Engines of culture, Lydia Wevers

Sport 12, 13, 14

Landfall 186, 187, 188

Takahe 18, 19, 20

Printout 8

Meanjin 4/1994, 1/1995

In the most recent issue of Meanjin there is a discussion of the funding of small magazines in which Fiona Capp, writing initially in The Age asks: “Are small magazines an expensive indulgence or cultural capital? Sacred cows or the engines of our literary tradition? After years of concern about low circulation, limited readership and lack of diversity in the magazines that it subsidises, the Literature Board is reviewing its funding programme.”

Do our small magazines fit this description? And should literary magazines, like everything else, rise and fall with demand or should they be protected from the general public’s general indifference to them? Is Landfall more important than The Listener? Can any small magazine ever hope to achieve a self‑sustaining readership and what would it have to do’?

These questions are part of the fabric of a literary culture and in a small society they are urgently and constantly present, reflecting as much as anything, the volatility and precariousness on which a literary culture is built. It is hard to imagine what New Zealand literature would have looked like without Tomorrow, Landfall, Phoenix, Freed or And. indeed, those magazines have given their names to literary generations, yet once a journal has lasted for a period, especially under a single editor, it is institutionalised. Not only is it likely to be dependent on state funding; everyone knows what to expect in its pages, it solicits and attracts only certain kinds of writing (most recently New Zealand Books has been accused by Murray Edmond of rejecting experimental writing) and it seems that once it “sets” in this way the magazine must contain its own obsolescence.

A recent article by Chris Price and answering letter from Alan Loney in New Zealand Books have pointed out that different magazines cater for and reflect the diversity of readers and writers, though how much diversity is that really? Surely variations within the same group, and some publications, as Loney’s breakdown of Arts Council grants shows, find it harder to attract backing than others.

It is perhaps impossible for a long‑running literary magazine to survive without institutional funding ‑ certainly all the publications reviewed in this article receive grants ‑ but it has the effect of creating journals which are at the very least perceived as quasi‑official channels of a mainstream culture and at worst are monolithically exclusive, while other frail craft bob around in an interesting but turbulent sea of short term, short production and short readership. Certainly in the last 10 or so years the most exciting things, particularly critical writing, have largely been published outside Landfall and there is a whole stream of small magazines which erupted in a brilliant flare and are now extinct.

But I am not arguing for either the demise of journals like Landfall or for the long‑term continuation of many of the small magazines. It is obviously a great loss that AND did not survive, as there has been nothing to take its place. But part of the attraction of small magazines is that they make a splash, muddy the water and don’t hang around to rum into rocks. There is always something a bit unsatisfying about established literary magazines. Their showcase element can so quickly seem clubby, the construction of yet another coterie, particularly in a society where little groups often loom too large, and there is a lingering air of special pleading.

You do wonder if the famous tendency of our literature to excel at short forms has something to do with magazine publication. And there is often a terrible homogeneity about writing in New Zealand, or perhaps, rather, a predictability about oppositions, that has something to do with restricted publication options, especially for new work. Yet in the same breath the utter necessity of the small magazines makes itself felt. Without them what kind of writing forum would there be? What is abundantly clear in both Australia and New Zealand is that without subsidies there would be perhaps no, and certainly only a very limited number of, literary magazines and that some kinds of writing cannot achieve any reading currency if they are not sponsored.

You don’t have to look very far into history to see why the widest possible cultural base in any society is not only desirable but necessary. Having said all that, it is still a problem and will almost certainly always be one, that small magazines have a limited readership, not much diversity and keep in place a notion of a high culture which needs special conditions to flourish.

The most successful small magazine currently in New Zealand is Sport. I like to think Fergus Barrowman’s wonderful title gets picked up by rugby players, cricketers and yachtsmen all over New Zealand but I guess I’m not really so optimistic. Sport began in October 1988 and is now up to issue 14. It opened with no editorial manifesto except a note on the back cover that Sport “is a showcase for the best in contemporary New Zealand writing”, 14 contributors and almost entirely fiction (a dramatic sketch by Alan Brunton, prose poems by Miro Bilbrough). The last three issues are divided into almost equal poetry and fiction sections, have double the contributors and still no editorial comment, though the editor has changed. Of the original 14, five contributors are still present in Sport 12, 13 and 14, and without going through all my issues, I am sure that all of those 14 appeared again in a later Sport.

It has often been commented that Sport reflects Bill Manhire’s creative writing class. But class turnover does ensure a regular supply of new writers and an extraordinary number of Manhire’s graduates have gone on to become nationally (and internationally) known. And it does produce something which is not as crude as a house style but is certainly a Sport flavour. That is not necessarily a disadvantage; it is like knowing more or less what to expect when you pick up Granta; but it could, under a clumsier editor than Sport has had so far, become a disadvantage. In any case the first 14 are all names the literary readership of New Zealand would recognise and they all recur with varying degrees of frequency on the contents pages of the last three issues of Landfall and Meanjin. This illustrates one of the characteristics of small magazines anywhere, but especially noticeably in New Zealand ‑ that is, what small circles literary circles are and how relatively little they change over time.

It also points to something that is obvious if you read a number of small magazines: there is a dialogue, even an international dialogue, going on in their pages which doesn’t surface anywhere else, or only very rarely. C K Stead’s article “The Birth of Story”, for example, in Landfall 186 is replied to by Mark Williams in Meanjin 4/1994. It’s encouraging that this dialogue is trans‑Tasman but it also shows that geography, like chronology, makes almost no difference to the very small numbers of people who pay attention to and participate in such debates. This seems to me to illustrate one of the cogent reasons why university arts departments are turning to cultural studies as a favoured discourse ‑ it does at least attempt to take account of the broad cultural field not represented by “arts and letters”.

Sport is a very stylish production. It has stylish covers ‑ my favourite is 12, a photograph of a dinner‑dance(?) by Bruce Foster, so evocative and cinema‑verite it’s like a melange of every ghastly (or wonderful) social event you have ever lived through. You can practically smell the men’s sweaty dinner suits. Sport 12 (Autumn 1994) carries, as does the corresponding Landfall 187, work by distinguished overseas writers in New Zealand for the arts festival of that year ‑ Doris Lessing, Sharon Olds, John Tranter, Sudesh Mishra and Dennis Lee. Having their work adjacent to local writers is interesting. None of it looks out of place but a story of Michael Henderson’s and some short pieces by Virginia Were are tryhards against the easy full narrative of Doris Lessing or the marvellous narrative poems of Sharon Olds.

Sometimes there is a too‑determined note about New Zealand writers becoming “International”, as if they’re parading some special knowledge. I thought this about the otherwise sharply reflective “Sex in America” by C K Stead ‑ too much French accent and a rather cliched mix of Pagnol and cinema noir about French (female) sexuality ‑and, the French again, about Victoria Feltham’s “In the Park at Avignon” which has the Kiwis and the French speaking bad French, so the vivid scene is suddenly very, unconsciously, fake. But a marvellous, ironic, suggestive story by Emily Perkins, “Can’t Beat It”, puts the Kiwi writer effortlessly into the States. And there is no writing in this issue which seems parochial or under-skilled.

Sport is always a good read and 13 and 14 maintain the standard admirably. There is a marvellous story by Owen Marshall in 13 which so exactly replicates the tone and idiom of old Landfall author interviews that 1 started to flip to the index to see what I was reading. Sport has been accused (by David Howard, founding editor of Takahe) of showcasing “yuppie” literature (Onion, February 1993). While I think “yuppie” is a flabby catchall adjective, there is something relentlessly well‑bred about Sport’s contributions; they are so tasteful. Even James Brown’s “Short Poems About Fucking” (12) seem to need some grunt. You could never mistake any of it for airport reading.

But that’s not really a quarrel. Since I’m issuing a kind of report card, let me say that Sport is consistently interesting and professional and makes a real effort to include new (or maybe just new to me ) writers. Every issue has at least one writer I don’t know. A quick checklist would include stories by Linda Burgess, Gregory O’Brien, William Brandt and Chad Taylor and Johanna Mary’s recipes in 13, plus almost all the poetry and in 14 Alison Glenny’s wonderful “The Sea of Love”, stories by Adam Shelton, an essay by James Meffan and more poetry. I especially liked two lyrics of Vincent O’Sullivan’s, Grayson Cooke’s “How To Write a Gun” and a long series of poems, “The Ice Explorer”, by Chris Orsman. But I didn’t like 14’s cover ‑ a soft gold‑etched‑on‑brown pseudo‑Victorian portrait of two women ‑ which seemed to me to end up being conventionally pretty and not, as I suppose was intended, suggestively referential.

Since what has been referred to as its “demise” (Mark Williams for example, writing in Onion, February 1993) Landfall has achieved a remarkable resurrection. The last three issues jump around a bit ‑ there is a gap between 186 (Spring 1993) and 187 (Autumn 1994) and it has now moved from CUP to Dunedin ‑ Landfall has emerged as a more robust, fatter and more interesting journal than in its last Caxton years. I have particularly liked its “theme” issues, the fifties issue, the Hamilton issue and the recent auto/ biographies issue (188).

With about a third of Landfall given over to reviews and often a couple of critical essays, it plays a significant part in evaluation of current writing for a wider audience than a purely academic journal is likely to reach. I have always liked a mix of critical and creative writing and I think Landfall could even increase its critical work. No 186 carries a long essay by C K Stead in defence of the authorial presence and another by Rod Edmond on the bone people. It is still actively engaged with the arts part of its subtitle, with art reviews and photographs, so, although the poets and fiction writers are also those who populate Sport, Landfall has maintained both a different profile and a continuity with its own past.

The review pages always make me a bit uneasy because the smaller, denser typeface must reduce casual readership: surely it is only the anxious author or the professional researcher who goes hunting through those off‑putting black pages. Maybe not, given the shortage of serious reviewing space in New Zealand generally, but the shift from the open typesetting of the rest of the journal to the review section is too marked. I prefer reviews run through the body of the journal so they are read as articles of general interest.

Landfall 187 runs contributions from guest writers at the 1994 arts festival and takes the opportunity to run a fine essay on the poetry of John Tranter by Andrew Johnston next to Tranter’s poems, which locates creative writing within a wider intellectual dialogue ‑ something I think we could have more of in New Zealand. There is also a fine trio of stories by Shelagh Duckham Cox, Peter Wells and Owen Marshall.

Landfall 188 opens with an excerpt from Michael King’s much‑awaited biography of Frank Sargeson (wonderful glimpses of Sargeson’s name-playing and erotic life in Europe) before a series of pieces on autobiography, including an essay on “Poetry and Psycho-biography” by Phyllis Webb, the Canadian poet. Webb attacks psycho-biographical writing like Anna Halbert Bond’s on Virginia Woolf from which she quotes a paragraph on Woolf’s toilet training that deserves immortality: “Like most individuals of that era, Mrs Stephen probably did not understand her baby’s striving for mastery over the process of toilet training. In all probability, she did not realise that faeces were her daughter’s gift to her”. This article has been stringently criticised by Paul Schimmel and Michael Harlow in the latest Landfall (189) but I am still grateful to Phyllis Webb for throwing psycho-biography’s more asinine observations into the ring.

There are excellent articles on artists ‑ Tony Fomison, by Justin Paton, and Philip Clairmont, by Martin Edmond ‑ and interesting pieces of contextual writing ‑ Lauris Edmond on her autobiography, Dennis McEldowney’s diary entries on launching Terry Sturm’s edition of Gus Tomlin in Midhurst and a long interview with David Marr by Mark Williams about Patrick White. Lauris Edmond’s piece is testimony to the personal problems of writing autobiography, both overtly and in its exclusions ‑ there is no mention of her family’s responses, though these have been made public in other ways ‑ and has a tinge of apologia. There is something interesting to be written about Edmond’s persona in autobiography and there is more than a hint of unease apparent here.

Landfall’s continuation in a publishing climate which seems about to go through another major phase of change is a tribute to its editor, Chris Price, and to its long and solid history as a journal which represents mainstream high culture in New Zealand. If you want to know what is going on in writing and the arts you still have to keep in touch with Landfall. After 189 issues over 48 years that is quite a bouquet.

Takahe magazine is a quarterly published in Christchurch and now up to issue 20. It was founded by David Howard and is “committed to providing fledging writers with a chance to publish regularly”. In an interview with the Canterbury literary magazine, Onion, in February 1993 (pp30‑32) Howard “acknowledged” that the magazine had a “cottage industry” look but said it was not intended to “grace the coffee tables of the culture vultures. Takahe might be found on the cistern of the toilet or jammed between the bed and the wall. We want it to be read and to represent writers, whatever their status, at their best.”

Despite its obviously low-budget production (A4, staples, photocopied covers) Takahe is quite nicely laid out, with plenty of space on the page and occasional illustrations, but it is clearly a magazine for ‑ well, call them fledgling, amateur, beginners. It amounts to the same instant recognition on the part of the reader that most of these writers belong to a different class and scale than those featured in Sport or Landfall. There is some overlap ‑ Victoria Feltham, David Eggleton and James Brown, for example ‑ but these are the edges of Takahe rather than its body. The poetry is better than the fiction, which tends to be short (two pages), in a rather too small typeface, mostly realist and either a bit laboured about or too uncertain of its narrative objectives. Most of the fiction feels it has to get to a conclusion, but the poetry (half of each issue is fiction and half poetry) is much more assured and confident.

Takahe 18 and a bit of 19 carry the winners of the poetry and short fiction competition, which gives a good sense of what is being written around the country and especially by younger writers. There is also some good poetry in 18, the winning entry by James Brown and some witty playful poems I liked very much by William Plumb.

The most recent issue I have (summer, 1994) is not perhaps the most recent, but the regularity with which Takahe appears says a lot about the number of submissions it receives. Magazines like this occur all over the country, often produced, as Takahe is, by collectives, and last for varying periods of time. In my experience of reading them it is rare that very good writers start publishing in this way. But they seem to me to preserve a layer of writing and readership which reflects both particular communities and a literary terrain from which other kinds of writing and writers arise ‑ the writing fastened on by culture vultures perhaps.

Printout literature and arts magazine comes from Auckland and has a more professional appearance than Takahe; in A5 it looks more like a professional quarterly and it features a number of well-known writers ‑ Elizabeth Smither, Mae Johnson, Iain Sharp and Graham Lindsay, to mention just a few, and has a mix of poetry, image and comment. The introduction by Susan Allpress describes Printout as an “anthology of writing” and the subtitle for Printout 8 is “Signs of Wonder”, but goes on to disavow any editing principle other than “the remotest tingle, shudder, or giggle”. This kind of “transparent” editorial practice, which is often adopted by people who consider themselves to be acting purely as writers, isn’t of course, and, though it makes for as good a collection as any other, it would be good to have a bit more articulation about what is between the covers. An article on revision suggests that Printout sees its main readership as practising writers and a glance at the list of contributors makes it clear that its base is regional (Auckland), with a sprinkling of others.

It does have a good, though small, review section, with an excellent review by David Eggleton of Murray Edmond’s recent the switch, the subject of controversial attention in New Zealand Books, and the usual sharp and helpful review by lain Sharp, this time of Graham Lindsay. There is a number of good contributions, including Iain Sharp’s first poems for five years, sonnets by Mike Johnson, stories by Tessa Farnsworth and Joy McKenzie, some poems about India by Diana Bridge and the winner of Printout’s recent postcard fiction competition, Martha Morseth’s “Storyboard”, which is a witty sendup of television clichés.

Printout doesn’t have the standard or sheer textual solidity of Sport and I imagine has a much smaller readership and it is fairly conventional in its selection. But if you do run across it, it is worth a read.

The last item in my grab bag of literary journals is that bright bird from over the sea, Meanjin. Meanjin is the leftwing end of Australia’s established journals (it has been going since December 1940, so it is seven years older than Landfall) ‑ leftwing, that is, in relation to Quadrant, its traditional rival, and leftwing also in relation to its contents: it tends to feature the margins and the lefter side of any argument.

It is a wonderful journal and one of the few in Australia to publish regularly on New Zealand and New Zealand writing. (Are we on the left or on the margin?) Meanjin does not confine itself to literature or even literature and the arts. It is not a cultural studies journal, but it is close to one, with, in the two issues I have, articles on ocean settlement, cannibalism in the new world, the indigenous people of Japan and Australia, cross-dressing and virtual reality. There is a final review section in 4/1994, but in the 1/1995 issue the format mixes articles, reviews, fiction and poetry through the journal, so you move from one to the other in great, cross‑fertilising shifts of subject and discourse. The two issues I have don’t have themes but are lightly grouped, the first into a Pacific focus and the second into a ‑ well, maybe ‑ queer focus (actually there is a queer issue coming up, glorying in the provisional title “Advance Australia Queer”). It allows for some cohesion within the volume. Meanjin has done theme issues for a long time, which has given it the appearance of a coherent editorial policy.

Meanjin, apart from its elegant design and interestingly varied content, has the kind of editorial confidence that allows it to run a long story, as in John Clanchy’s “Late Cruising” in 59 pages. You realise how hampered short fiction can be by having to be short. Meanjin 4/1994 opens with an interview with Sam Watson, novelist (“The Kadaitcha Sung”) and manager of the Brisbane Aboriginal Legal Service, about his political work and his writing and compares him with Alan Duff, a comparison that is picked up in the next issue, in which Duff is interviewed.

More than any New Zealand journal ever has, Meanjin makes an effort not just to inform itself about New Zealand but to see New Zealand as part of its intellectual field, like Papua New Guinea, or Fiji. It is regional in its gaze, which means not just that it has a wide geographical coverage but also that it ran Mark William’s reply to C K Stead’s article on narrativity in Landfall 186 and Alan Ward on Mabo and Waitangi.

There isn’t anything in New Zealand as good as Meanjin. No journal in New Zealand manages the easy outwardness that is so apparently natural to Meanjin, while keeping its finger on the pulse of the local. Indeed there is no New Zealand journal which regularly reports on Australia or includes Australian writers, though they do now appear in Sport and Landfall from time to time, or which treats the literatures as parts of the same intellectual project. No doubt this is partly a result of the meagre publishing opportunities offered in New Zealand, but is it also a consequence of a chauvinism which we readily adopt over other things ‑ sport for example?

Small magazines are, to return to Fiona Capp, an expensive indulgence, but without them cultural capital is damagingly diminished. At the same time in a country with as few “engines” of the culture as New Zealand, cultural capital has to stay open to diversity and expansion and we could do far worse than look to Meanjin for a model.

Lydia Wevers has just received an Arts Council grant to write a book.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Literature, Review
Search the archive
Search by category