Type
Article

Readers’ feast

Since the curtains came down on HEAT 24 – the final issue of the journal in print form – we’ve had a steady stream of correspondence from readers and writers alike (often in verse form) letting us know, as one long-term subscriber put it, that ‘the trip to the mailbox won’t be nearly as exciting’ anymore.

But despite this, it’s the poets and reviewers who will miss the magazine the most. It is on them, the writers of the most uncommercial forms, that the most immediate losses will fall. Poets in particular earn their money from publishing in journals, as royalties are as likely to come from poetry books as cheese is from chickens. Indeed, a poet can generally make the same amount of cash publishing five poems in literary journals as they can publishing an entire collection, usually the result of a good two years’ work.

It’s a similar story for reviewers, of course. One less print journal is one less outlet for serious and close literary review, for critical discussion of books that don’t necessarily have the kind of mass audience that newspapers and their supplements target. Literary magazines like HEAT are removed from the cycles of topicality, lead times and publicity that have so much influence on just which books are reviewed in mainstream publications. To a lesser degree, they’re removed from the constraints of space that reduce most reviews to a miserly 300-word column. There’s just not enough room for lively and diverse critical discussion in newspapers; no space for reviewers to grow their claws, let alone sharpen them.

That’s not to deny HEAT’s other writers the right to mourn as well. HEAT really did specialise in and support the literary essay, and those difficult pieces that combine genres and forms. These kinds of writing will be even harder to find a home for now, too.

But poets and reviewers are the writers who operate more than any other within a tight-knit community. For poets, I think that much of this comes from their marginalisation, from the oddity of their obsession and their craft. For reviewers, blogging in particular has made personal contact, conversation and the exchange of ideas more immediate and simple. And these correspondences and debates, these friendships, workshops and networks, are exactly the kind of community that HEAT has always sought to build and support.

Perhaps this is just the problem. As HEAT’s editor, Ivor Indyk, mentioned in his editorial at the beginning of the last issue, a community is not a guarantee of a fee-paying audience –
especially when two of its most important constituents are renowned for their destitution. Participating in a community is not an experience that one must pay for; equally, a sense of cultural ownership does not necessarily translate into a need for physical ownership. Add to the equation subsidisation, which has always seen HEAT break even financially, and there is no imperative for writers to keep journals alive. The physical form of the literary magazine, then, is not the component that is necessary to its community.

It’s the fact – not the form – of the journal that is important to writers and literary culture. The forum for the exchange of ideas and debate. The platform for new writing and new kinds of writing. The space for reputations to be made, and the very real financial support for writers selling their wares and words.

This does not need to happen in book form, which is increasingly unviable and runs the risk of falling out of touch with the kinds of new work that are possible.

But the fact remains that with HEAT on hiatus, our poets and critics, and by extension our culture of literary review, do stand to suffer. Commercial considerations aside, our community of readers and writers has a great affection for the journal. And it is an affection that is no less valid for not being expressed at the cash register.

We’ve been thinking a lot about reviewers in recent days, for reasons both idealistic and utterly pragmatic. It has been a longstanding struggle for HEAT to find ways of getting reviews in the media, for starters. Since I joined the magazine in 2007, there have been five reviews of individual issues published in metropolitan newspapers and magazines. That’s basically one review per year, despite the huge volume of review copies and publicity material we send out with every new issue. The reasons for this are obvious – HEAT is not a bestseller or the next big thing, and newspapers have nothing to gain by running a review that will only interest a handful of readers. It’s completely understandable, but disheartening nonetheless.

The problem has persisted with the books published under the Giramondo imprint. They are also largely non-commercial titles; unashamedly literary books, always beautifully crafted, startling and unusual, but often difficult to categorise, fiercely intelligent or challenging. They don’t make attractive review material, especially the poetry, which is not only commercially unviable but also notoriously difficult to review. The newspapers won’t touch it. When we sent out material for Judith Beveridge’s new collection Storm and Honey, the literary editor of one metropolitan daily told us to get back to them ‘when we had something major’. Beveridge’s last collection won the NSW and Queensland Premiers’ Prizes for Poetry and is now set on the Victorian school syllabus.

We’ve had much more support from bloggers, many of whom have given the magazine – and the books – consistent coverage and space. They’ve often written about HEAT with a level of thought and understanding that we should have expected, but didn’t. (One blogger in particular has always taken great pains to point out any typos we missed. But you can’t expect in-depth without a few ripples.) Bloggers, of course, have their own active and like-minded communities, their own handfuls of dedicated readerships. They’re often instrumental in generating and spreading word of mouth, which is just how our books have largely been sold.

They’re the practicalities.

But we’re also interested in the reviewing culture as a whole. The issue first came up at a poetry symposium held at the University of Western Sydney, one of Giramondo’s and HEAT’s most important partners. There was talk there too of communities, of the strength of the poetry community that always shows up in such numbers to launches, that organises its own events and readings, and that seems to welcome and support its constituents, much more than novelists or essayists do with their peers.

What we called community, however, some of the attending poets declared a great, big, cowardly love-in. What we saw as inclusive, they saw as apathetic, without enough at stake to call itself truly literary. This kind of environment, the argument ran, meant that everyone is so busy being nice that they’re no longer willing to take a position on poetics, and make poetry matter. This, in turn, must impact on literary reviews. If no-one is willing to ruffle feathers, then any criticism must be tempered, qualified and uncontroversial. Predictable and therefore pointless.

But the issue goes deeper than this. If review culture is boring and predictable, it may be because the same voices are saying the same things about the same kinds of books. Again, I’m sure commercial concerns do account for much of this, but it is also incredibly difficult for new reviewers to find a foothold – the authority of a review, after all, is inextricable from the reputation of its author. The problem is also compounded by the size of the poetry community. Poetry reviews, by and large, are written by poets. The reviewers can’t help but end up critiquing the books of their friends or, at the very least, of the people they’re going to bump up against at the next launch, gig or symposium. No-one wants to be bailed up in a corner of Gleebooks by a pide-wielding poet furious about an unflattering review. And where friendships and workshop groups are involved, the social morass becomes even stickier.

So where do new reviewers come from? How can new critics be trained, new reputations built? Surely, it is the responsibility of the literary journals, dedicated as they are to in-depth review, to the new and to the non–commercial. They can take the chances – and spend the editorial and developmental time – that the mainstream media will not. Theoretically, at least. In practice, literary journals are often just as pressured as their more commercial counterparts. The constraints of deadlines, commercial viability, advertiser demands and content style may not weigh as heavily on magazines like HEAT, but we don’t have the dozens of staff members to manage them. The realities of literary journal publication mean that a very few people manage a great many tasks, and so we often can’t spend the time we would like to developing reviews with a lot of potential – especially when we receive other material that’s already accomplished and ready to go.

In the early days, however, HEAT did publish poetry reviews, and most of these were done by poets. This was more than a decade ago, and the difficulties of the process – of finding good reviewers, of editing their work in some kind of timely fashion – meant that this effort was short-lived. HEAT hasn’t been able to offer much to poetry review in print form and this symposium threw the issue into sharp relief.

What we could do, we decided, was create a new platform for review, and poetry review in particular, one that was entirely removed from print deadlines and that could generate tangible discussion and debate. That would throw new reviewers with new voices – and new books – directly into the fray. In the process, we could offer just a little piece of comfort to the poets and critics who have been so important to HEAT over its life in print.

HEAT Poetry Online was built slowly over 2010, with funding from the Australia Council for the Arts. It runs off regular blogging technology; it is, for all intents and purposes, a poetry blog, except that we directly commission each review on the site, and pay our reviewers the same rate as we would for publication in print form, which ties back in with those notions of authority and reputation. New media, in many respects, dissolves authority. Its openness means that anyone is able to talk about anything, and everyone else is capable of response. But that shouldn’t mean that all work published online is subjected to a different level of editorial scrutiny, measured by a different set of standards; nor does it mean that it is the result of less arduous effort. Indeed, as there are no fixed deadlines in new media, we can allow more time and more flexibility for editing and developing reviews. We wanted to treat our critics and the medium professionally, and to continue to provide them with the support that they’d receive as a matter of course in print publication.

After all, we actually have some say in this one aspect of new media publishing. We can’t yet tell how e-books and e-journals will be bought, sold and read. We don’t know what forms they will be able to take, or what kind of communities of readers will spring up around them and how they’ll interact. But we can make sure our writers are still paid for what they do, even if it’s hard to trace just where their words wind up, and we’re fortunate that our funding bodies agree. Regardless of the forms that online books do take, there must still be room for critical review and for the debates that keep a literature healthy, adaptive and strong. Again, it isn’t the shape of the stage that’s important, but its simple existence.

It’s taken a bit of time for the momentum of the site to really build up. We’ve never intended it to be a typical blog where very regular, short posts are the norm. We’re not interested in that kind of reviewing; nor do we have the resources to drive large volumes of content. So it’s taken a while for the poetic feathers to begin to fly. Ali Alizadeh’s recent review of Petra White’s collection The Simplified World (John Leonard Press, 2010) gave the site the first of its real shake-ups. In his review, Alizadeh referred to White’s ‘insistent, and at times abundant, application of an avowedly Romantic poetics’, which leads him to argue that ‘White declares her allegiance not only with a general literary ethos but also with a certain view of the discursive, ideological dimensions of poetry’.

What is wonderful about the website as a platform for review is that it enables no such provocation to be left unanswered. Almost immediately, the supporters of White – including her publisher, John Leonard – came to her defence, and initiated an impassioned debate about aesthetic and political conservatism, about artistic life and about ‘what poetry does in this world, and how’. It’s a good, old-fashioned poetry fight, just like they used to have.

The very public nature of blog technology also means that those hidden social restraints on reviewers have become very different, even if they have not disappeared. The instant right of reply that a blog offers means that the review can ideally be a dialogue of sorts, not just a pronouncement, and that those who a reviewer risks offending can jump right into the stoush.

Furthermore, it’s in just these kinds of public stoushes that new reputations can be forged. As a training ground for new reviews, it’s a fast and furious one. But it’s also the kind of arena that print publishing is not able to provide.

And it’s just this ground that we’re looking for while HEAT is on hiatus. What kinds of writing, and what kinds of reading, are just not possible in print, but are able to develop and thrive online? What new treats will the journal be able to offer to its community, what kinds of projects can it pursue, unshackled from the demands and expense of printer and paper?

Of course, any answers we might offer on these questions at this stage can’t be much more than speculation. We don’t yet know what opportunities the online form will offer to magazines, or even which platform it will be that is embraced by readers – what the proverbial device or site will be that might spark off publishing’s ‘iPod moment’. There’s been enough doom prophesied along this line and it is terrifying not be able to predict or plan for what might come next. But it’s a thrilling place to be, as well.

Because right now, we have the opportunity to create something entirely new. The transition to online publishing is not just a matter of making the same publication available in digital form; that’s as limiting as watching opera on television. We now have a chance to find new ways of approaching writing and of presenting writing. I’m excited, for example, by the possibility of being able to hear a poet read their work within a magazine, of being able to jump directly to source material when reading an essay. These are simple things and starting points on what may just bring a new dynamism into magazine publishing.

Structurally, too, the magazine itself must change. Without paper, there’s no need for discrete editions. Nor for uniformity – there’s no reason why each individual should not be able to receive an entirely different publication, depending on their interests, investment and tastes. In his closing editorial, Ivor Indyk compared these new ‘combinatorial powers’ to a restaurant menu where readers may pick and choose, feast or fuss, or cater to intolerances and allergies. Or just let the chefs choose the special.

Book printers are evolving along these lines too, developing their own new methods of digital production, printing and distribution. It will soon be feasible and viable to print even a single copy of a customised magazine. The reader may visit HEAT’s website, and purchase only the poems, essays and stories they desire, which will then be delivered, in a printed and bound journal, to their doorstep within days. The journey to the letterbox need not be unexciting for those who still want to curl up with a physical object. And neither must the publisher pay to print such objects on the speculation that someone will want them.

Structurally, too, the rhythms and cycles of publishing will change to fit. Without discrete editions, material can be published on an unregimented basis – in small bursts, whenever it is ready. I don’t foresee that the new form will dictate an unsustainable increase in pace and pumped-out content simply because it is online. Literary journals, after all, are very different from commercial magazines in both intent and content, and continuing publishing subsidies will mean that there’s no pressure to make money to survive.

And then there’s that community. The sociability of the internet is something that literary journals have barely started to explore. Many are running blogs, certainly, or have some level of activity on Facebook and Twitter. Most have mastered the email newsletter, which is often underestimated in its ability to link a community. But developing a new platform for an online journal will allow publishers to build social networking directly into its infrastructure, to make sharing, discussion and commenting integral to the processes of reading. For the first time, HEAT will be able to see its community every day and to hear what they have to say straight away. Which is a much more positive feedback model than just waiting for bookshops to return unsold copies, or for the reviews that never appear in newspapers.

This isn’t a time for mourning, but a time for hope. It’s not a demise, but a renewal. It’s a time for a complete rethinking of what a magazine can be and can offer. Which is why we’re taking it slow. This kind of shift needs research, and experimentation. It needs new expertise and new ideas, because it’s new ground that we’re hoping to break.

In the meantime, HEAT’s community of readers and writers will miss the journal – but it isn’t the physical book that they are mourning. The support and opportunities it has offered, and the ideas and experiments that it has contained, have been important to a great many people – but it’s not these that are going away. Regardless of what form the magazine may take when it moves to the digital realm, it’s still the writers and the readers who really make a journal, and we’re finding ever more ways to connect them. And we are looking for the people who can help us make it happen.

References

Ivor Indyk’s editorial can be read at http://giramondopublishing.com/heat/editorial-by-ivor-indyk/

Ali Alizadeh’s review of Petra White’s The Simplified World can be read at http://giramondopublishing.com/heatpoetryonline/2011/02/14/the-simplified-world/


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Fiona Wright’s book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for nonfiction, and her poetry collection Knuckled won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award. She has recently completed a PhD at Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre, and is CAL New Writer in Residence at UTS.

More by