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'Defying the moment' by Beejay Silcox

Reviewed by
April 2018, no. 400

'Defying the moment' by Beejay Silcox

Reviewed by
April 2018, no. 400

‘I think that in a time when everything seems to be the victim of the pursuit of the moment, to have a natural rhythm which is completely to the counter, is almost in-and-of-itself something of a statement.’

Jonathan Green

Moments began as medieval measures, the time it took for a sundial’s blade of shadow to shift – ninety seconds or so, depending on the season. A slice of sunlight. A moment now carries cultural as well as temporal weight. A slice of spotlight. Increasingly, we speak of our present as a moment, as if its minutes are sprung like an ontological mousetrap, primed to snap. As Sam Anderson writes in The New York Times: ‘No nexus of events is too large or heterogeneous – no geopolitical weather too swirlingly turbulent – to avoid being reduced to the shorthand of the moment.’

I am sceptical of moments. A career or two ago, working in strategic policy at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, I would argue with my boss, a seasoned public servant, about the way we garnered support for policy reform. He favoured the language of moments (‘We have never lived in a more complex and difficult time ...’). This felt chronocentric to me, a cheap appeal to the inchoate promise of political heroism, rather than marshalling evidence and reason (‘The time to act is now!’). Of course, we were both right: I was virtuously precise, he pragmatically effective. He understood that calling something a moment – whether or not the designation is objectively earned – matters; that a moment is a prompt for action, demanding to be seized or savoured. As Anderson states, ‘The declaration of the moment turns out to have been the moment itself.’

So, what is this moment of moments asking of us? Or, more accurately, what are we asking of ourselves when we hang every event, debate, or idea on its own temporal hook? These gravid moments are increasingly riven with insecurity about our relationship to information and its bearers: we can’t seem to tell if we are drowning in unfiltered noise or coddled in our own echo-chamber; if we are more afflicted by narcissistic individualism or by borderless globalism. Post-fact, post-truth, and fake news moments. Social media moments, vacuous, volatile, and invented. Call-out culture and troll armies, snowflakes and the rise of the alt-right. Moments that march on and off the public stage to the merciless beat of the 24/7 news cycle, and moments that bloom into movements: #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter.

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It can be exhausting, keeping up with the moment; keeping track of the ever-moving targets of our righteous (and unrighteous) outrage. ‘Gosh,’ sighs Nick Feik, ‘I’ve been in this job for four years and I can’t think of a time when it didn’t feel like we were in some sort of a moment.’ That job is editor of The Monthly, Australia’s highest-profile cultural and political magazine, and just one of a number of contemporary magazines that are aiming – in print and online – to foster less frantic national conversations. As Jonathan Green, editor of Meanjin, describes: ‘There seem to be many speeds in public conversation, but there’s a deeper current in which the big ideas are held, and they slowly sort of tumble along the bottom of the river.’

Magazines have always been a liminal form of writing, structurally forced to resist the urgent, fractal logic of moments; relieved of news’s burden of immediacy (the forces of churnalism), yet still striving for cultural relevance. ‘Often, I’m commissioning something that will appear on shelves in six weeks and will be there for a further four’, explains Feik. ‘So, in ten weeks, what is something that I commission now going to look like? You really have to apply a completely different way of thinking about a subject.’

‘How is the thinking different?’ I ask Green, who assumed the editorship of Australia’s grand dame of literary magazines in 2015. ‘Well, you can’t get lost in the moment,’ he says. ‘There are some things which are just not going to go away. You can talk about equality and you can talk about climate and you can talk about gender. And you can do those things in a way that goes to the deeper parts of those conversations and that’s always going to be of interest. It’s not going to fade in six months, because those are the big questions.’

When The Bulletin folded in 2008, the death of Australia’s cultural magazines seemed all but certain; the establishment canary had suffocated in the social media coalmine. Peter Rose, editor of Australian Book Review since 2001, recalls: ‘Ten years ago, most of us, truth be told, were apprehensive about the viability of little magazines, as of the book itself.’  The graves were dug, eulogies written and stuffed in the bottom draw. Writing at the time in The Australian, James Bradley argued: ‘In a world where anyone can publish anything, instantaneously and for free, it is no longer enough simply to publish new work ... magazines must reconceive themselves as spaces for debate and discussion, sites of intellectual and aesthetic encounter.’

Nick Feik ABR Online2
Nick Feik, Editor of The Monthly
(photograph by Les Hallack)

This is not a eulogy. One decade on, there is an insistent heartbeat in contemporary magazine culture, and it doesn’t feel too much like tempting fate to talk about the future, even though the conversation is being held among the rubble of Australian newspapers, the desiccating corpse of Fairfax. Their collapse may in fact be part of the reason why Australian magazines have persisted; magazines have learned the digital lessons that newspapers didn’t and picked up the cultural content they (largely) dropped. Bradley’s predictions have come to pass.

When talking about the future of Australian magazines, it is too easy to get caught in the narrow furrows of old debates: print versus digital, public versus reader-funding, emerging versus established writers, fiction versus non-fiction. These are unanswerable questions, because their dichotomies are lazy: they have always been questions of individual balance rather than of polar choices, or else subjective questions of generosity, taste, and the value of art. What’s more vital is a conversation about how the minds behind our cultural magazines approach their evolving role in a national conversation that is fractured, fickle, and fractious.

Conversations are increasingly hard to delineate, because debates in the internet era are as networked and unbounded as their technologies; they are neither linear nor containable, rather they bloom like ink drops in water. ‘To try to characterise that debate and to engage in it – from an editorial position – it’s very difficult,’ Feik tells me, ‘you either have to define a very specific part of the debate, or step back and take a kind of perspectival view – a stocktake.’ He responds by trying to be the first word or the last word on something, and points me, proudly, to Helen Garner’s essay ‘Why She Broke’, which The Monthly published in June 2017. This is a profile of Akon Guode, a thirty-five-year-old South Sudanese refugee who was convicted of drowning three of her children by driving her car into a Melbourne lake. ‘The news media basically wrote it up as this is a horrible woman who killed her kids, but no one had really taken the time to investigate her life circumstances, or what could possibly lead someone to do something like that.’

Garner’s deeply compassionate essay is anchored by a desire not to excuse Guode, but to give her the dignity of context, of narrative. ‘If a full-bore jury trial is a symphony, a plea hearing is a string quartet,’ Garner writes. ‘Its purpose seems to be to clear a space in which the quality of mercy might at least be contemplated. There is something moving in its quiet thoughtfulness, the intensity of its focus ... working to fit the dry, clean planes of reason to the jagged edges of human wildness and suffering.’ You would be hard pressed to find a better description of what Garner’s essay is trying to do.

There is a cultural hunger for this kind of analysis, Green assures me: ‘For as much as there is all that tribalism and dissent and sensationalism and so forth, I think, I suspect, I hope there is a counter need among other people for something of substance; a depth of understanding.’ He cites Alexis Wright’s ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story?’, which Meanjin published in December 2016. It too is about the power of narratives, but in a potent obverse to Garner – not bestowing a story but claiming it back. ‘We do not get much of a chance to say what is right or wrong about the stories told on our behalf, which stories are told or how they are told,’ Wright declares about the stories government tells about Aboriginal Australia. ‘It just happens, and we try to deal with the fallout.’

Garner’s essay tips the scales at five thousand words; Wright’s is double the size. Neither author could achieve what they set out do without the luxury of space, and the same can be said about much of the highest-profile work that contemporary magazines champion, such as the Calibre Essay Prize (first presented in 2007), and the ABR Fellowships (2010). Rose notes: ‘We were determined to offer assured essayists, critics, and commentators due space to advance sophisticated ideas without compromise. The response from readers was immediate, and in the process the magazine has been fundamentally changed.’

There is a growing media orthodoxy that length isn’t just integral to authorial aims but is the key to readerly attraction. ‘We were genuinely shocked that so many people would be interested in reading five to six thousand words about the mechanics of power pricing in Australia,’ Feik tells me, ‘but this is a piece that’s been circulating widely for two years.’

A grand irony: notwithstanding the tide of short-attention spans and White House Twitter rants, long-form writing is having its moment. From The Guardian to BuzzFeed, mainstream media outlets are scrambling to invest in long-form projects, to capitalise on the size matters Zeitgeist. Long-form has become a potent cultural shorthand for a particular kind of literary and intellectual heft, but the focus on length privileges form over function, or often mistakes the former for the latter. ‘When you fetishize – as opposed to value – something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself,’ warns Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times.

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James Bennet, former editor-in-chief and co-president of US magazine stalwart The Atlantic, has been particularly vocal in his frustrations with the long-form label: ‘making a virtue of mere length sends the wrong message to writers as well as readers’. He offers this alternative: ‘There’s another perfectly good, honorable name for this kind of work ... you might just call it magazine writing. And get on with it.’

Bennet’s admonition is worth noting. Magazine writing is doing a number of more interesting things than simply taking up space. By consistently anchoring the political in the personal (and vice versa) – be it through commentary, criticism, memoir, fiction, or poetry – it provides a vital connective tissue between our cultural and political products and lived experience, between how we think and how we feel. In a political climate where expertise has become suspect, thinking and feeling are too often conceptualised as combative, that to do one somehow prohibits or inhibits the other.

‘We need to tell stories in a way that makes them interesting to the reader,’ Feik says adamantly. ‘And that does involve a feeling component and a thinking component, as well as a recording and a reporting component. I think that’s fundamental to good writing.’ Call it magazine writing; call it good writing. It is the quality of thought and expression that carries cultural heft, not brute mass. Space requires time.

What Garner’s and Wright’s articles share isn’t how much they speak, but how and to whom they listen. ‘You’ve got to stop and listen,’ Green insists. ‘I mean, we’re still at a point of not actually understanding each other’s stories, of not really knowing. We don’t really yet know what happened in this place, even so recently. So, we should be in a listening phase, trying to work that out.’

Amy Middleton
Amy Middleton, Founding publisher of Archer magazine

What does this mean, in practice – a listening phase? ‘I think “nothing about us without us” is a good mandate for all media outlets,’ Amy Middleton tells me. She founded Archer Magazine in 2013 to address the lack of nuance in Australian letters about sexuality and gender. She longed to see her identity reflected, a place where she could find evidence that sexuality is ‘unique and individual, and desire can look like something completely different from the depictions of sex we see in popular culture’. Middleton has created that place at Archer by illuminating diverse experiences from within: ‘If we published a story on polyamory, we’d commission someone in a polyamorous relationship, rather than getting a journalist to report on the community from a distance. If we publish content about sex workers, it’s written by someone who works in that industry.’ She is interested in telling the quiet stories that get buried by community orthodoxies. Some of the best-read pieces at Archer are those she has published on queerness in Aboriginal communities: ‘when you search Aboriginal homosexuality in Google, the results are pretty sparse outside of Archer’s content’.

‘There are so many voices striving to make themselves heard,’ Mindy Gill explains, ‘why say something just to become a part of the noise?’ The magazine she edits, Peril, has spent more than a decade showcasing Asian-Australian and migrant voices. Gill, like Middleton, is keenly aware that it is not only a question of diversity of authorship that matters, it is about diversity of stories – acknowledging that vital and vibrant differences exist within as well as between Australia’s communities. Peril is also actively challenging the pervasive expectation that diverse writers must write about their identity to be relevant. ‘While of course there are those who do so, and do it well,’ she explains, ‘it’s limiting for those whose work is commissioned only in response to cultural movements.’

Peril ’s approach is working. ‘More and more mainstream publications are publishing the kind of work that we have championed from the beginning,’ she tells me. ‘It’s liberating. It allows us to focus on publishing great writing.’ There’s plenty of it out there. ‘The internet is fundamentally a verbal culture,’ Feik reflects. ‘Our skills are lifting. We write a lot more, and we have new ways of writing for other people with clarity and wit and thought.’

Mindy Gill ABR Online
Mindy Gill, Editor-in-chief of Peril magazine

Curated in our magazines, that clarity and wit and thought act as a powerful mirror reflecting Australia back to itself. There is a particular kind of cultural nationalism at play here, one that seeks to interrogate, rather than to enshrine myths and shibboleths. ‘I think the responsibility is not a particular point of view,’ Green explains, ‘it’s that points of views that are expressed with a degree of subtlety. It’s not advocacy or anything like that. I don’t see it as sort of an activist position, I see it as one which is reflective.’ Feik strips it down even further: ‘Over the years, I’ve just recognised the importance of putting things on the record.’ It’s a powerfully simple idea – the power of words on a page. Inking our country down.

‘I think there is a real kind of crisis around who we are in Australia – where our country is going and what we believe in,’ laments Rebecca Starford, editor and co-founder of Kill Your Darlings (KYD), ‘and so, people turn to writing and writers in order for them to contextualise what is going on, to provide a narrative that’s not being offered to us by our politicians.’ She is struck by deep-seated political disaffection amongst Australia’s youth, a disaffection she attributes to a prolonged absence of political leadership: ‘I can’t remember a time when our whole political paradigm has been so degraded and depressing,’ she tells me.

Peter Rose feels it, too: ‘There is such dismay at the state of our politics, such distaste for the intemperance and slovenly thinking that disfigure public debates. ABR stands for something different, and last year we began to engage more urgently, more publicly, with issues such as Adani, the Namatjira copyright fiasco, and marriage equality.’

The controversial plebiscite was a fertile time for Australian magazines, a catalyst to invite readers to reimagine their country, to talk about the Australia they wanted to build – to think beyond the tick-box, beyond the moment. It is easy to forget the importance of a politics of the possible, of aspirational narratives that help us conceive and shape change, that explore the ways our nation can be unmade and remade. In the absence of a political narrative, we must write our own.

Rebecca Starford ABR Online
Rebecca Starford, Publishing Director of Kill Your Darlings

‘That’s why politicians try to degrade culture,’ Starford argues, ‘because it does show a pathway forward. They can’t harness someone’s imagination in the way they can harness their welfare cheques.’ KYD transitioned to digital-only content last year. Starford describes her magazine as a place where young Australians come to express their anger and anxieties in more resonant forms than politics and news media can offer. ‘And their hopes as well,’ she adds.

Hope is not the watchword you expect to find in a media discourse long steeped in pessimism, but it is here in our cultural magazines – sometimes flickering, sometimes smouldering, and sometimes ablaze. ‘Overland doesn’t just want better literature, it wants a better world, and it wants writers and readers who believe that’s possible too,’ its editor, Jacinda Woodhead, proudly declares. With its explicitly left mandate, her magazine has a clear vision of ‘better’. There is a palpable energy here: the energy of sustained momentum, rather than the fits-and-starts of moments.

But the hope that burns brightest – echoed by every editor – is that that Australia will be brave or humble enough to face its history. ‘I see there being a problem for the country if it doesn’t resolve its past,’ says Green. It is the ultimate antithesis to moment-by-moment thinking – letting our drop of time loose in the grand river of history.

They are not untempered hopes. Resources are scarce and often precarious. Editors understand the limits of their readerships and cultural reach in a country the size and shape of Australia. They also grapple with the ever-present tension between the desire to blur the barrier between the people making the magazine and the people reading it, and the danger of creating a perfect circle, where the only readers are writers and inclusivity becomes a form of exclusivity. More importantly, there is an acute awareness that the barriers to entry for new writers are painfully (often prohibitively) high, and that the regions, groups, and communities from which the country most needs to hear are those often least able to contribute.

‘But the readership continues to grow,’ Starford says proudly. ‘I think there is a real kind of hunger for the ideas we’ve been speaking about. And there’s an audience out there. So, you know for us, in terms of the magazine space, we’re feeling incredibly optimistic and excited.’

The allure of a culture diced into moments is the allure of a self-contained explanation; a narrative we can cup in our hands, smooth and perfect as an egg. It is far less daunting than trying to wrestle with our place in history, and there is a comfort in being able to attribute the things that most confront us to some temporal aberrance, a blip rather than a trend. ‘Mostly what we’re doing,’ Sam Anderson argues, ‘is making the gesture of insight, the gesture of mastery.’ That is the problem with the language of moments, without narratives and context, they’re empty. Just ask Malcolm Turnbull: ‘There’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.’

Australia’s cultural magazines are not leading some kind of revolution; they are mostly doing what they have always done. Magazine writing. Good writing. Telling Australia’s stories, and taking their time to do so. They are capturing our moment of moments by refusing to capitulate to it. ‘There’s a bookcase behind me with shelf after shelf after shelf of those old issues of this magazine,’ Green muses in the final minutes of our conversation. ‘They’re all still there, this collective consciousness. Over decades you’re just adding little pebbles to the top of that pile. I just hope that the ideas are enduring, I hope they take their place in that big historic pile – that they speak to the truth of human thinking and feeling.’

Beejay Silcox is the ABR Fortieth Birthday Fellow. This is one of several articles she will contribute over the next twelve months.

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