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ALR closure shows a literary culture that runs on love, not money

Yesterday Crikey revealed that, due to the withdrawal of its annual $350,000 in funding from the Group of Eight universities, The Australian’s monthly literary supplement, the Australian Literary Review, will no longer be published.

So far, the most striking thing about this news has been the relative equanimity with which it has been greeted. I haven’t yet noticed an impassioned call to “SAVE THE ALR!” or a sentiment that its survival is crucial, in the same way Australian men and women of letters are rallying around many other projects from Tasmanian literary journal Island to the Emerging Writers’ Festival and the Stella Prize.

Rather, people are sad yet resigned, or even uncaring. Many on social media (including the commenters at Crikey) have said, “It’s no big loss, because it was too poorly written/too conservative/too boring/too exclusive.” Some have said flatly that the ALR’s closure has removed their last reason to read The Australian.

We could put this down to the general feeling among Australia’s left-leaning literati that Rupert Murdoch and his various media organs are evil and deserve to be abandoned by the noble sandstone universities. But the odd thing is that ALR editor Luke Slattery and his employer News Limited don’t seem especially bothered, either.

They’re not publicly campaigning to resuscitate their baby, in the way that Marni Cordell and Catriona Menzies-Pike are striving to keep their independent, progressive news and commentary site New Matilda afloat. Slattery told Crikey he’s “achieved our goals”. Yes, mission accomplished. He certainly doesn’t need to worry about his job, because the Oz will find another spot for him elsewhere.

These responses reveal how frustratingly habituated Australians are to a media climate in which “serious” (which is often interpreted as “long-form”) literary and cultural criticism is seen — and even idealised — as precarious and marginal. It doesn’t have to be; whatever The Australian might say about its dire advertising figures, News Limited had the resources to champion the ALR if it really wanted to. But publishers, writers and readers are unwilling to challenge the status quo that public intellectual labour in this country runs on love, not money.

As Ben Eltham has pointed out, a mere handful of Australian organisations — Eltham chiefly identifies News Limited, Fairfax, the ABC and the wire service AAP — are squatting on the majority of media resources, economic and human. They’ve got the money, but they don’t often have the love — that is, the conviction that nuanced criticism enriches Australian public life, and the enthusiasm to find new opportunities for it wherever they can. Instead, budgets and staff are trimmed, funding commitments withdrawn and editorial slashed.

Look at how the ABC has gutted its arts broadcasting. Look at the way Mark Davis’s Gangland is still achingly relevant after 14 years and countless well-reviewed memoirs about baby boomers’ childhoods. Look at the way freelance critics jostle for few media gigs that offer limited intellectual autonomy, before heading home to work on their passion projects.

Writers and independent media organisations alike chase the money by harnessing the love. That is, they cultivate fun, approachable personas, build loyal cult followings who champion and even crowdfund their work, and bribe their audiences with giveaways — either products, or glimpses of their private selves.

And look at what happens when we accept this poverty of discourse. We get Q&A  — the dully predictable, preening, posturing spectacle that passes for public debate in this country, accompanied by demented quipping and ranting on Twitter. Q&A is just the worst. Imagine if people actually fed their souls and read a book or watched a film for that hour instead.

Journalism academic Jason Wilson has raised the issue of whether the Group of Eight withdrew funding from the ALR in favour of The Conversation, the bold online experiment in which academics write about their research in a journalistic style, for a general audience. But while The Conversation employs staff writers and editors, it too disengages money from love, trafficking in the professional enthusiasm of contributors who are not paid for their articles. It’s best seen as an engaging sample of current scholarly enquiry rather than a new model for journalism.

What I ask you to imagine is how radically different our mediascape would be if independent media enjoyed a level of resources equal to its energy and ambitions,” Eltham writes.

Indeed. Personally, I was actually quite excited by the demise of ALR — not because I have anything against the publication, but because it opens a space for another, fresh and local, literary review. It is embarrassing that Australians would feel themselves satisfied by only The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books.

I’d totally run a replacement Australian literary review myself. I’d recruit local writers I admire, wrangle review copies from the various publishers, edit reviews into elegance and persuasiveness, and promote the publication out of sheer bloody-minded belief that it all matters.

But the trick is to make it matter to the people with the money. Initiatives such as the Readings Foundation suggest things might change in future, but right now any replacement literary review will have to run on love. And I don’t have love to spare. As a wise woman once said on the internet, I can’t hug every cat.

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