A gusty, warm and positively spring-like late Friday afternoon was the perfect setting for an hour of discussion on the winds of change in Australia’s literary magazine scene.
Writer, broadcaster and our moderator for Media Makers: Lit Mags, The New Breed, Ben Birchall, lead a lively chat with Brigid Mullane and Ellena Savage, the editors of popular next-gen literary journals Kill Your Darlings (KYD)and The Lifted Brow respectively.
Birchall springboarded the discussion by citing a recent article published in The Australian by literary critic Geordie Williamson on the cultural significance of Australian literary magazines, in which both journals were described as part of a “renaissance of the litmag movement”.
Birchall asked each of the editors to begin the session by reading something from their journals that they felt encompassed their spirit, an exercise that served to illustrate their unique and daring editorial voices in the current repetitive media landscape.
Mullane chose an extract from a recent commentary by poet Omar J Sark about the false romanticisation of the starving artist; while Savage read from her own editorial as an example of how she enjoys “introducing challenging, difficult and sometimes odd stuff for our readers.”
Zoning in on their “new breed” status, Birchall questioned whether the editors felt their magazines did differ from older established journals like Overland and Meanjin. Besides not providing meaningful sources of incomes (“We have a lot of other jobs to support our work”), both editors felt that that their journals offered a space for the emerging more than the established writer to test and hone their craft.
The importance of litmags as a breeding ground for the emerging writer was a hot topic, as was their longevity especially in light of the recent changes to arts funding by Federal Arts Minister George Brandis (spoiler: literature didn’t even get a mention).
Mullane described the effects of the funding cuts as “potentially catastrophic” for new writers: “you don’t just emerge and be Tim Winton. Someone helps and guides you along, and that’s what lit journals do;” while Savage discussed the challenges of prohibitive production and distribution costs (Mullane’s solution: “I drive around and drop them off myself”). Despite the funding difficulties, it was heartening however to hear Mullane say that not paying their contributors was something that they wouldn’t even consider.
It was at this point that Birchall offered a novel funding idea which was met with chuckles and wistful smiles: that every writer that makes it big should donate to the lit journal that first published them, to which Mullane pointed out that would be a wonderful concept if only wealthy writers were a more frequent phenomenon.
But if not for money, can love alone sustain the lit mag editor? The answer seemed to depend on what stage of the journal production cycle they were in, however Savage reported feeling “like a proud mamma” after seeing the finished results of the Brow’s latest edition.
Birchall then pressed the panellists on the influence of editorial taste when selecting work to put in the journals: Mullane saw the editor’s role as “completely curatorial”, while Savage felt that “all independent magazine makers have a vision,” however both thought it important to challenge their own ideas of what was and wasn’t a good fit. Savage boiled it down to having a preference for people “who know what they think and why, and are able to communicate that well.”
On the subject of the future for litmags Mullane said she could imagine KYD being around in fifteen years time, but was adamant that new editors would be needed to keep the ideas fresh, hilariously invoking the infamous-but-rarely-quoted-in-a-literary-context Kenny Rogers when saying that an editor “should know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”
Perhaps the most exciting idea of the session was the notion that like their predecessors, the emerging writers in today’s litmags could be the literary lights of the future. Here’s hoping that there will still be litmags around then to help shine a light on future generations.