Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival (1989)

2 Apr

‘Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival’. Published in Issue 1 of Editions: The New Monthly Australian Review of Books, August 1989

Collected Works Bookshop as it is now.

Tom Shapcott, speaking at the Australian National Word Festival in Canberra earlier this year, claimed that a major concern facing the Literature Board (apparently now renamed the Literature ‘Unit’) when funding literary magazines was knowing when to ‘kill’ a magazine off. Although Shapcott was referring to the larger literary magazines which have become dependent on their annual injec­tion of Australia Council funds to keep afloat, such a comment coming from the director of the Literature Board must have been greeted with some irony by those in the audience who have been involved in the production of a small magazine and whose major concern was how to keep a magazine ‘alive’.

The literary magazine debate at the 1989 Festival had indeed come full circle. Four years ago editors of small magazines virtually invaded the 1985 Festival. They held a meeting with the Literature Board (which included both funded and non-fund­ed magazines), ran their own very popular session at the Festival and sold small press publications in direct competition to the Co­op Bookshop stand.

In the months leading up to the 1985 Festival a group of predominately Sydney editors had attempted to create an Australia-wide lobby group of magazine edi­tors and workers and small publishers. This group, known as Small Magazines And Presses (SMAP), did have some early successes. A number of articles on small literary presses appeared in the arts pages of the major dailies and the ABC radio pro­gram Books and Writing produced a special report on small presses. In Sydney Neil Whitfield, former editor of Neos (a maga­zine devoted to publishing creative writing by writers under 25) set up a small press stand at Harkers Bookshop in Glebe.

Shortly before SMAP took off in Sydney, Collected Works Bookshop opened in Melbourne. Collected Works attempted not only to be a small press bookshop but also to distribute Australian and international small press publications. Although not directly related to SMAP it is possible to see Collected Works as port of a ‘small press push’ in the early to mid eight­ies. A push which, for a while, seemed as though it was going to force the literary establishment to take notice.

Despite promising so much at the 1985 Word Festival SMAP eventually died a slow death. The problems that plague editors of small magazines were compounded with SMAP. The main movers behind SMAP were magazine editors who suddenly found themselves not only juggling employment commitments, editing, funding, producing and distributing a small literary magazine but also attempting to set up an Australia-wide lobby group of small presses and even examining proposals for a national small press distribution network. In retrospect it is not a surprise that SMAP collapsed, but that it got so far along the track, with virtu­ally no support from the federal or state arts bodies, before the wheels fell off.

So, was it worthwhile? Well there were some spin-offs. Contacts were made, a net­work was set up between magazine editors in different regions and, for a period, liter­ary magazines and journals gained at least a little of the literary spotlight. SMAP also kept careful records and if, in the future, small magazines and presses are in a posi­tion to lobby collectively for a better deal from the literary establishment, much of the groundwork will already have been done.

The whole area of small cultural maga­zines is, with a few exceptions, is virtually ignored by the major newspapers and radio programs which claim to have a cultural bent. SMAP attempted to change this, and for a short while perhaps it did. Even when the literary or cultural establishment does make a concerted effort to acknowledge the existence of literary journals, it is generally a very blinkered, conservative acknowl­edgement. A good example of this occurred a number of years ago when Books and writing introduced a regular literary maga­zine segment. Almost exclusively the reviewer concentrated on the established, Literature Board funded magazines like Meanjin, Island, Quadrant and Overland.

Over the coming months in EDITIONS I will attempt to do something quite differ­ent. To fully appreciate the importance of small magazines and publishing, one has to look beyond the established magazines to the diversity that exists across the whole range of literary and cultural publishing. So while I will be following the creative and critical writing appearing in the major jour­nals, I will also be searching out the innova­tive, outrageous or merely interesting among the smaller, and often more vibrant, magazines. At the same time I intend to highlight the politics of small press publish­ing and to look back at some of the more influential literary magazines of the past twenty years in an attempt to understand the context in which contemporary maga­zines are operating today.

While Harkers Bookshop closed some years ago Collected Works Bookshop is still going strong in Melbourne. After a number of moves they are now on the 1st Floor of the Flinders Way Arcade, 238 Flinders Lane Melbourne 3000 (03 654 8873).

Mark Roberts is an editor of P76 magazine and has had wide experience in small press publishing. He will be writing a regular col­umn on small presses and magazines for EDITIONS.

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Please note that the address and contact details in the above article date from 1989. COLLECTED WORKS BOOKSHOP is still going strong some 22 years later. It is now at Nicholas Building, Level 1, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000. Phone 03  396548873. It is on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Collected-Works-Bookshop/175023895845165

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2 Responses to “Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival (1989)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The more things change…..small presses and magazines then and now. | Rochford Street Review - April 5, 2012

    […] which appeared in The Age Monthly Review in May 1985. I also recalled a monthly column I wrote for Editions  in the late 1980’s which attempted to look at the sub culture of small press literary […]

  2. Artists Left Hanging by Australia Council Decision | Rochford Street Review - May 22, 2015

    […] The suspension of the six-year funding for organisations is also problematic, especially for funded literary magazines and journals. Ivor Indyk points out today in the Sydney Review of Books (http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/22-may-2015-patron-brandis/) that “The Australia Council’s six-year funding program, on which the Sydney Review of Books and other literary journals had been depending, has been suspended. If there is no corresponding program forthcoming from the Ministry for the Arts, our existence will be threatened”. The certainty that this funding program was designed to support has vanished over night and one can assume that there will be some nervous editors and publishers following this decision – We may be about to return to the past where the Literature Board often found themselves in the position of “killing off” journals on a yearly basis and editors were placed in a position where there was a perception that if you didn’t publish the sort of journal that the Literature Board favoured then your funding would disappear next year (for a perspective on the situation in 1989 see ‘Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival (1989)’  (https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/literary-magazines-turn-full-circle-at-word-festival…). […]

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