‘Rousing Tempers’: A response to Robyn Annear

James Tierney responds to Robyn Annear’s Monthly review of ten Australian literary magazines, weighing the evidence she gathers to support her view that these ‘oddball miscellanies’ mainly exist to grant publication to emerging writers - and opening out into a wider conversation about what a good review (with well-supported arguments) can do.

Writing about writing risks ambivalence, not least because you’re responding to what is almost always the deep commitment of another — and this deserves respect. The fundamental value of writing, however, remains with the finished product, not in its act.

Writer and historian Robyn Annear is the author of (among other books) The Man Who Lost Himself, a finely written account of the Ticeborne claimant. It’s a story about an extraordinary legal case that sank due to a lack of evidence.

Annear’s article in the October issue of the Monthly, ‘Unripe fruit’, surveys a more contemporary body of evidence. Here, ten of Australia’s literary magazines (Ampersand Magazine, Australian Book Review, The Canary Press, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, Seizure, Southerly, Voiceworks and Westerly) are on the table, but it’s very quickly clear that Annear intends to neither praise nor bury — but rather to shrug.

From the first, Annear is uncertain how to judge ‘these oddball miscellanies except as buffered delivery systems for that hardest to swallow of literary art forms (poetry)’. She troubles at the notion that these publications earn their Australia Council funding by operating as a set of literary lungs for the broader culture. Their relationship to that broader culture is certainly open to question given their modest circulations and whether they face out not so much to a general readership, but their own present or hopeful contributors. This interesting provocation, that the Australian literary scene produces more writers than readers, is never dug into.

The emerging writer phenomenon, together with unevenness of quality across all of the journals, underpins most of Annear’s critique, but she is curiously shy with specifics. Benjamin Law cops a ‘puerile’ for his piece on social media in Westerly but otherwise the contents of the journals are either misrecognised or ignored. Meanjin is the clear exception –‘nimble’ and ‘zestful’- and is awarded three sentences of clear description, backed with examples. It’s not a tactic, either in appreciation or length, that Annear chooses to repeat: Australia Book Review’s ‘high tone (is) broken only by naff full-page advertisements for vanity publishers’; Kill Your Darlings is ‘burdened by the earnestness of young fogeydom’.

While Annear misses the variety of tone in ABR (issue 355 ranges from Kári Gíslason’s light, but sure review of Lloyd Jones’ memoir A History of Silence, to tight, reportage-like capsule reviews) and misrecognises the unfussy clarity of Kill Your Darlings (July 2013 sports a beautifully pivoted selection of three essays on physicality from S.A. Jones, Joanna Di Mattia and Emily Weekes), ‘Unripe fruit’ doesn’t ultimately stand or fall on these descriptions.

The most grievous example of this essay’s sidestepping approach is in the editors that Annear chooses to quote. If this form has an auteur, it’s surely the editor, responsible for fashioning and maintaining their publication’s identity, recruiting and editing its writers. Yet Annear chooses to quote only the youngest here. Yes, their voices are important. Yes, they assist Annear’s argument that there is an overabundance of writing relative to readership. Yet, quoting only these editors as somehow representative is deeply unpersuasive to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of these journals. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that responses from editors of the range and the experience of Zoe Sanders (Meanjin), Matthew Lamb (Island), Rebecca Starford (Kill Your Darlings) or Jeff Sparrow (Overland), if sought, would have only been inconvenient for Annear’s tone of preternatural weariness.

The fact is that the condition of literary magazines in Australia remains a fascinating area for enquiry. In my experience, its readers are highly engaged but likely to be modest in number. Annear’s hunch is that ‘the absence of … literary magazines…would discommode contributors … far more than it would readers’ is at best partially right. Readership numbers would assist both of us here, as would a consideration of influence beyond readership. Ideas like the ‘cultural cringe’, which first appeared in Meanjin in the 1950s, are commonplace today. The disappearance of these journals may not trouble Annear, but the broader cultural effect would be less simple that Annear supposes.

It’s clear that Annear wants to ask big questions, but – outside of reading her ten allotted journals and a Google search – she doesn’t appear to have conducted the research required to frame them properly. There’s simply too little convincing evidential grit.

Contrast Annear’s approach with that of Kerryn Goldsworthy’s in ‘Everyone’s a Critic’ (Australian Book Review, May 2013). Similarly wondering at the contemporary health of its focus, book reviewing, Goldsworthy draws in 16 other voices to bolster and contrast. Her piece did not lack for provocation either, but its whirlwinds are far better aimed; from Sam Twyford Moore’s sense that ‘we are in a late age of reading in the traditional sense, and so I don’t think reviewing should be held to the same standards or responsibilities it once had’ to James Bradley noting that ‘anxieties about the democratisation of culture more generally seem to frame so much handwringing about reviewing and standards’. Precise but open, engaging and occasionally infuriating, Goldsworthy’s essay is a model of marshalling research in a service of a broader conversation.

Throughout his career, English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan had pinned to his work-desk a note which reminded him to

‘Rouse tempers, goad, lacerate, raise whirlwinds!’

If that sounds like a forewarning of the fishbowl indignations that spring up daily on social media to little eventual consequence, it shouldn’t. Unafraid of controversy, Tynan cared deeply about his craft. In a career many thousands of words deep, Tynan filleted the bad, celebrated the good, and understood the contexts from which they sprang. First with judgement and then with wit, he earned the right to be read.

It if seems like I’m responding to the article that I wish Annear had written rather than the one she did, that is partially true. Opinions are like grudges: we all have at least one. The best essays challenge your certainties anew.

Sharply written as it often is, Annear’s affectless gestures have the persuasive ability of a radio signal pushed past its normal range by cloud cover, only to be received as a static jumble of barbed sentences and drop-outs. Literary magazines deserve better targeted whirlwinds.

Portrait of James Tierney