Big Issues: The Fictional Kind

On the tenth anniversary of The Big Issue’s fiction edition, the magazine’s associate editor, Melissa Cranenburgh, reflects on the challenges and rewards of making (and selling) the edition. And she tells why it’s important that, unlike most short-story collections, it needs to sell copies in the thousands: because the magazine’s reason for existence is to enable homeless and unemployed people to make a living.

I bought my first Big Issue fiction edition on Boxing Day 2005. It wasn’t the first fiction-only edition of the magazine, but the second. And I bought it from a vendor outside Young and Jacksons – the iconic Melbourne pub doomed to lose the geographical face off with Flinders Street Station.

On the tram ride home I read half the stories. In bed that night, I flicked through again, pausing over my favourites – and just never threw it out. I’m in a new house, now. But it’s still there, stored in a tattered cardboard magazine file beside vintage copies of Meanjin and Granta.

This all happened way before I worked for the magazine. To paraphrase my job interview a couple of years later, it was one of the many reasons I resolved to work there.

For me, what made that edition memorable wasn’t so much that I liked all the stories. I didn’t. There was even one I actively disliked (a self-referential piece by Matthew Reilly in which a fictitious geopolitical thriller writer ends up in a ‘real’ military fire-fight). It’s just that some of the stories really resonated. And one in particular, lingered: Elliot Perlman’s ‘Good Morning, Again’. A story that, for me, perfectly captured the mixed emotions of a ‘morning after’ scene – a man still awake at 4am ponders a new, much younger lover, still imprinted with the memory of someone else.

I loved it then. I still love it. But a good friend whose taste I can’t fault said she thought it was creepy. A story about an older guy, a younger woman. Just creeped her out.

That’s how it works, though. The short stories, the ones that work, that get you involved, tend to evoke a strong reaction: for or against. Although in every collection there’s bound to be one or two that just leave you cold.

Which is why putting together any short-story collection, but particularly one in a magazine made for a general readership, can be such a vexed issue. So many tastes, perspectives, genre filters – so much subjective matter covered in such few pages. Each member of a selection panel has to think not just of the kinds of stories that she likes, but good examples of stories that – while not to her taste – may really resonate with others.

But The Big Issue has its own unique concerns, as I discovered when I finally got to drive my first fiction-only edition. Will the vendors – footslogging it through rain, rain and shine – be able to shift copies? Make enough money to get dinner that night?

That’s a hard one. At the last magazine launch, on news that the fiction edition was coming out again, one Melbourne-vendor groaned: ‘My clients say they don’t like fiction. “Is that the fiction edition?” they say to me. “Here, you can have it back.”’ Another vendor took me aside afterward, said he had the opposite experience. ‘It’s a great book, the fiction one. I always buy heaps and I always sell ’em.’

That latter experience seems by far the most common one. The fiction edition is one of the strongest selling editions each year. And the one that gets the most positive feedback from readers. But still. Perhaps more than any other publication, making sure the people who sell the magazine get the return they expect weighs heavily on all of us.

We can’t forget though, that there’s a reason vendors sell magazines and not… mugs. Which is why the fiction edition matters: it’s the kind of thing independent, culturally responsible publishing should do. Vendors need to make a profit. Equally writers, readers, and the broader culture, should also benefit.

In Australia, where a book that shifts 10,000 copies could be considered a bestseller, a short-fiction magazine that in a fortnight can sell upwards of 30,000 copies is no small thing. (A fact that has led to ongoing support from the CAL cultural fund – helping to bump the edition up 16 pages and make sure the writers and other contributors are properly paid.)

Then there’s this. In the flickering digital age, where content is consumed, and shared, and supplanted, in moments, The Big Issue is a papery anachronism. An unlikely encounter. Two people, a city street, a brief exchange. Smiles, greetings, fumble for coins. An act of charity. And on the train ride home, flicking through the impromptu purchase, perhaps an unexpectedly transportative moment. I can only hope it’s a story that lingers.

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