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.