Celebrating ‘small magazines’ - Meanjin (in a minor key cont.)

One of the Internet’s negative aspects is also its greatest strength; everyone and anyone can be published, with no intermediary: it’s DIY in excelsis. No-one could argue against this, but it has also weakened the status of print publications, such as literary magazines (and newspapers, of course).

In this era of vast mass publishing, there is a constant hum of content where high/low jostle for attention. Readers skim, scan, jump & start up again, go to the comments, make comments. It’s a totally new process of reading. Lost here, though, is any feeling that you are entering a private space. Choosing to read something, over an extended period of time – just like choosing to listen to a record over an extended period of time … - is personal. The fact that you have made that choice makes it more intimate.

My father sent me two books for Christmas: Ten ways not to commit suicide the memoir by Darryl McDaniels – aka DMC (from the legendary 80s hip-hop group, Run-DMC) and the most recent issue of Meanjin, a literary magazine that has been in existence since 1940. I’m reading both in bits and pieces as a break from my reading/writing on the (terrorist) ‘brothers’ and haven’t finished either. Reading Meanjin again, however, reminds me of the value of small literary magazines and independent publishers …

As we all navigate our way in a more venal and frankly stupid political world, which includes the primary-school antics of El Bizarro in the US (how could he think that having Putin as ‘a fan’ is a compliment?) I think it’s time to go ‘elitist’, niche as way of affirming an alternative community. In the words of one of our wise men:

We brave in the heart, playin a part, amazingly smart
Razor sharp, futuristic raps, state of the art

Refusing the norms imposed by tabloid jesters, affirming something completely apart, can also be political and an act of transgression. 

In a literary magazine, such as Meanjin there is no effort to contort the writers, or the pieces they have written to fit into some kind of house style; the mix and diversity is what counts. Having said that you can also feel the imprint of the editorial team in a way that is unimaginable within the vast store-room of a newspaper or many online news & entertainment sources (unless they are self-consciously esoteric). And then small magazines support the eco-sytem of writers, those starting out and established, forging points of connection between disparate voices that could not, or would not fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a newspaper, or magazine showing any interest in publishing those long essays on Borges, or Houellebecq, for example: Heat edited by the understated, but crucial figure in the Australian literary world, Ivor Indyk was their obvious home. (The essay on Lou Reed appeared in an earlier issue of Meanjin).

Only part way through Meanjin I’m already been impressed by the range: Alexis Wright’s essay on Aboriginal (literary/political) dispossession, ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ followed by Ben Wilkie’s piece on a ‘seven-metre obelisk of grey granite’ that was put up by white colonists to mark the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun/Oombete Poonyan, who was thought the be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.

I liked the way the two pieces of writing – different in style and voice and sensibility and perspective, necessarily – were side by side; reading the two together was valuable, as this desire to ‘mark the passing’ of the First Nations people (the monument included the dates, 1840-1883, which Wilkie says marked the period when the local Aborigines were ‘displaced’ - his word) is, of course, problematic.

It is also rare. In Australia, as with the United States, or any country where there is a history of long-term race-based, or colonial, violence, it’s almost unthinkable for those who claim victory to keep a public record of their brutality. Wilkie ends his essay this way, in part:

As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in our country towns (…)

There’s still much more besides in this issue of Meanjin – a wonderful memoir of a Polish Jewish actress who survived, Sonia Lizaron by Arnold Zable and a really strong poetry, fiction selection as well. The story by John Kinsella, ‘Sisters’ included this description of the wastrel junkie who came to stay that appealed to me: ‘He was high maintenance, but he was hardcore’.

No need to smooth any of the rough edges in any of this, the value is to be found in the clash and intersection of radically different voices; this is what gives it its spark. And again, is something unique about small independent magazines – and publishers – who are not so taken with the notion of branding themselves to compete.

Commentators offering advice on how to survive the next four years, let’s hope the Weird One loses interest in the low-energy nature of daily 'intelligence' and returns to his playground, so high up in the clouds, before then, have repeated the importance of supporting independent media, I can only endorse this.

Subscribe to small magazines, if that’s of interest, and/or support the big newspapers as they are the only vehicles with the heft and capacity to cause damage, if that is something that appeals to you.

To find out more about Meanjin, including the most recent issue's contents, go here.