This Is How We Do It: editing the Lifted Brow
Founded in 2007, literary magazine (or self-described ‘attack journal’) the Lifted Brow has published the work of many of Australia’s (and the world’s) best writers – as well as those approaching publication for the first time. Nine years and 30 issues on, the magazine has evolved through a variety of print and digital formats – and will soon publish its first novel.
Departing editors Gillian Terzis and Ellena Savage talk us through some of their favourite pieces, published during their time at the Brow.
‘How to Build a Universe’, Emily Meller, TLB 30
At the Brow we receive a lot of submissions from established and emerging writers, but it’s often those from the latter category that invigorate me the most. Their ideas are often ‘out of the box’, they are usually not as set in their ways, and are usually less afraid of failure.
I first noticed Emily Meller’s creative non-fiction in Seizure and the Lifted Brow online, and was struck by her eloquence and the diversity of her output. When I saw her name pop up in our submissions portal, I jumped at the chance to work with her. Her pitch on the 3D space simulation programme Space Engine, ‘How to Build a Universe’, was a clear standout – unusual and ambitious, a perfect fit for the Brow. Very few essays come in fully formed, but hers was pretty close.
'[Emerging writers'] ideas are often "out of the box", they are usually not as set in their ways, and are usually less afraid of failure'
I am deeply interested in the intersection between technology and culture, as well as the tensions between physical and virtual realities. Yet so much writing on these subjects treats technology like a fad or, worse still, trades in clichés or sentimentality. Reading Meller’s work was a thrill: she resists easy angles and obvious trains of thought. She shows that technology writing can be exquisite and even beautiful. ‘How to Build a Universe’ is a history of how Space Engine came to exist, but it’s also a compelling and challenging exploration of alternate realities, procedural generation and the computer programmer as a kind of metaphysical poet. Meller’s prose is controlled and exacting; her observations are sharp and occasionally droll. It’s a pleasure to read, even if you have zero interest in alternate galaxies or the predilections of a Soviet programmer.
‘True Lies’, Stephanie Convery, TLB 28
When I started editing the Brow with Ellena and Steph [van Schilt], we each drew up a list of dream contributors – writers in Australia and abroad that we’d love to grace our pages. Stephanie Convery was at the top of my list: I’d been in awe of her essays in Overland for some time. She’s such a precise and clear-headed thinker, and her writing on politics, feminism and culture pulses with urgency.
Her writing, even when it takes a more personal tone, is grounded in deeper political questions about selfhood, the market and the state. Convery resists drawing glib conclusions in her work – she’s more interested in probing our discomfort. She uses her writing to interrogate her own position, and asks the reader to do the same.
I crossed my fingers and emailed Convery to see if she had anything she might like to submit. To my delight, she was keen, and pitched an essay about public liars – what are their motivations? Why do they capture our fascination? It was impeccably timed as the fall-out from Belle Gibson’s cancer scandal was gathering pace and I was over the moon with the essay when it came in. It was thought-provoking and considered, unsettling and engrossing. She investigates acts of lying across the spectrum: from the deceptions we peddle on a daily basis to the grand delusions of our most disgraced public liars.
What I loved most about working on her piece was that it contained so many interesting narrative threads: which ones should be emphasised? How do we blend memoir, cultural analysis and theoretical frameworks in a seamless way? Convery was wonderful to work with: she responded to edits thoughtfully and generously. The end result was an electrifying essay that dissects not only the impulse that drives one to lie, but the discomfiting realities about the nature of truth.
‘The Necessary Ugliness of Sadistik Exekution’, Shaun Prescott, TLB 29
Shaun Prescott is a long-time contributor to the Brow. He has written considered and thoughtful criticism on games, literature and music, and is also an accomplished fiction writer. What draws me to his writing is that it feels like an invitation to another world. For instance, I know next to nothing about games, but I was compelled by a column he wrote that made a case against narrative realism and even downloaded Fez on his recommendation.
We were a little short on columnists for that edition of the Brow, and I needed to find someone who would write something strange and great for us at short notice. Thankfully Prescott was interested, and pitched a portrait of Sydney’s artistic decline via a history of extreme metal band Sadistik Exekution. I knew very little about metal, but I was fascinated by the developments that had taken hold over Sydney in recent years: the lock-outs, the closure of many high-profile music venues, its stratospheric housing market. It seemed like a city that was especially hostile to making art.
The beauty of ‘The Necessary Ugliness of Sadistik Exekution’ is in how it manages to be many things at once. It is an elegy to Sydney and a protest against the political moment; it’s a super funny tale of a metal band yet a depressing snapshot of how the city functions. His work struck the perfect equilibrium between humour and seriousness, and tackled a contentious topic in an original and weird way.
‘Objects in Mirrors’, Antonia Hayes, TLB 30
I met the author Antonia Hayes properly about a year and a half ago – some of the Brow staff were in San Francisco, where Hayes had just moved with her partner and son. Steph, Gil and I had just started editing the Brow and we were stressing about the first edition, and Antonia was stressing about the final stages of her manuscript Relativity (which would go on to be a bestseller).
I’m always curious about how people live, as in how they structure their days, where their money comes from, what they spend it on, their views on God, sex, and the King, etc. So basically, I spent a lot of time grilling Hayes on her novel: how she made the damn thing, what it was like to write outside the closed-circuit of Australian publishing, how much she earned. When she told me about it, her experience was so foreign to my understanding of publishing – it was a story of success! It was so fascinating, and Hayes is such a fine writer, so I asked if she’d write an essay on this experience.
'Writers often downplay their achievements, because they’re working in a defeated professional climate'
How do you talk about your achievements as a writer to other writers who are struggling? How do you take pride in your work, when you know how much work goes unnoticed? Writers often downplay their achievements, because they’re working in a defeated professional climate. Hayes is so gracious and introspective in ‘Objects in Mirrors’, it’s an essay that succeeds in answering some of these questions. While Hayes earned a substantial amount from her novel (though, factor in the hours of labour and it equates to a fair and decent professional wage), she reflects on the fact that the money doesn’t solve the psychic trouble of writing and selling a book.
She was great to work with – very generous with her time, and really responsive to feedback and suggestions. I’m always moved when authors respond graciously to editorial suggestions. It’s a relationship of trust, and I find that the more comfortable an author is in their own voice and their work, the less defensive they are against an editor saying, ‘How about we open the piece here?’, etc.
‘The Critic’, Jana Perković, column
‘The Critic’, Jana Perković’s column on performance, has been running since I was arts editor back in 2014. She writes it in the personal third person – the Critic this, the Critic that. Perković is an established theatre and arts critic and journo, but I like pointing readers to her work in the Brow because I think it’s the space in which her writing takes its most moving and compelling risks. The Critic moves between theatre criticism, political criticism, life writing and a philosophy of emotions. It’s ‘personal criticism’ at its best. She obliterates the distinction between the artist and the critic. When she’s viewing theatre, she’s viewing it as an artist, finding its meanings – in its aesthetic successes and failures – and stitching them into the fabric that holds everything together.
Perković has never needed much editorial input. She knows her voice and her reader. I think perhaps I’m so enamoured of this column because of what it represents at the Brow. It’s writing that sets its own terms and never panders; it is quite highbrow and lyrical without defending itself against the broader Australian culture where we’re supposed to pretend we don’t read, and act as though art is frivolous.
‘Dreams in Daylight Country’, Luke Carman, TLB 30
I really enjoyed Luke Carman’s novel An Elegant Young Man, not just because it’s beautifully written, but also because I’d recognised myself in its pages. The book follows a neurotic young man from Liverpool around Sydney’s western suburbs. The narrator is reading Whitman, feeling alienated and having grand aspirations around the place my mum grew up (one of his characters lives on my grandma’s street). In a lot of ways, this area closely resembles the part of Melbourne I lived in during my adolescence and early adulthood.
'I have this sense that there’s some class snobbery around the idea of "culture" in Australia'
I have this sense that there’s some class snobbery around the idea of ‘culture’ in Australia. If you sound intelligent, or if you make art of any kind, you’re presumed to be upper-class. It’s certainly not true, but you find that the literature that focuses on the lives of people who aren’t upper-middle class tends to be branded as ‘outsider literature’. Carman’s work challenges this precept – it’s intelligent and lyrical, but it talks in colloquialisms, too. For me, it says that the ‘outsider artist’ is a fiction – all artists are outsiders, and most are from the boonies.
So I asked Carman to submit an essay on anything he liked and he pitched me an essay about dream divination, Hélène Cixous and learning to write. From the start, the piece was rich, poetic and dreamy, and I loved it.