Instead of a list of books, I want to highlight some of the literary journals that in many ways dominated my reading in 2013. Since taking up the role of fiction editor here at Overland just over a year ago, I’ve been saturating myself in other journals, conscious perhaps of fine-tuning Overland’s specific approach to writing and reading.
Literary journals are often banging on about how necessary we are, so much so that we sometimes forget how necessary we are to writers. For many writers, a few stories or essays in literary journals will earn as much as an advance on a book. In the year since I started @paythewriters, it’s been the literary journals who’ve been most receptive to the concept of paying writers fairly, and most understanding of the need for transparent practice and trust. All of the journals I’ve contacted have agreed to publish their rates and the rationale behind those rates on their websites.
I’m not the only person who’s noticed there’s been something of a changing of the guard at several journals this year and, with that, a renewed sense of energy at the helm. Meanjin, now under the editorship of Zora Sanders, is doing interesting work, not least with its wonderful cover art – the December issue has embroidered carnivorous plants by MaricorMaricar, and the added delight of an illustrated portrait by Lily May Martin of author Rebecca Giggs, whose breathtaking essay on blue has all the wistfulness and latent fear of summer horizons. Although the journal remains a place for much serious contemplation and literary memoir, it’s great to see a little more fantasy and humour creeping in as well, particularly in fiction.
Island has made a wonderful comeback from a funding crisis, and editor Matt Lamb has introduced a new magazine format that is very coffee-table and photography friendly. I’m particularly interested in the links this magazine is forging between the literary and the visual arts in Tasmania, playing to its regional strengths, while also publishing writing from international names like Teju Cole. It’s great to see that fiction still has a central place in the magazine along with its excellent essays and profiles.
The short story would probably languish as a form without the literary journal. The Review of Australian Fiction, also edited by Matt Lamb, has continued to publish exciting contemporary short fiction at the rate of two stories every two weeks. A labour of love, this project is now two years old and at the make-or-break stage where subscriber support becomes crucial. This year, Lamb invited four guest curators who each took a different approach to their volume. I guest curated volume 8, which had a 50 per cent Indigenous quota. And Rachel Edwards’ curation brought many new Tasmanian writers to my attention – a reminder that the literary journal is a place of discovery for any reader.
The Lifted Brow, edited by Sam Cooney, is the punk cousin of the established journals, and has been adding plenty of studs to its jacket this year, from crowdfunding and making an entire issue in ten days during the Melbourne Writer’s Festival to the ongoing mixtape project, which adds weight to an already strong argument that more authors should be allowed to program Rage. This has also involved live ‘Mixtape Memoir’ performances – I was fortunate to see one in Hobart recently – where songs are paired with storytelling memoirs. It’s very exciting to see the Brow branching out into digital delivery and continue to experiment so enthusiastically with what a literary journal can do. Also, comics.
Internationally, I’ve been reading The New Inquiry and n+1 magazine, which I think share a little of Overland’s stance as arenas for provocative cultural discussion. n+1’s fiction has been nothing but refreshing – I think Rebecca Curtis’ story ‘Fish Rot’ will dog me forever, like a smell I can’t get out of my clothes. I’ve also recently subscribed to Dublin’s The Stinging Fly, for an injection of new Irish fiction, and I’m already addicted to its voice and range.
It’s an exciting time for literary journals in Australia as the generational shift occurs between print (broadcast) and digital (network) thinkers. As the panic around the digital death squad starts to subside, I’ve observed the change is more structural than formal. Regardless of ebook/app availability, those journals that seek out modes of social reading and engage readers in a participatory way are most adaptable to that media shift. Perhaps that’s really why I’ve been reading more journals than books this year: I find that discursive, social mode of thinking much more engaging.