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.’