TEXT review

Magazines into the limelight

review by Jeremy Fisher


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2015 OCTOBER TEXT GENERAL:IMAGES:windmills-cover-500px.jpg
Phillip Edmonds
Tilting at Windmills: The literary magazine in Australia 1968-2012
University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide 2015
ISBN 9781925261042 Pb
ISBN 9781925261059 EPDF
ISBN 9781925261066 EPUB
ISBN 7981925261073 Kindle
Pb 302 pp AUD44.00


It is pleasing to see a publication from the University of Adelaide Press, a relatively new publishing venture and one designed primarily for the digital environment. The Press’ titles are available for free download from the Press website. The edition reviewed here, however, was print-on-demand. It was attractively designed, but lacked a barcode and ISBN on the rear cover, thus limiting bookshop sales. Given that it was reviewed favourably in The Australian [1], this is quite an omission and I would encourage the Press to change editorial practice in this regard. A few more sales at a bookshop-discounted price would help underwrite future publications, and perhaps offer Phillip Edmonds some royalties.
A study of literary magazines in Australia is long overdue. In the past there has been the odd story of an individual journal and some analysis by The Australia Council for The Arts, the latter more to justify its funding practices than to offer insight into what still remains a fascinating cottage industry. Fascinating, that is, if, like me, you have an interest in the fringes of Australian publishing. And this book certainly lingers at the fringe.

Phillip Edmonds teaches writing at the University of Adelaide and has been editor of the literary magazines Contempa and Wet Ink, so he has skin in the game. Edmonds’ principal thesis is that literary magazines have played a valuable role in the promotion, perhaps even the creation, of Australian literature. I was puzzled to see the date 1968 included in the title, since literary magazines existed well before that date, but Edmonds explains that he has chosen to bookend his study with the advent of offset printing and the development of online publication. These are sensible endpoints for his discussion.

Edmonds defines what he means as a literary magazine in chapter three. He leaves literature undefined, which niggles me, because almost all of the continuing literary magazines he mentions publish literature of a ‘type’ that does not include, for instance, genre fiction or bush poetry; in other words, ‘popular’ literature. Until relatively recently, too, many of them have been stinting in publication of Indigenous and LGBTI [2] works, and works from writers from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Even the proliferation of small magazines in the 1970s, propelled by the ease of off-set production, and a reduction in censorship, did not substantially change the heteronormative, white, anglo and predominantly male nature and editorship of Australian literary magazines, both left-wing and right-wing.

There is a reflection of this in the book where a few paragraphs seem to have been inserted to address the problem. In one chapter there is brief mention of the feminist journals Hecate, Refractory Girl and Luna which emerged to challenge male editorship. Another chapter concludes with a short discussion of initiatives such as the gay and lesbian Cargo, which published Dorothy Porter, Christos Tsiolkas, Graeme Aitken and Sasha Soldatow, amongst many others, and Sybylla Press in Melbourne. Of Cargo, Edmonds notes that it was ‘acting out its traditional role of foregrounding the work of the marginal, the unknown and the non-commercial’ (118), which I would like to think defines the role of any small literary magazine.

That point aside, Edmonds’ book is thorough. He offers his recount decade by decade. He delves into the history, nature, politics and short lives of the plethora of 1970s journals and offers a brisk analysis of publications and personnel. Tabloid story receives special mention, as does the role of the Australia Council over the years, the continuing problem of distribution and the cost of postage. He notes the survival of the big four, Meanjin, Southerly, Overland and Quadrant (should I make it five and add Westerly to span the continent?) in the eighties and beyond, and their consolidation of government funding.

The book has an ambivalent conclusion. Edmonds hedges his bets on the survival of literary magazines in the digital age. Since the writing of his book was completed, the Australian government has diverted funds from the Australia Council to a special fund to be dispensed at the discretion of the Minister for the Arts. Funding for literary activities at the time this review was written is under the control of a man who likes to read bush poetry during quiet times in the Senate. It might surprise some readers of TEXT, but bush poetry remains very popular in certain social strata. The reading of literary magazines is less appreciated.

Online publishing, too, is a problem. How do you recoup your costs? For a print edition, it is possible to sell subscriptions, few may they be. Erecting a paywall around your online content may work when readers seek what you have locked inside, but not when they have no interest in it. Edmonds wrestles with these issues and with the homogeneity of the readership of literary magazines, to question their relevance to writers and readers accustomed to a digital world. He considers many other matters too, but at the end he is left guessing.

As am I, and all of us concerned about the fate of literary magazines. I hope they will survive since, as Edmonds’ book shows, they have made a substantial contribution to Australian literature. Above all, I honour, respect and pay homage to their many voluntary and underpaid editors, Edmonds amongst them, who have laboured long and hard to produce these literary gems. Yet, I have an uneasy feeling it is all now history.

Unhappily, the book lacks an index, absolutely essential for a reference work of this nature. I wanted to check my facts against the wealth of information provided in this book, but that was impossible without an index. Should I have erred on some point, that is why.





Jeremy Fisher teaches writing at the University of New England, Armidale.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste