Literary magazines are often the first place new authors are published. We can’t lose them

Blair Fraser/Unsplash

Alexandra Dane, University of Melbourne

Australia’s literary journals are produced in a fragile ecosystem propped up by a patchwork of volunteer labour, generous patrons and, with any luck, a small slice of government funding.

The Sydney Review of Books, the Australian Book Review and Overland were among a group of publications who sought four-year funding from the Australia Council in 2020 but were unsuccessful.

These publications join the ranks of many others – among them Meanjin and Island – defunded by state or federal arts funding bodies in recent years.

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These magazines are vital for today’s publishing industry. For many authors literary magazines provide the first opportunity for publication. For editors and arts administrators, they provide a training ground for life-long careers in Australia’s creative sector.

The past decade has seen a steady decline in arts funding going to individuals and organisations. According to Chairman of the Copyright Agency and former media executive, Kim Williams, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald:

[…] if funding for literature had been maintained as in the mid-70s, considering inflation and population growth, it should be at $12 million, at least. Today, it stands at just $5 million (compared with $4.2 million 30 years ago).

The list of defunded writing-focused organisations in the most recent multi-year funding round is stark. Those losing their multi-year status include Artlink, Eyeline, Art Monthly, the Australian Script Centre, Playwriting Australia, Sydney Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.

Without securing medium-term support, these organisations face an uncertain future.

Vital discourse

In response to the 2020 funding announcement, editor of Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, stated the decision demonstrates

little understanding of [the magazine sector’s] contribution to the literary ecology, and no appreciation of the dire consequences for readers, authors, contributors and publishers.

The cultural discussions within the pages of literary journals set the agenda for the more higher-profile but slower-moving institutions such as publishers, prizes and festivals.

Literary magazines are often the first place authors are published. Against the backdrop of an industry largely staffed by white, middle-class people, small magazines are at the forefront of bringing more Australian writing to the surface from writers of colour, First Nations writers, disabled writers, trans writers and working-class writers, challenging those who hold power at the top of the sector.

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Writing in 2015 about the position magazines such as Island or Overland occupy, Emmett Stinson noted these publications:

[…] are essential to contemporary literary culture: they showcase new and emerging writers; […] offer more extended literary debates and discussions than the broadsheets; comprise a venue for journalism that contains views outside of the liberal mainstream; serve as rallying points for different communities of readers and coteries of authors […]

Ben Etherington’s essay about the parallel lives and deaths of Mudrooroo and Les Murray, Cher Tan’s exposition and critique of taste production on the internet, and Blak Brow – which was written, edited, illustrated, curated and performed by First Nations creators – are among countless examples of the ways literary magazines carve out space for critique, expression, consideration and reflection.

In shifting funding away from small magazines, we lose the place for these discussions.

Not a competition

Uncertainty, instability and fragility are perhaps the defining characteristics of small magazines.

The decisions to not fund literary magazines not only have a significant impact on the individual publications, but also to Australian cultural discourse.

What gets published within the pages of these magazines can entertain us, it can inspire us to critically examine the world around us, and can help us understand culture that moves us.

Vibrant discussion about culture, society and the arts does not happen by accident. It must be carefully nurtured and requires financial support.

The Australia Council make extremely difficult decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t.

Not every organisation and publication and festival can receive funding. Those who don’t secure funding are no more or less worthy than those who do. Reduced financial support for Australia’s creative endeavours encourages artists to turn against one another in judgement of what should and should not receive funding.

Australian artists entertain us, challenge us and allow us to see things from different perspectives. Fulfilling a capitalist desire for competition, however, only distracts from the importance of Australian artists and the contribution the creative sector makes to our lives.

Correction: a reference to the Wheeler Centre has been removed as they did not apply for funding in 2020.The Conversation

Alexandra Dane, Lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson mixes real stories with romance


Susan Carson, Queensland University of Technology

Ah, Hydra! This is an island possessed of “wild and naked perfection”, wrote American author Henry Miller after sailing into Hydra on the eve of the second world war.


With a population of around 2,500, Hydra is a small island in the Saronic Gulf only two hours from Athens. The Hydra Town harbour, a natural amphitheatre with grey and white stone houses set into the hills overlooking the waterfront, has featured in many books and films – think Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin (1957).

Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, a fictionalised account of the summer of 1960, is the latest addition to the corpus of Hydra-inspired novels. In it we meet Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston and poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen as they all work and play in a seeming paradise.

While the married couple Clift and Johnston are in financial and emotional disarray, Cohen and Ihlen are young, beautiful and at the start of their now famous relationship.

Read more:
‘A woman ahead of her time’: remembering the Australian writer Charmian Clift, 50 years on

The expat dream

The expatriate clique of Samson’s novel exemplifies groups attracted in the 1960s to the picturesque island where artists could live and work cheaply. The novel includes fulsome accounts of the raging arguments and creative and sexual jealousies that beset the Clift-Johnston inner circle, Cohen and Ihlen and visiting friends.

A Theatre for Dreamers conjures up an appealing picture of a Hydra which, at least in physical terms, has changed little since then. There are still no cars on the island and donkeys continue to do all the haulage up and down the steep streets from the port.

Samson has faithfully rendered the landscape of winding stone-flagged streets and white-washed houses. It is a pity therefore that the novel plays into the narrative of sexual transgression and self-indulgence that continues to dominate works about this community. The novel is narrated by a young English traveller, Erica, whose relationship with her boyfriend Jimmy predictably goes awry in this heady climate.

Heightened levels of drug-taking, drinking and sexual adventure were indeed a part of many expat lives at the time but the continuing focus on this discourse, which of course makes for good copy, has the unfortunate effect of undermining the impact of major work produced by foreign and Greek artists and writers in this era.


Samson has researched the topic for some time and knows the life of this island well. Sometimes the research is a distraction as when the author’s prose mingles strangely with the original writing of one of the expatriates.

Readers who know Clift’s writing will recognise her voice in the dialogue. Samson acknowledges that she was given permission by Clift’s estate to quote from Peel Me A Lotus (1959), Clift’s travel memoir about her life on Hydra from one February to October. The effect is rather an odd seesaw between two genres as Clift’s lines pop up in a scene in Samson’s novel.

But readers who have never been to Hydra and know little about life there in the 1960s will enjoy the breezy romance and imagining the tumultuous relationship of Marianne with her then husband, writer Axel Jensen, and the adventures of the Johnston family.

Hydra’s legacy

Samson is an enthusiastic supporter of Clift’s writing. Channeling her in this novel, Samson makes a great contribution to Clift’s legacy as most of her work is now out of print. One hopes readers will be inspired to search out copies of Clift’s work.

There is of course no need to further promote Leonard Cohen’s work, which has assumed an afterlife of its own, including a renewed interest in Cohen’s life on Hydra.

Today many people on Hydra would not know the Clift-Johnston history but Cohen is even more firmly part of the island’s fabric. In 2015 a tribute concert to Cohen on the Hydra waterfront appeared to attract most of the town’s residents, young and old, and visiting his house in Hydra Town is part of an annual pilgrimage. By 2017 there were guided walking tours to Cohen’s island haunts.

Clift and Johnston are known to a smaller audience although they were once big fish in the Australian literary and journalistic cliques. Those who want to explore their story further can find an account of many of the characters in Samson’s novel in Nadia Wheatley’s meticulous biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001). In addition, The Broken Book (2004) by Australian novelist Susan Johnson is a rewarding and imaginative recreation of Clift’s life that goes beyond the wild Hydra cliché.

Read more:
Friday essay: a fresh perspective on Leonard Cohen and the island that inspired him

The Conversation

Susan Carson, Senior Lecturer, Creative Industries Faculty, QUT, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.