Matthew Lamb, the new editor of Island magazine, is also the editor and co-founder of the digital short-story publication Review of Australian Fiction. This makes for an interesting and varied perspective on the world of literary magazines in Australia.
We spoke to Matthew about the changes afoot at Island, his approach to editing a publication, the fact that submissions to literary magazines far outweigh subscribers … and the fact that there’s a lot of boring writing out there in Australia, because boring equals safe. ‘Don’t be boring’ he says. ‘It may not lead to immediate publication, but at least your integrity will be intact.’
You’ve recently come on board as an editor at Island –what drew you to the magazine?
In terms of becoming an editor of Island, I honestly don’t know what drew me to the magazine. I guess it was partly the challenge, partly a sense of curiosity. I am interested how the infrastructure of our literary culture is put together, in particular the role that lit mags have to play in that environment. I wanted to see how that worked from the inside.
I moved to Tasmania from Queensland in February 2012. Supposedly for the quiet life. I had actually known about Island long before, as being one of the stalwarts of Australian literary magazines. I had even submitted a few stories to it over the years, and been rejected every time.
Soon after moving here I fell in with the Island crowd. Dale Campisi had also recently come down to Tasmania, so we were both strangers in a strange town. He was the new editor and change-manager of the magazine, tasked with steering it through what was a difficult year. Its course righted, Campisi left, like The Littlest Hobo. Then I came on board.
I like to tell people I won it from him in a poker game. But that’s not true. It was a craps game.
Island has a new look this year – how did that come about? And has the content and approach of the magazine changed at all, too?
The format of the magazine itself has changed, yes. It is now A4, so larger than the previous A5 format. And that necessitated a new design. We needed to make it more visually appealing, more accessible. Make it stand out on the bookshop shelf, or on your coffee table.
There is a new website coming, too. It is going to be more consistent with the print mag. Stripped down, more accessible.
That said, the new format is not coming at a cost to content. We are still committed to publishing quality fiction, essays, and poetry (it helps that our poetry editor is John Kinsella). There is actually an increase in content, which is exciting.
But there are a few changes in scope.
First, we’re doing away with themed issues. The focus now is on producing good, general issues, showcasing diversity. The aim is to try to attract a strong, general readership, which we can build over time. We need to build a stronger circulation.
Second, Island is partnering with the Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society, from The University of Tasmania. The Director of this Centre, Natasha Cica, was co-editor of the recent Griffith Review: TASMANIA - The Tipping Point? From this partnership, there will be an essay in each issue, The Tasmanian Papers, examining a question of national policy. The first paper is by Julianne Schultz, on our national cultural policy. Other essays in each will be exploring this idea of Australia as a civil society, and the role that literary culture has to play in that.
Third, Island is also broadening its scope and trying to engage with work from international, national, as well as Tasmanian writers.
These changes were inevitable. And it was a long time coming, long before I came on board. It just needed somebody to make them come about. If it succeeds, then it will be because of the work of many people, some of whom have come before me. If it fails, then it will be because of me.
Island is distinctive as being Tasmania’s literary magazine. Your website describes it as, ‘Grown in Tasmania, Island writes for the world.’ How is this reflected in your pages? And what are the opportunities and challenges of this identity?
That tagline has actually been removed in the current reformatting of the magazine. It has outlived its usefulness. In many ways, it has often been a hindrance. Of course, it is Tasmania’s literary magazine, but it is not solely a Tasmanian literary magazine. It started life as such, in 1979, as The Tasmanian Review. But by 1981, and after only five issues, it became Island Magazine, reflecting the fact that its interests and scope were much broader. Two-thirds of our circulation is outside the state. Australia is an island, too, you know? As such, Island has always been national in scope, often with an international flavour. But it has always done this so from a Tasmanian perspective, and it tries to introduce Tasmanian writers and concerns to this broader readership.
Coming from Queensland—another peripheral state—I’ve always been aware of a peculiar provincialism that operates within metropolitan states. Victoria and New South Wales, to a large extent, don’t need to know what is happening in the rest of the country. But the rest of the country needs to know what is happening in those states, as well as in their own. And I’ve always found that situation to be more interesting, more full of possibilities.
Island has always tried to harness those possibilities. Only difference now is that we are consciously, and systematically, pursuing such possibilities, and pushing their limits.
You’re also editor of Review of Australian Fiction, a very different kind of publication – RAF is a small, very new digital publication that focuses on two authors per issue, whereas Island has many contributors and is a print publication that’s been well established since 1979. What differences have you noticed between the two publications?
There is an often overwhelming sense of responsibility being involved with something like Island. In terms of tradition, working out where I fit within that, whether or not I am adding value to, or diminishing, that tradition. But also in terms of the management and financial responsibility. I’m playing with somebody else’s money here, with state and federal money, as well as with the money of our subscribers.
So I need to approach Island differently.
The Review of Australian Fiction, however, is part experiment. I co-own that with a friend. It is our money. There is no tradition to speak of. If it folds tomorrow, we’ll be out of pocket, sure, but no one will much mind (including ourselves). But we hope it doesn’t fold, as there are other things we want to try with RAF in the future.
RAF is also focused on Australian fiction. One of the advantages of Island is that it has a much broader scope, and so allows me to explore my other interests, especially in terms of non-fiction, topics like politics and culture, more broadly construed. There is also room for international fiction.
There are also challenges with Island being a print mag. One of the reasons we wanted RAF to be digital is so that writers would be unconstrained by word limits. But I have had to take such limitations into consideration with Island. Also, there is more time-management involved with a print mag. With RAF—despite my best intentions to the contrary—I am often putting the next issue together within minutes of its being published. With Island, I need to be more organised have the issue sent to the printers a month before publication.
Working on both has provided me with a good perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The digital landscape has changed the way many literary journals work – websites and social media offer increased opportunities for community-building, for instance. And there’s the question of whether to publish online – and if so, how much of your content to put online, whether to keep it subscriber-only or make it free, or whether to offer different material from the magazine online. How does Island work with these challenges and opportunities?
I don’t have any clear answers to these questions. I wish I did. But we will be experimenting with them over the next year with Island. That said, I’ve watched closely what other lit mags in Australia have done.
I still think that the main focus of Island is the print mag. The focus of the new website is going to showcase the print mag. The associated blog is going to focus on providing supplementary material to the contents of the print mag. Some of the contents of the print mag will be available online, sure, and will be rolled out during the months between publication of each issue. We’ll play around with it, to see what works best. But I really don’t know what will happen.
Despite being also the editor of a digital-only lit mag, I do have my reservations about digital publishing. I question whether social media really does produce any substantive ‘community’ around a particular publication. As RAF manager, Phil Crowley, keeps reminding me: Twitter followers are not subscribers. And the reality is that—for a publication like the Review of Australian Fiction—its existence is wholly dependent on people valuing the work of Australian writers enough to be willing to pay for it. If not, then you are just paying lip-service to it.
Other magazines—like Island, but also many other lit mags—are sheltered from this reality to a large extent by ongoing government funding. The question is: how secure will this funding be in the future? And should we feel entitled to it? Speaking only for Island, recent years have made these questions more necessary to ask.
The reality is that—regardless of if a publication is digital or not—it all comes down to our subscribers, which is really the litmus test of whether or not you really support our literary culture, or if you just want to be supported by it.
What are some of the literary publications (digital or print) that you admire? Are there any that have inspired you as an editor?
I actually don’t think I am cut out for being an editor, and this is not something I see myself doing long-term. I lack all the requisite qualities. But I can recognise and admire these qualities in others.
I was living in Brisbane when The Lifted Brow first started. I even had my first story published in their second issue. I’ve watched its evolution ever since, and I would have to say that Ronnie Scott has been a great inspiration for me. Particularly with the creation of the Review of Australian Fiction. Although very different publications, The Lifted Brow showed us that it was possible to start a lit mag with nothing but sheer will.
In terms of being a literary editor, however, I’d have to say that Stephen Romei is the best we have. He sets the standard by which I measure my own paltry efforts. He has been very patient and supportive of me over the years. But what I particularly respect about the way he operates is not so much that he has published some of my stuff (which is always good thing), but it is in the way he has also rejected much of my work. That’s kept me honest. Even when he didn’t know who I was (way back when he was editor of the now defunct Australian Literary Review) he never discouraged me, and he later gave me opportunities. And so what I have learned from him is that being a literary editor is mainly about creating opportunities and supporting other people to be their best.
So I’ve actually formed a strange attachment to all of the writers I’ve published in the RAF, and already with some forthcoming in Island. Particularly the emerging writers. I don’t like it so much, but I feel it. It is a sense of responsibility, like I am now an advocate for their work.
In terms of other lit mags I admire: I subscribe to about twelve Australian lit mags, and they are all good, they all have something different to offer. I don’t think that our literary culture is the preserve of any one magazine, but rather it exists in the intersection between them all.
If you could publish any writer on any subject, who (and what) would it be? Dream big!
I do dream big, and this is why I am not going to tell you! Because I always act on my dreams, and I am currently in negotiations with several writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, from Australia and overseas, whom I am trying to persuade to publish in Island. Like me, you’ll have to wait to see what happens!
That said, I have tried, first as editor of RAF, to get David Ireland to publish a story. I have even offered to publish his supposedly unpublishable novel, Desire. All to no avail. As an editor of Island, I have recently made fresh overtures to Ireland. But I am not optimistic of the outcome. If Randolph Stow was still alive, I would also stalk him.
Outside of my own personal preference (although not completely independent of it), I would like more established writers to publish in Island. I’ve read through its backlists, and there are many writers—like Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, Peter Goldsworthy, and so on—who published in Island in the 1980s, when they were fledgling writers, cutting their teeth. Island is, of course, not unique in providing a platform for many of our now-established writers. But I think it is absolutely essential that such writers support our lit mags, and to publish in them, if only to ensure that the next generation of fledgling writers have the same opportunities to be published, and to cut their teeth.
What would be your advice to aspiring writers dreaming of being published in Island? Do you have any dos and/or don’ts?
At the risk of repeating myself, I would say the most important piece of advice for aspiring writers is to subscribe to the magazine you want to publish in. We are actually going to have a new submissions policy at Island: that we are only going to publish the work of subscribers. This is not to discourage non-subscribers from submitting, or even to limit who we commission work from, but for every non-subscriber published in the magazine (even if they are commissioned), we are going to deduct the cost of a subscription from their contributors fee. So they will be paid, part cash, part subscription.
I recently did a survey of all the lit mags I subscribe to, and I found that the ratio of submissions to subscriptions leans more toward submissions, by a factor of between two- to ten-times more submissions than subscriptions per annum. What this means is that most writers in Australia want to be supported by, but they do not, in turn, want to support the sources of their own publication. How is that sustainable? This doesn’t make sense to me. Writers are readers, too, and they ought to be the first readers of the publications they aspire to publish in.
In terms of content, my only advice is: don’t be boring. That is the advice that an established writer and critic has given to me, and I think they are right. There is a lot of boring writing in Australia, in fiction, but particularly in non-fiction, and I think there are many reasons for this. Boring equals safe, which equals publishable. Don’t be boring. It may not lead to immediate publication, but at least your integrity will be intact. And if you compromise that, then you lose the core of your writing.
Island 132 is published on March 23. www.islandmag.com