The fine art of survival

The fine art of survival

Literary journals, once vital to a country's cultural heart, face challenges and rewards in a digital age, Nigel Featherstone writes

We all know the literary superstars – Kate Grenville, Christos Tsiolkas, Gillian Mears and Nam Le, just to name some – but far fewer know about the literary journals that provided these writers with their initial appearances in print, getting their carefully crafted words to readers but also, critically, the attention of publishers.

Since the 1930s, Australia has been fortunate to have a plump literary underbelly of journals and magazines, some generously funded by governments and donors and professionally produced, others the result of one or two people who tirelessly spend their evenings and weekends at the kitchen-table sifting through submissions, sweating over layout and design, scouring proofs, and stuffing envelopes to get their hard work out into the loving hands of readers. Many of these journals have come and gone or evolved into entirely new beasts – here in Canberra we are fortunate to have the new Burley journal; more on this later – but the ubiquitous digital revolution is causing significant change, and our beloved journals are dropping like flies.

Patrick Mullins and Cara Foster are the founders of <i>Burley </i>a new Canberra literary journal that's celebrating its first birthday.

Patrick Mullins and Cara Foster are the founders of Burley a new Canberra literary journal that's celebrating its first birthday.Credit:Melissa Adams

What are these “journals” of which I speak?

There are the big guns, such as Southerly, in operation since 1939, which makes it Australia's oldest literary publication. Meanjin began in Brisbane in 1940 but moved to Melbourne in 1945 and is now an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing; it's highly regarded nationally and internationally for its excellent writing. Then there's the grand dame, Quadrant, which entered the fray in 1956 and is proudly “biased towards cultural freedom, anti-totalitarianism and classical liberalism”; poet Les Murray is the longstanding literary editor.


But for every eminent literary journal there are many that struggled and struggled and ultimately gave up the ghost. HEAT, which aspired to be both magazine and book, was published from the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney. In its final edition in 2011, founder and editor Ivor Indyk wrote: “After fourteen years of continuous publication the sheer physical intractability of the magazine, and its limited circulation, weigh heavily upon its publisher, especially at a time when the electronic medium beckons, with its heavenly promise of weightlessness and omnipresence.”

Last year saw the sudden and unexpected demise of Wet Ink, a journal out of Adelaide that established itself in 2005 and quickly became one of Australia's most innovative and independent literary journals; they even managed to have twice-Booker-winning J. M. Coetzee on the board.

What happened?

“Our major challenge,” Wet Ink co-editor Phillip Edmonds says, “was to find readers around Australia, because South Australia is a small state. Consequently we promoted heavily in other states, aware that the perception is that publishing comes out of Sydney and Melbourne.

"Because we haven't been highly sponsored in the same way as the 'established' journals, we were maintained by some advertising and good retail sales for five years, but with the Global Financial Crisis and the collapse of Borders, problems set in and we couldn't fall back on sponsorship like others can. Subscriptions were rising but not enough to make up for the shortfall.”

To stay on this grim riff for a little while longer, Tasmania is faring no better, with Island, established in 1979, experiencing significant financial wobbles, and Famous Re-porter, which was founded by Ralph Wessman in 1987, publishing its final edition this year. Why has the latter called it quits?

“For a variety of reasons,” says Wessman, who has been behind every edition. “I went through heart surgery last year, pulled up OK, but figured it might be a good time to close the magazine down and try something new. And then there's the cost of production. On a yearly basis, I was losing a couple of thousand dollars of my own money. Arts Tasmania generously backed me for many years, to the extent of about $9000 a year. But the magazine only ever averaged sales of a couple of hundred copies an issue, with another hundred or so read by contributors. That's a $9000 a year subsidy for 300 copies of an issue, which in effect is a subsidy of $15 per copy for a magazine that retails at $10 each. Should artistic projects be measured for success in economic terms? In my mind, the jury's out. But I'll never regret the experience.”

So things might be perilous but some have had considerable ongoing success. Overland, also out of Melbourne, is arguably Australia's most radical of journals and managed to celebrate its 50th year in 2004. It's fiercely of the left and doggedly committed to giving a voice to the marginalised. Does current editor Jeff Sparrow see an evolution of Over-land over the journal's lifetime?

“In some respects,” he says, “the journal's central preoccupations are exactly the same. Overland launched as an expressively progressive journal, exploring the intersections of culture and politics through essays, stories and poems. That's still how we see ourselves. In other respects, the mission's changed beyond recognition. We now publish in a variety of different formats, with a website updated daily. The digital presence means that Overland reaches an audience beyond anything that founder Stephen Murray-Smith could have imagined, and our activities have extended – print, online, real-world events."

Closer to home there's a new optimism in Canberra. Since last year we've had Burley to whet our appetite for new and emerging writerly voices. But the super-intriguing thing is this: Burley, which was founded by twentysomethings Patrick Mullins and Cara Foster, is resolutely a print-only journal.

“Part of this comes down to the simple fact that I'm a Luddite and wouldn't know how to publish an e-book,” Mullins says. “The larger reason, however, is in the weight and feel of a hard-copy publication. The tactile and aesthetic experience of reading a physical book – the look of the cover and typography, the feel of the paper that's used, how a book physically and individually ages – is, to me, as much a part of the work as the text itself. Additionally, though e-books and online publishing are burgeoning, the validity implicit in hardcopy publication is a factor we're extending to the new and emerging writers we publish.”

What are Burley's challenges? “Making people aware of the existence of Burley is the biggest challenge, and to overcome that we've utilised social media and institutional forums," Mullins says. "We use Twitter and Facebook to engage online; we spruik the journal at the universities. In many ways we're very lucky – the ACT has quite a centralised and intimate scene of writers and artists, which makes it easier to spread word and knowledge.”

Mullins says he and Foster hope to experiment with online form and media as a way of expanding and maintaining their audience. "In the way that a journal is published and distributed, particularly as the bookstore market becomes tighter and less diverse, there'll be change – to more online or print-on-demand publications, and to blog-like journals that publish content on a more frequent and intermittent basis.”

This is already happening.

Yet again out of Melbourne – though for this particular venture physical geography it hardly matters– is a “journal” that only exists in the Facebook universe. Founded by Magdalene Canto in 2011 and currently edited by Stuart Barnes, PASH Capsule involves a fortnightly love poem sent to subscribers in the form of a graphically represented pill, which plays nicely on the idea of medicating the mindless social-media chatter with thoughtful poetics.

Barnes says Facebook and Twitter are the most appropriate forums for PASH Capsule. “They're cost-effective, easy to use, and globally accessible. There's nothing simpler than waking, switching on your desktop/laptop/iPhone/iPad/etc while making a cuppa, opening Facebook. . .typing PASH Capsule into the Search for People, Places and Things field, and reading the latest red-and-white poem.”

It's an intriguing proposition, but what are the benefits?

“Enormous reach,” Barnes says, “When I post a poem via PASH Capsule's Facebook wall, each of its 183 followers is notified. When I share the same poem to my Facebook wall, it's potentially read by my 2636 Facebook friends. Ditto when I tweet details of said poem to my 729 Twitter followers. If only half of these people shared/retweeted, and so on, and so on, a single Capsule might be read by tens of thousands. How many other journals could say the same?”

Barnes has a point, but the poets are essentially donating their poetry for the benefit of readers. In the online environment, how can writers – and editors – be paid for their work? It's the $64 million question, though in the literary game the answer to even a $50 question would do.

Seeing as it's one of the newest Australian literary journals, and its editors some of the youngest and – potentially – bravest, it would be wise to give Burley's Patrick Mullins the last word. “I don't know of anyone who operates a literary journal for the commercial returns,” he says, “but I'd think it agreeable to venture that the funding of a journal, from the basic costs of printing or website maintenance to the more elaborate ones of design and distribution, will become more dependent on fund-raising and crowd-sourcing over the next few years.”

But that's not all. “The big challenge I see for literary journals,” the refreshingly positive Mullins says, “is simply keeping up: with changes in connectivity, in publishing, in the engagement of creativity and commerce, in the different forms of media available and expected now.”

As they say, watch this space, the one that's changing right in front of our eyes.

Burley celebrates its first birthday with readings and cupcakes at Smiths' Alternative Bookstore in Civic on March 14 at 6.30pm. See

Nigel Featherstone's novella I'm Ready Now is published by Blemish Books. He is also the founder and editor of online literary journal Verity La (

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