In 1940 in Brisbane, the young journalist Clem Christesen initiated a “desperate attempt” to offer Queensland writers a “modest publishing outlet”.
What the country needed (in this second year of World War II) was a literary magazine to provide a forum for the defence of “important values”. In December, Meanjin Papers was launched: a small edition of eight pages, 250 copies.
Its aim was to ensure that the nation did not “drop its mental life, its intellectual and aesthetic activities” simply because of Australia’s military involvement.
The local reception, to judge from a disparaging article in the Courier-Mail, was cool, but interstate the new baby was warmly hailed; contributions began to flow in. A young woman named Judith Wright came forward to offer not only some of her poems, but help with correspondence and receipts. The baby grew.
In 1944, Meanjin received an offer from the Extension Board of the University of Melbourne to bring the magazine down south, where an unsigned agreement promised a rather unclear relationship with Melbourne University Press.
Clem, Nina (his Russian-born wife) and Meanjin arrived in Melbourne in February 1945. By the end of the following year it had sought and achieved independence from MUP. It was now published by the Meanjin Press but still housed on campus, overseen by an academic advisory board, and meagerly supported by the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the university’s Lockie Bequest.
Before long, however, the left-leaning tendencies of both the journal and its editor had inflamed a right-wing opposition, which thought he should concentrate on literature and art to the exclusion of politics.
For Clem and his supporters, who included a quartet of “Red Professors”, this was never an either-or situation; he would just keep on introducing to the reading public of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the likes of AD Hope, Arthur Phillips, Rosemary Dobson, Patrick White, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Martin Boyd, Dorothy Green, Gwen Harwood, Christina Stead, Peter Carey, and the “little bugger” for whom he felt a strong affection, Vincent Buckley.
In a 1966 paper delivered at the University of New England, Clem elaborated the crucial importance of literary magazines. They were an indispensable catalyst for the discovery and dissemination of a new creative and critical talent; they set standards; they provided a forum for discussion across the whole field of intellectual enquiry; they enabled writers to gauge the effects of their work and they provided a meeting point for both writers and readers.
It was a blueprint for an ideal that Clem’s successors in the editorial chair continued to promote in their own ways.
By the early ’70s, Clem had handed his magazine over to the young and talented historian Jim Davidson, the first in a series of, to date, 10 editors, all of shorter tenancy than that of the founding father, and seven of them female.
Yet again the terms were not sufficiently spelled out, and that first transition was fraught: Clem chafed when the archive was not transferred to the Baillieu Library, nor any editorial board set up. But Davidson and those who followed him have maintained Clem’s “important values”, be it in the “themed editions” of Ian Britain, or, in the words of its present patron, the distinguished poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Jonathan Green’s current “snappy” presentations.
In 2008, the magazine was absorbed by Melbourne University Publishing, which now provides space, facilities and publicity. But most of the funding required to pay the contributors comes from the Australia Council.
It is this body which, itself newly unfunded by the Government to the tune of $73 million, has slashed an annual $95,000 (30 per cent) from Meanjin’s operating costs, according its editor Green.
He has confirmed that it will now be difficult to pay contributors.
Wallace-Crabbe views it as “outrageous” that Australia’s “premier literary magazine” should be prevented from carrying on the tradition inherited from its founder.
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To Meanjin’s credit, it has never been without its critics, some of whom seem to speak more out of concern than contrariness. Emmet Stinson, in the Sydney Review of Books, argues that only those who are published in Meanjin actually “like” it.
He is critical of the fact that since 1987 it has had nine editors, resulting in a variable quality which casts doubts over “its place in the larger scheme”.
It is also interesting, given the advice once meted out by the university, to note Stinson’s implied disapproval of the increased focus on “political interviews and commentary”.
A trend noticeable in other magazines such as the London Review of Books, it was evidenced in Meanjin when a recent volume was guest-edited by Glyn Davies, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Melbourne, and a Professor of Political Science whose field is public policy.
On the other hand, no regular publication can or should deliver material that never changes in content or style; and it is in any case a moot point whether the material between the covers moulds or is moulded by external considerations.
The current cuts may or may not deliver the coup de grâce to Meanjin, but if they do, it will have lasted 75 years – five years longer than New York’s Partisan Review, which closed down in 2003.
Prose and poetry-lovers who have come to treasure their favourite Australian writing won’t necessarily have first read it in Meanjin or any other literary magazine. But if, say, a young Peter Carey had not received some early exposure, his award-winning novels might arguably not have been written. Will future Miles Franklin winners be generated by blogs?
The question is not whether three score years and fifteen is or is not an “appropriate” lifetime for a “little magazine” (an epithet that riled Clem Christesen), but rather that the decision to starve Meanjin has been made not by critics, readers or contributors (to whom publication lends confidence), but by a government fixated on balancing a quite different kind of book.
Judith Armstrong is Honorary Associate Professor in Arts and Languages & Linguistics, University of Melbourne. This article was first published on The Conversation.
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