On the defunding of Island magazine – and what it will mean for Tasmanian writers

In the general feedback from Arts Tasmania’s Organisations funding round this year, applicants were told that ‘claims that overstated the importance of … an organisation were seen to lack awareness of the context of an application.’

It’s impossible to know if this was directed towards Island. It’s tempting to say that it couldn’t have been, because it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the magazine to Tasmanian literary culture; any argument to the contrary lacks awareness of the very context the feedback is describing.

More than twenty years ago, a stack of Island magazines filled a shelf at my mother’s house; she and my stepfather were subscribers at the time. They were published in the style that has been mimicked a little in recent issues – a larger magazine format, with an author’s face on the cover – and I still remember flicking through the pages, reading the poems, articles and stories. In my early years as a writer living in Hobart, I’d never heard of Overland, Meanjin or Southerly. Some things have probably changed – the world is more connected. But literary culture is not so weighty that emerging writers can readily grasp the scene, especially in the regions where regular events, programming and institutions are distant. It’s rare for me to talk to a young writer down here who has heard of Voiceworks.

Through the decades, Island has remained a point of aspiration for local writers – a Tasmanian publication that has embodied excellence and something to strive for. I wrote for years, trying to sneak into its pages. There was a review in 2009, but it didn’t feel like that counted. I had to wait another three years to publish one of my stories, and at that stage I’d been refining my craft for nearly a decade. Island was the first major literary journal to put my fiction into print.

Did it make a difference that Island was a Tasmanian publication, publishing a local writer? Definitely. These kinds of connections are more significant than is readily acknowledged. Has this helped me to build a practice and career? Of course it has. Granted, not everyone down here is published as often as they would like, and in a small community, this can rankle. Writers are published from the mainland, and internationally. But this is as it should be. A magazine that only published Tasmanian writers would be of no use to them – it needs to be a magazine of national significance, lifting them up on a wider stage, or else what is the point? Island has a distinct focus arising from where it is published, and it continues to publish, champion and develop Tasmanian writing and ideas. That is enough.

But Island has been defunded by Arts Tasmania, and the magazine will suspend publishing if extra support isn’t forthcoming. Island doesn’t receive financial or in-kind support from publishers or universities, as many literary journals do. It’s hard to criticise them for this – extra sources of financial support can be thin on the ground in Tasmania. It’s easy to blame Arts Tasmania here, but this is a competitive funding round for organisations across all artistic disciplines, and Island must have ranked lower than the money stretched. Put simply, they were deemed to be uncompetitive against other organisations. Whether this is a result of poor decision-making by the panel of peers, or a disappointing application by Island, isn’t for me to judge.

But it’s certainly true that as Tasmania’s cultural industries grow, diversify and professionalise, the current funding levels are inadequate, and many worthy applicants are missing out. Having sat on a couple of assessment panels from different funding bodies and seen the results of many grant rounds, it’s quite something to think of how significant doubling the budget of any given funding round would be, even though it’s peanuts in the context of any government’s spending. Slashes to Australia Council funding have also removed some of the breathing space. When Island last faced this situation, back in 2011, it was Australia Council money that got them through.

While I’ve focused on the importance of developing and publishing writers, a magazine is primarily about readers. Research in the book trade indicates that when a bookshop disappears, most of its sales don’t go to other bookshops – they disappear as well. I’m sure the same is true of literary magazines. Most people who subscribed or bought Island won’t suddenly subscribe to Overland or Meanjin. Island was where literature found a tiny foothold in their lives, and if the ledge snaps off, that will be it.

The loss of any distinct literary journal is a major blow to this fragile ecology. It closes down space for the kind of writing that isn’t published elsewhere. Readers are poorer, both in Tasmania and around the nation. When Island was last defunded, it was famously argued that ‘given that Island is competing with publications such as The New Yorker … there was limited benefit to the Tasmanian audience of maintaining a magazine just because it was published in Tasmania.’ You’d need a lot more space than I have here to explore everything that is nonsensical with this kind of thinking. One might as well say, why have an Australian publishing industry when we could just import books from the UK? But, as arts funding continues to be scarce, with literature receiving a disproportionally small amount of it, and as magazines like Island risk folding, this is exactly where we might find ourselves as Australians: reading more of the same writers and ideas from centres of publishing power.

Ben Walter

Ben Walter’s stories, essays and poems have appeared in Lithub, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow and many other publications. He is the fiction editor of Island.

More by Ben Walter ›

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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  1. That New Yorker line still gets to me. Why have a Tasmanian government when there’s an Australian one, why have an Australian government when there’s an American one?

  2. Ben, as a founding editor of Island I couldn’t have expressed your overview better – and this coming from you, a young writer who represents an entirely new generation of writers. Island has been an open door for new work and fresh ideas for decades. It has been through many tough times. It may not survive this one if its core funding body can’t grasp how important the magazine has been and continues to be. It is one of the major lit mags in the country. Just imagine if, in similar circumstances, the rest were threatened with closure. Let’s hope good sense prevails.

  3. Beautifully said, Ben, as if I’d expected anything else from you. I too viewed Island aspirationally as a young and emerging writer. I despair that other young and talented writers, of which this island has a good many, will lose a valuable opportunity for the development and exposure that Island could provide.

    One of my big concerns, however, is the inequity with which Arts Tasmania has handled recent similar cases: last year, when none of the Island’s major theatre companies were funded, the Tasmanian Theatre Fund resulted–suddenly and seemingly without precedent, a new pool of $400k was made available, to a single theatre company over two years, for which all companies had to compete. Two years ago, the Tasmanian Writers Centre was thrown under the funding bus, though thankfully it appears to have survived somehow–but without any sudden largesse like that afforded to the theatre sector. And for Island this year, will some spare change be suddenly retrieved from the back of the couch to ensure at least some short-term viability?

    If not, then someone at Arts Tasmania has some reasonably serious questions to answer. Because on the face of it, the playing field does not appear level at all.

  4. I was a subscriber to Island but could see the writing on the wall. The physical magazine itself is a very undemocratic thing. It’s very boutique and always seemed to me to smell of the privilege of State money. It’s an object that privileges gloss and image and colour and design over text and substance and one that’s meant to be positioned on upper middle-class (‘artsy’) coffee tables and the like.

    The New Yorker, NYRB, LRB, TLS etc are items you can read, roll or fold up and stick in your pocket as you head on your way. And you can buy them at local news stands on the street. Much more accessible, more democratic. And they usually privilege text, or narrative and story (whether fact or fiction) over everything else.

    Island can learn some hard worldly truths against its boutique view of the world.

    1. Yes, some people find that bare, simple, neo-Bauhaus, arty look appealing. I find it a bit fugly. The New Yorker is quite a lively little magazine. Though they very deliberately cultivate their own effete elite audience, they really have a lot going on to attract interest and attention. For instance, the celebrated NY long form essays are balanced out by the famous cartoons; the book reviews at the back by the gossipy front section – ‘Shouts and Murmurs’, etc.

      Maybe the key difference between those examples and Australian literary magazines is the former were borne from the bustling world of newspaper and magazine journalism; the latter were largely borne from the exclusive world of academia. The few exceptions I can think of are Overland itself and possibly (whispers) Quadrant.

  5. It is with sadness I learn of the non-funding of Island. When I first arrived in Tasmania only 20 months ago, I was—and still am—highly impressed with the standard of writing in Island magazine. If it folds, this island State will be much the poorer in terms of its literary landscape. Perhaps John Donne’s famous quote can be paraphrased a little in this context. We will all be poorer, whichever State we are in. As you say, Ben, aspiring writers need a standard to work towards and Island provided that. Australia is in danger of becoming a nation run by accountants with a profit and loss mentality, who do not understand nor care about its cultural identity. We are fast losing what we already have. Hopefully this funding loss is only temporary and will not be repeated elsewhere. Kate Eagles.

  6. The removal of funding for Island is a disaster for Tasmanian writers, and the reasoning quite incomprehensible. I have had seven short stories published in Island, firstly in The Tasmanian Review as it was known, and over time by three different editors including of course the founders of Island, Andrew Sant and Michael Denholm. Lacking significant grant money, this publication record has stood me in good stead, as I now have a collection, State of the Heart (Ginninderra Press), which has been highly praised, a novel almost finished, and a new collection of longer short stories underway. It is hard to see where substitute funding might come from, but I do wish David Walsh would take more interest, as a writer, in supporting institutions such as Island in Tasmania.

  7. This is a clear and persuasive piece, not only about the particular importance of Island as an expression of regionalism but as a way of thinking about the arts in general. In that way, the phrase that stuck with me was: ‘it’s peanuts in the context of any government’s spending’. Here, Ben is absolutely correct. It is peanuts even if we double, triple, make it tenfold. Compared to tarmac, to navy ships, to MP salaries, arts funding is minor. What the failure to fund it means is that something is wrong with the values, direction, and meaning of our elected representatives. The arts, by all indicators, help economies, health, wellbeing, lifestyle, and people. They are more sustainable than mining, and, people can be proud of their efforts. That is even more acute in places that perceive themselves as outside centres, and that objectively are. Something similar can be said for Western Australia, if we think nationally. It might be about building from Ben’s opening to think about co-ordination for the sector as a whole.

  8. When a bookshop disappears I went to several sites on the internet. The assumption of the author is trite and erroneous. As to this magazine, if the people here and elsewhere are fair dinkum they will support it and then it will survive. Culture is based on creativity so if all that is true is really so then it will survive because it is so genuine. Fakes will fail.

  9. It has to be asked, in the 7 years since the funding for Island magazine was last withdrawn, what on earth has the magazine been doing?

    You guys had seven years to get it right; seven years to put the magazine in a better financial position so that it would be able to survive without government funding (which can never be taken for granted).

    The culture of complacency fostered by the current art grant system sucks. It’s gotta change. Because it creates failures like this: it’s a failure for the entire artistic community in Australia. And it’s very common.

    1. I do not understand this perspective at all – we absolutely should not be arguing for a market-based model for the arts. Rather, we should be arguing for more funding (just as we would for health, education, community groups – things that are for the public good and are necessary to a functioning society).

      Why should literary magazines rely on a capitalist model – i.e. be businesses? How would that kind of competitive push even work??

      Literature cannot survive without government funding, and certainly not literary magazines – how could they, when they are not a popular or commercial form!

      To put it another way: where are the successful commercial media models that could be adapted for a magazine that publishes essays, poems and short stories on literature and culture? Those small magazines that are not popular, that are on the fringes of the mainstream, that think First Nations writing is important, that think LGBTIQ politics is significant formally and literarily, that think experimentation and new writers/writing/perspectives need to be published?

      1. Well that’s certainly the standard response to this type of argument – including the absolute horror at the prospect of an arts institution acting like a responsible business. Well, have it as you like it for your own corner of the arts world – but you should at least be aware that being reliant on the government, or principally reliant on the government, for the future viability of your organisation, leaves your organisation in perpetual danger of cuts of this sort.

        It’s fundamentally irresponsible, and it is failing generations of future artists and audiences.

        I’ve seen numerous examples of this happen in the past decade. It’s happened to Island Magazine *twice*. How many times does it have to happen before it becomes evident that something is fundamentally flawed in the way Australian arts organisations do things?

        1. What do you mean “being reliant on the government”? You make “government” sound like a mortal enemy. Presumably you’re familiar with the principle of representative parliamentary democracy. It’s where the government is legally obliged to spend our taxes on public goods, not threaten public institutions with “perpetual danger”. That the arts should be run as a business is arguable. But the government should is not wrong, it’s meaningless.

        2. “What do you mean “being reliant on the government”? You make “government” sound like a mortal enemy.”

          I never said that.

          It does, however, often strike me as particularly strange that Australian arts – which are more often than not utterly antithetical to the aims of the government (whether Liberal or Labor are in power) should nevertheless expect its principal income source to come from that same government – and should go on to be surprised/horrified when the government seeks to curb that antithetical impulse by withdrawing funding. If anything, the surprise is that it does not happen more often.

          If changing the system of government is what is desired, it won’t be achieved by being dependent on the system for one’s very existence.

  10. No handout to Island? Surprise, surprise. Simple case of meanness by the incumbent conservative government, who are not interested in pressing conservation issues, whether of literary or environmental concern, which belies their hook.

  11. Why not an act of defiance – crowdfund or whatever it takes to get the capital to put out a declared final special edition of Island on a Tarkine theme – say – to show the general reading public and the federal govt the need for the magazine – Island is endangered and so is much of the Tarkine – environmentally – who knows – funds may miraculously reappear from somewhere – if not the federal govt – should the edition hit the right nerve – remember going across to save Lake Pedder from being dammed and flooded – then having to work on the Gordon River / Franklin Dam project for a couple of weeks to raise funds to get back home – because I was needed there urgently – nothing to lose but pride – and the esteemed magazine.

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