Three years ago a member of the Australia Council Literature Board expressed this view of literary magazines supported by Board funding:
Because they so often represent a complexity of exasperating or seemingly insoluble problems, the importance of literary magazines in the literary culture can easily be blurred and downgraded for those of us who have to grapple with the quixoticisms, voracity, tunnel vision and corrosive jealousies of their editors and supporters.
It is a view that has been around for almost as long as funding for literary magazines has been available. Why have literary magazines been problematic for funding bodies for more than forty years, and why, if the problems are so intractable, has there been little real change in the policies that govern funding programs?
In 1994 I undertook an evaluation of the Board’s Magazines Program over the period 1989-1993. In my report to the Board I noted that discourse within the literary magazines field was characterized by the rhetoric of survival rather than growth. This is not just a feature of recent debate, but a reflection of the metaphoric climate in which state-funded literary magazines have existed for a couple of decades: a climate of sickness and death. The case for funding magazines has been constructed around the concept of providing palliative care for the chronically ill.
The climate was created by the Literature Board’s predecessor, the Commonwealth Literary Fund, when it began subsidizing magazines in 1950, providing annual grants to two journals, Meanjin and Southerly. The CLF had taken on magazines with some reluctance, recognizing potential problems such as the commitment of its limited funds to recurrent annual payments, but ultimately there were stronger arguments for providing support. The alternative to support was death, and ‘if the magazines were allowed to die, Australian writing would obviously suffer a severe setback. Moreover, those of high quality had established a reputation overseas and their extinction would mean also a loss in our international cultural prestige’.
By 1972, when the Literature Board was created, the number of subsidized magazines had risen to 12 and the metaphors had become more clinical. As Tom Shapcott notes in his history of the Board, at one of its early meetings,
the Board had a wide-ranging discussion on the functions and weaknesses and strengths of literary magazines in Australia; on how the magazines could best be supported; on whether ossified magazines should be allowed to die gracefully or should be kept alive by injections of State serum; on the virtues and dangers of the Board nationalizing one or two literary magazines.
A four-member Magazines Committee was established with terms of reference that included discussion of ‘the setting up or selecting one or two “grand monthlies” which would publish poetry and short stories and serialize new novels’, as well as what was termed ‘concocting a scheme of euthanasia for magazines which had lost their liveliness’.
‘Schemes of euthanasia’ may well have been concocted by that committee or by subsequent committees over the next 20 years, but there is no record of them or evidence of their implementation. A few moribund journals have disappeared but most of the magazines diagnosed as ossified in the early 1970s are still on life-supporting grants. Board members have continued to express dissatisfaction with the Magazines Program, and to speculate wistfully on the possibility of fostering a few robust magazines instead of maintaining a ward full of sickly ones. Various surveys and studies of the program have been undertaken, providing data which validate many of the expressed concerns. Some relatively minor adjustments have been made to the program’s guidelines and funding criteria. But there has been no real change in the Board’s magazines policy over more than 20 years.
One of the reasons for this is suggested by Shapcott’s account of the attempt to phase out subsidy for Australian Literary Studies in 1974 on the grounds that ‘the Board regards this publication more as an academic type of magazine, for which universities should have the financial responsibility’. In response, ALS ‘gathered letters of support from a wide range of highly respected literary figures’. Moreover, ‘Professor James McAuley spoke to the Magazine Committee in May 1975’, and at its July meeting the Board decided to continue funding the magazine. The Board’s records show that such tactics continued to win most battles over whether to remove or reduce subsidies for specific magazines and even, in one notorious case, over a long-overdue attempt to enforce compliance with grant conditions.
The situation that must now be confronted is a funding program that is difficult, probably impossible, to justify because it is based on outdated ideas and principles. In the new and gritty policy climate of Creative Nation there is no place for exemptions or special pleading. And in the correspondingly gritty new world of the Australia Council, there is no place for a program that lacks a clear and achievable statement of purpose, does not adhere to objectivity or consistency in funding assessment and relies principally on qualitative analyses.
In the five-year period covered by my evaluation, $1.5 million was allocated through the Magazines Program, a mere seven per cent of the Board’s total grants for the period, but a pretty staggering figure nevertheless. Of the 31 magazines funded over the period, 12 received continuous back-to-back grants amounting to 81 per cent of the magazine funding. Roughly half of these (which between them received 43 per cent of the funding) had been supported by the Board for more than 20 years. These publications are to the Australia Council’s Literature budget what the large, ‘flagship’ companies have been to the Performing Arts budget: ‘locked-in clients’ claiming the major share of funds as of right, and preventing the provision of support for smaller, newer claimants. This doesn’t necessarily represent a problem, but it should be pointed out that much of the $1.5 million has supported magazines with static or declining circulation figures and average readerships of fewer than 2000.
My report urged the Board to bite the long-deferred bullet and develop a magazines policy that reflected the realities of the 1990s. The initial response has been the circulation to the literary community of a letter canvassing opinion on a range of options. The Board’s Chair, Marion Halligan, has been quoted as saying that ‘policy will be determined by responses received’.
It is hard to think of a Literature Board policy area that has been subject to as much consultation as the Magazines Program. (Writers would certainly have welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the development of policy for the Writers’ Fellowships Program!) In the past, the results of these consultations have been predictable; there is little certainty that things will be different this time. The old arguments will be presented by editors and their supporters, some of whom may well be the same highly respected literary figures who argued for ALS 20 years ago. And the Board is in danger of being, once again, locked into those arguments and confounded by the ‘complexity of exasperating or seemingly insoluble problems’.
If the Board accepts the need for change in the Magazines Program, it must also accept the task of reducing or removing support from some magazines. It is highly unlikely that the magazine lobby in particular, or the literary community in general, is going to suggest how this will be achieved. My own suggestion is that it can only be achieved by changing the metaphors. I sometimes think of the Magazines Program as a corral for sacred cows. It may be straining things somewhat, but I would argue that turning cows out into the paddock to fend for themselves is a very different proposition from turning off the life-support system of invalids.