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‘Careless’ governance at Meanjin: former ed on the storied journal

To lose one editor is a misfortune; to lose two or three, damned careless. Jim Davidson paraphrased Oscar Wilde in last night’s commemorative lecture for Meanjin’s 70th anniversary. The opposite of a sentimental stroll down memory lane, the talk, A Cork Upon the Ocean: Meanjin and the Changing Context, 1940-2010, was a focused survey of the magazine’s visionary life, culminating in a blistering critique of its current situation — Meanjin has lately become Melbourne University’s endangered quarterly.

Meanjin, you will recall, made news recently when its still current editor Sophie Cunningham declined to renew her contract. She told Crikey earlier this month that she had only met Melbourne University Press chairman Alan Kohler once during her three-year reign and that she was locked out of formal discussions about the publication’s future.

Davidson, editor No. 2 from 1974-1982, showed a slide of a dying Assyrian lioness: “Every editorship ends like that,” he stated, “all those arrows in your backside.”

In the Prince Philip Theatre, two people right up the front may also have been feeling sympathetic to the lioness: MUP CEO Louise Adler, and Kohler. All those eyes staring at them from the back.

Davidson described how Meanjin was started in 1940 wartime Brisbane by a 29-year-old Clem Christesen. How Christesen had nutured, fought for and dragged it into a magazine with a brilliant rollcall: Patrick White and A. D. Hope, Hal Porter, Martin Boyd and Christina Stead, A. A. Philips’ article that coined the phrase “cultural cringe”, Margaret Preston and Sidney Nolan, “the Jindyworobaks (neo-Aboriginal nationalists) and the Angry Penguins (modernists)” and, amazingly, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Louis Aragon, Albert Camus, Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas. And Solzhenitsyn “at the height of his fame”. Fantastically, Judith Wright was the magazine’s first secretary.

As Davidson puts it: “It was this surprising connectedness at a time when people still largely travelled in ships and wrote on aerogrammes, that made it remarkable that a 1953 survey emanating from Princeton should declare Meanjin one of the seven best literary magazines in the English-speaking world.”

Meanjin was not in the ivory tower: “Prime minister Ben Chifley questioned its relevance for the common man. Later there would be parliamentary attacks, while the subsidy from the Commonwealth Literary Fund was suspended a number of times — even under the Labor government — on the grounds that the magazine had strayed into politics when its function should be purely literary.” Then there was the Petrov affair: “The Christesens were called to the witness box in 1955.”

So, how, or why, has the university’s intellectual jewel fallen into a boghole?

We don’t know and Davidson doesn’t divine the answer. But he can see and diagnose the problems. To quote briefly — he said much more and with great nuance — regarding migrating the magazine exclusively online:

Meanjin … has a fluctuating readership, a cluster of constituencies. Many people pick it up in a bookshop, and decide to buy it on the strength of the number of articles that appeal to them. To go entirely online would be a form of suicide, certainly it would corral it into ineffectuality… Ten years ago Eureka Street was riding high, reaching out from its Catholic base; now … the wider influence of the magazine, appearing only on the net, is negligible. Many former readers are unaware of its continued existence.”

So is there a fundamental problem? The sting came here:

To lose one editor, Lady Bracknell might have said, is a misfortune; but to lose two or three, damned careless… The tenure of Meanjin editors overall is getting shorter. They’re blowing like fuses. Two of the journal’s best editors have now felt compelled to resign. And these were editors as different as Ian Britain, a cultivated historian … and Sophie Cunningham, a successful novelist … [which] suggest that the problems go beyond online issues or circulation, and relate directly to governance.”

The audience stirred from goodwill and interest to wide-eared fascination. The G-word. This was like chucking indendiaries at the face of the governors in the front row.

Meanjin … should never have been taken in to MUP…”

There was a tremendous to-the-death struggle in 2007 before Ian Britain resigned over the very issue of Meanjin being absorbed into MUP.

Meanjin deserves to be a separate subsidiary, as in effect it was until quite recently, with a responsible board more capable of focusing on its own peculiar problems quite different from those of a publishing house. The public, aware of Meanjin’s long connection with the University of Melbourne despite its now being stranded in a wholly-owned subsidiary, still thinks of it basically as a responsibility of the university. I think so too.

After all, there are precedents. The Griffith Review was established with Griffith University’s full support: it has an editor who is a full professor, other salaried staff members, and is a designated unit with distinct office space. The then vice-chancellor, who remains on its advisory board, is Glyn Davis [Davis is VC of Melbourne University]. It should not be so difficult to apply the same principles here. Meanjin is a brand with 67 years association with the university and with this university alone…”

The applause went on for far longer than was merely polite: it was audible enthusiasm. Adler and Kohler made the long climb back up the theatre’s steps. As he passed by, the affable Kohler managed to smile and gave a wave. I waved back.

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