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Australian literary magazines

Dame Nellie Melba cartoon from Melbourne Punch, 1908.

Dame Nellie Melba cartoon from Melbourne Punch, 1908.
Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

From the Australian Magazine's debut in 1821, Australia's magazine industry developed rapidly in the late nineteenth century through popular titles such as the Bulletin and Melbourne Punch. Alongside these more mainstream publications, a series of small, literary magazines also emerged as powerful agents for expressing and challenging Australia's intellectual and artistic culture.

Literary magazines may focus on a specific type of literature, a particular region, or a work that reflects a distinct perspective on the world. However, most contain a combination of non-fiction articles, book reviews, short fiction, poetry and commentary on literary and cultural issues. In many cases, the direction of a literary magazine is strongly influenced by its editor, often an influential writer or cultural commentator in their own right.

The contributors and producers of these magazines have battled with unpredictable funding, limited subscriptions and the frequently conflicting demands of institutional support, scholarly standards and commercial appeal.

'Little Magazines'

History has illustrated the intense yet transient life of many of these 'little magazines' as they published work reflecting a unique and sometimes controversial approach, often appealing to a minority rather than the mainstream.

The following examples track the history of some of Australia's more stable and prominent literary magazines. Even this brief survey demonstrates the determination and vitality that can be discovered within the hundreds of titles that have appeared since 1821.

Overland

Overland magazine, issue 173.

Overland magazine, issue 173. Image courtesy of Overland.

Founded in 1954 under the editor Stephen Murray-Smith, the Overland magazine was initially linked to the Melbourne Realist Writers' Group, an organisation sponsored by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

Adopting the motto, 'Temper democratic; Bias, Australian', the magazine announced in its first issue that it would:

...aim high, but [have] no exclusive or academic standards of any kind. It will make a special point of developing writing talent in people of diverse background.
Quote cited from AusLit - Australian Magazines of the Twentieth Century.

In 1958, the magazine split from its CPA sponsor, partly in response to this policy of publishing for a 'non-elite' reader. Early issues included articles on the bombing of Hiroshima, censorship and the conditions in Aboriginal communities. Overland has maintained a strong reputation for investigating volatile political and social issues. The articles, artwork, fiction, reviews and poetry within its pages often express attitudes and experiences that are excluded from mainstream publishing.

Meanjin

Although strongly associated with the University of Melbourne, Meanjin began its publishing life in Brisbane in 1940. Founding editor, Clem Christesen, claimed the magazine was a:

... journal of ideas, built around books, to encourage free expression and intelligent criticism, to put forward 'advance guard' material, develop contacts abroad- - a Literary Lend-lease.
AusLit - Australian Magazines of the Twentieth Century

The magazine attracted a high calibre of Australian and international writers which, during the 1950s and 60s, included Xavier Herbert, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Anais Nin and Jean-Paul Sartre. A range of prints and designs from influential artists such as Margaret Preston and Noel Counihan also appeared in these early editions.

In the 1970s and 80s, Meanjin continued to support both established and emerging writers. Writing by women and migrants to Australia were acknowledged as two important community issues for Australia. Contributors during this period included Bruce Dawe, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Tom Shapcott, Marion Halligan, Les Murray, Patrick White, Tim Winton and Frank Moorhouse.

In recent years, Meanjin editors have produced a number of theme-based issues that responded to academic and cultural interest in subjects such as museums, corporatisation, food, travel, suburban life and queer studies.

Quadrant

Meanjin magazine,

Meanjin magazine, 'Meanjin Does Drugs' issue. Image courtesy of Meanjin.

Founded as an initiative of the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom in 1956, Quadrant magazine was established to protect liberty and creativity in the face of the perceived threat of communism. Many of Australia's most prominent poets have appeared in the magazine, however fiction has also been regularly published.

Quadrant's first editor was the poet James McAuley, co-author of an infamous hoax in Australian literary history, the invention of the fictitious modernist poet Ern Malley .

Under the editorial direction of Robert Manne in the 1990s, the magazine shifted focus to include discussion of Aboriginal issues such as the 'stolen generation' and land rights. However, Manne resigned in 1997 in the face of increasing tension over his editorial direction.

The magazine has recently been edited by economic journalist Padraic McGuinness, and the celebrated poet, Les Murray.

Quadrant magazine has been described as a conservative publication, aligning itself to 'right wing' politics. On the Quadrant website, the magazine is described as having 'persistently questioned [the] orthodoxy' of the influence of 'left-wing moral authoritarianism' on fashionable thought in much of the Australian media, universities and the arts.

Southerly

Published by the Sydney branch of the London-based English Association, Southerly magazine quickly grew from a four-page bulletin in 1932 and now produces regular editions of up to 200 pages. The title was adopted to invoke the vigorous, unpredictable weather change in Sydney known as the 'southerly buster'.

Closely associated with English literary traditions, the publication also reflected the English Association's objective of preserving the purity of the English language. The founding editor, R G Howarth, was a lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, and a number of subsequent editors have maintained this institutional link.

Howarth adopted a policy of supporting European material alongside Australian poetry, prose and articles, stating his desire to maintain 'the cultural good relations that have hitherto subsisted between the mother and the daughter countries' (AusLit - Australian Magazines of the Twentieth Century).

Although Howarth was criticised for a lack of focus on local content, Australian subjects and authors gradually appeared in greater proportions in the pages of Southerly .

Under Kenneth Slessor's editorial stint in the late fifties, the sub-title a review of Australian literature was added and the publication continued to develop as an outlet for academic discussion of local literary issues.

Useful links

Australian literary magazines

Offline resources

  • Carter, David, 'Magazine Culture: Notes Towards a History of Australian Periodical Publication 1920-1970', in Bartlett, Dixon & Lee (eds) 1999, Australian Literature and the Public Sphere , ASAL, Toowoomba, pp.69-79.
  • Green, H M 1962, A History of Australian Literature, Vol I 1789-1923 , Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
  • Greenop, Frank 1947, History of Magazine Publishing in Australia , K G Murray Publishing Co, Sydney.
  • Tregenza, John 1964, Australian Little Magazines 1923-1954: Their Role in Forming and Reflecting Literary Trends, Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide.

Last updated: 26th November 2007

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