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The Monthly’s knife fight in a dinghy

Academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so small,” the old saying goes. By that comparison, magazine politics are like a knife-fight in a dinghy. So one can only speculate on what the mood has been like in the office of The Monthly over the past, erm, months.

Editor Sally Warhaft quit last week, announcing that she could no longer work on the title, and that she was having problems with the hands-on management style of Robert Manne — a man whom Monthly publisher Morry Schwartz regards, in the words of one Melbourne wit/barfly, as a cross between George Orwell and General Moshe Dayan — Warhaft having been Manne’s former colleague at LaTrobe. Sweet Caroline Overington has a gossip piece in The Oz media section about how Schwarz, Manne and Warhaft fell out over the autonomy of the editor vs. the Board, i.e. Schwartz and Manne — though being Overington, it’s written like a Mills and Boon, with “willowy beauty” Warhaft weeping in the back of Jimmy Watsons as Schwartz and Manne over-ride her decisions mwah-hah-hah-hah! (that’s evil laughter).

Without breaking too many confidences it can be said that communiqués from The Monthly mother ship have indicated that a struggle of sorts was underway, and that the issue was the degree to which The Monthly would move more in the direction of being a magazine of ideas — which it largely isn’t at the moment — or a glossier, more reportage-y title. I assumed Warhaft was of the latter persuasion, but now I’m not so sure.

Whatever the case, anything that can give The Monthly a bit more intellectual bite is welcome. This correspondent has long been itching to write about the publication, demurring only because it is a long time since I’ve had my calls returned, and the only commissions came from non-Warhaft-ite forces attempting to smuggle me in as it were. It seemed difficult to say something in a way that didn’t sound like sour grapes.

Now, it’ll sound like smug payback, but what the hey. The main thing is that The Monthly is scarcely doing what you would expect of the country’s only well-funded publication of commentary.

It’s run a couple of significant essays — but they’ve all been by the Prime Minister. It’s run some great writing — but a whole issue of great writing is fehhhh, ultimately like an all-dessert five course meal. And it’s had some good reportage — but most of it from a type of writer who, for good reasons or ill, has no strongly committed point of view, aside from conventional left-liberal or centre-right pieties.

Looking through the contents of the current issue — Harry Nicolaides on being banged up in Bangkok for lese majeste, Gideon Haigh on the furniture maker Damian Wright’s table for the Morwell Koori County Court, Gail Bell on terminal patients and their experiences. I’m sure that all these will be well-written and also that none of the ideas in them will be particularly challenging.

And, as the world seems to be coming apart at the seams, there seems a marginality to the concerns, a degree of preciousness in the approach. The review section is better, with a group review of some “state-of-the-world” books (though it’s a pretty unchallenging selection for review) and a piece by Inga Clendinnen on the anthropologist Bill Stanner, which will be interesting but scarcely urgent.

That’s the core of the magazine, and there’s something missing, i.e. a core. From global economics, to what appears to be the meltdown of West Asia, from a critical account of Ruddism — Bonhoeffer with alcopops — to the future of Australian liberalism, from the ceaselessly changing world of media to biotechnological revolutions in everyday life, from some heavy analysis of the climate sceptic “movement” to the changing nature of identity … The Monthly seems to be missing a great deal of it. In the early period of Warhaft’s editorship there were essays by Anne Manne, which constituted the closest the publication came to mixing some Big Ideas into among the reportage (aside from Justin Clemens’s art reviews, also vanished). Apart from the PM’s contributions of course.

Of course. And that is another part of the problem. For if your principal fund of ideas is coming from the man who is also about to be/actually is the country’s leader, then you’re less a publication of critical commentary than a mouthpiece. Worse, when — amazingly and inexcusably — the publication has no letter/comment/reply section, then the debate stops there, as a series of instructions from the dear leader. The only commentary on Rudd’s 7000 word essay on “social capitalism” in The Monthly was a (solid, but summary) piece by Robert Manne, largely attacking critics elsewhere who had seen it as nothing but a cynical ploy.

According to “Reader, They Redacted Her”, Overington’s piece, the next issue was going to contain a bunch of responses to Rudd’s opus, and the question of who would get to write the intro - Warhaft or Manne — led to Warhaft’s departure.

All well and good, but aren’t there any other bloody ideas around, except those that flow from the PM? The thing that hamstrings the Monthly is that not a few of its principals, from the publisher on down, don’t really want to change things that much. Conceived and born in the Howard years, the election of Rudd constituted ninety per cent of its war aims. Unfortunately, and even before the global financial meltdown, the world was changing faster than this mild ambition could accommodate — and in ways that can’t be ignored.

When the world is in face-masks, General Motors is asking to be nationalised, the Taliban is marching on Islamabad, the Chinese are calling for a new global currency, more live organ transplants are the result of cash transaction than donation, and the newspaper appears on the verge of winking out of existence, etc etc the failure to take on Big Ideas becomes unignorable, a gaping hole. To not recognise that the left-liberal ideology, really a late Whitlamism, of a well-connected elite is simply a bubble on the stream, is to miss a great historical opportunity. Reportage, whether from Kabul or the Kimberley, isn’t enough.

That relative absence of ideas applies, I hasten to add, not only to the absence of writers further left than a leftish-centre, though their absence is striking — no Jeff Sparrow, Katherine Wilson, Mark Bahnisch, John Quiggin, Geoff Boucher, Larissa Behrendt, Humphrey McQueen, Terry Janke, Mark Davis (the Gangland one), Julie Stephens, David McKnight, Anita Heiss and that’s right off the top of me head — but no interesting classical/neo- liberals either — Jason Soon, Andrew Norton, Charles Richardson, Rafe Champion — or genuine conservatives like Mark Richardson, John Carroll, Pierre Ryckmans*. No longer critical pieces from the likes of Christos Tsiolkas, Owen Richardson, David Bennett, Eve Vincent, Bob Ellis, Germaine Greer, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Mischa Merz, Gig Ryan … and on and on. Even leaving out people whose writing is too academic or activist you can field a pretty impressive team. **

I would dare to suggest that a contents at least partly drawn from the above would render a publication with more punch than the current line up. Doubtless some of these people have been asked and declined (and some have got the occasional guernsey), but I know that most would jump at the dollar-a-word fee. Some are overexposed and you’d use them sparingly — certainly more sparingly than the limited roll-call of the existing Monthly contributors — but so many of the existing writers are, compared to the above lot, so goddam tepid.***

Doubtless, The Monthly sells well — though I would be interested to know the turnover rate, and whether the surge that began when Warhaft hit her straps has maintained, levelled out, or gone over the hump – but, really, who cares? What’s the point of all that effort if it’s just something for Malvern people to read while they wait in for the antiques to be delivered? (ok a little unfair)

When Morry Schwartz announced plans to create the magazine, the model he suggested was The Atlantic — a magazine that’s been setting the debate agenda for the last 20 years (though it’s fading now). Later The New Yorker got mentioned — a significant crabwise move. In the recent brouhaha, the titles he floated by comparison were the latter and Vanity Fair.

Vanity Fair? Seriously, Morry? Aside from its occasional exposes, VF is a Conde Nast court circular, a three hundred page high-gloss fart which treats an interview with Ashton Kutcher like it was an evening with Sir Isaiah Berlin? That’s the acme of your aspiration? What a waste of energy and life. I liked Plan A better.

To go into the magazine trade now is like starting a stable just as the first Model T Ford rolls off the line. One better have a clear idea of why you’re doing it, otherwise all you do is make it more difficult for the rest of us. One result of the fees paid by the Monthly and the much-meatier (though to a degree similarly exclusionary) Quarterly Essay, has been to make it more difficult to run non-paying magazines upon which much of Australian culture depended.

Yet Meanjin, Arena, Overland and others have all, at various times in their existences, made far more happen, using far less, than The Monthly seems even willing to attempt at the moment. That effectiveness came from the solidarity generated by adversity — the absent centre of the Monthly arises from the fact that there’s a cash nexus where the heart should be.

One wonders whether the dilemma I’ve just described has been animating the glorious struggle within Fortress Flinders Lane over the past months. We shall watch with interest, and the vague hope that the soft mouthpiece may be about to sprout teeth.

*Ryckmanns has written a piece under his pseudonym/alt persona Simon Leys, and it’s not bad — but not the more combative argumentative pieces he has written under his own name.

**I have left out my Arena colleagues for the sake of propriety, but half a dozen of them could easily go on the list.

***Those “capitalist realist” covers are awful too — I was in the DDR Museum this morning and can attest that Erich Honecker didn’t get the same angelic glow from his portraitists that King Kevin gets on the front of the Monthly. And can people please stop publishing poems by Clive James? If you hate poetry why not just say so, it’s simpler.

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