Meanjin2‘To lose one editor is a misfortune; but 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. (The original cover, right.)

(News recap: Meanjin made news recently when its still current editor, Sophie Cunningham, declined to renew her contract, largely because of uncertainty, I was not formally consulted once about Meanjin’s future.” The most persistent rumour from an unnamed source is: “The view was that it should go online and be available only online,” a move regarded as a deadly blow. See links below.)


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“Arrows in your backside”

clemJim Davidson, who was editor No. 2 from 1974-1982, had earlier shown a slide of a dying Assyrian lioness: “Every editorship ends like that — 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: CEO of Melbourne University Press, Louise Adler, and Alan Kohler, Chair of the MUP board, as they were confronted with Davidson’s closing remarks — all those eyes staring at them from the back.

The Meanjin jewel

While the survey portion of Dr Davidson’s talk was a freshly interesting story of Meanjin‘s beginnings and trajectory, in retrospect it also built the frame for his later, forceful comments.

Davidson described how Meanjin was started in wartime Brisbane, 1940, by a 29-y-o Clem Christesen (right). How Christesen had nutured, fought for and dragged it into a magazine with this kind of 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.”

They’re blowing like fuses.” And a matter of governance

JD-1So, 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. I quote brief bits here, he said much more and with great nuance. Regarding migrating the magazine exclusively online Davidson said:

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.

Is there a fundamental problem? Davidson’s view:

One last aspect must be addressed this evening, concerning Meanjin’s governance. ‘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 on-line issues or circulation, and relate directly to governance.

wowAt this point I scribbled a word in my notebook, right, and showed it to the person next to me, Hilary McPhee, who was suddenly looking intense. The audience made muffled exclamations and stirred from goodwilled 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 bowed to the powers that were, and 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 Melb. Uni.) It should not be so difficult to apply the same principles here. Meanjin is a brand with sixty-seven years’ association with the University and with this University alone …

The applause went on for far longer than was properly polite: it was audible enthusiasm just throttled back from actual cheering and foot-stamping.

Louise Adler and Alan Kohler made the long climb back up the theatre’s steps. As he passed by the affable Kohler smiled and gave a wave. I waved back.

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Meanjin in the news: The Australian; the SMH; Peter Craven in the Age; Ben Eltham in Crikey; Sophie Cunningham in Crikey. Jim Davidson talked about Meanjin‘s online prospects on Radio National’s Books Show today. Listen this evening, or on podcast.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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