appeared in Meanjin or The Griffith Review.

  8. Surely the current trend toward literary blogs and literary magazines is no different to times past when people published their own small volumes or printed their work on paper, or a pamphlets to hand out to family and friends, or, where writers formed groups and published or printed out compilations of their work?

    One could argue that the depression and the two world wars brought a break in this tradition with people putting their focus on far more important things like survival, but a brief trawl through history shows that such literary activity has always been common, at least in the educated.

    Surely what matters is that people create and all we are seeing is the modern form of that creativity brought to a wider public. The fact that much of what is written may not be of great quality is irrelevant for it is creative expression which matters most of all.

    And success and talent have never been synonymous and success has often been more fashion than talent anyway. Many of our greatest writers and poets would never be accepted by publisher or agent in this day and age. Many great writers only found fame long after they were dead when fashions had changed. But their work endured because it existed; because it had been written and sometimes because it had been published, at least briefly.

    What makes great literature or great poetry in one age is not what makes it in another. Although there is no doubt that standards have been higher in some ages than in others. But even if much of what is called modern poetry is really prose and even if much of it resembles no more than a shopping list, bus ticket or the shambolic notes which record a forgotten dream – it is writing and the more human beings write the better it is for them as individuals and for the world in general.

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