Yesterday’s revelations that newly-appointed Melbourne University Press associate editor Sally Heath will succeed Sophie Cunningham as editor of Meanjin has set the literary-world aflutter, as critics continue to question the publishing house’s direction.

The role, which was not advertised, will see Heath, a long-time editor of The Age‘s A2 section before moving to MUP, take control of a fresh era for the 70-year-old cornerstone, piloted by MUP CEO Louise Adler, Chairman Alan Kohler and a new editorial board.

Heath will split the part-time editor’s role with her current duties at MUP, of which Meanjin is an imprint.

Kohler told Crikey this morning that the decision to hire Heath was “wonderful”. “Sally will do a great job. We were blessed that she was available.”

Cunningham, who is good friends with Heath, announced her departure from the literary journal in controversial circumstances in October, telling Crikey she only met with Kohler once during her three-year reign and that she was excluded from discussions about the publication’s future.

Criticism of the decision continues to fester. On ABC radio recently, another former Meanjin editor, Jim Davidson, fresh from delivering a stinging lecture to commemorate the publication’s 70th birthday, described MUP as “Sphinx-like.” During the lecture, attended by Adler and Kohler, he said the low-circulation journal was “in danger of losing its distinct identity” as the online world encroached.

Yesterday’s press release announcing the Heath appointment hinted at a greater web presence. “It is an exciting time to work on the journal: to stay true to its tradition while exploring imaginative options to connect with readers,” Heath said.

But the gig could prove a demanding one. The energetic Adler listed a grab bag of new formats for the publication, including “print editions, compendiums, websites, blogs, mobile applications and other forms we cannot yet forsee.”

Adler told Crikey that Cunningham “was a wonderful editor of the magazine” and that Sally will bring her own “equally distinctive signature.”

The rejuvenated editorial board, chaired by Kate Darian-Smith and featuring luminaries David Malouf, Brian Johns, Lindsay Tanner, Richard Glover, Alison Croggon and David Gaunt, will serve as a sounding board under the new paradigm. However, Crikey understands that Darian-Smith may not have been aware of her new title until yesterday’s release emerged. One critic of the fresh appointments said the board appeared to be comprised of a “baby boomer brigade”.

Kohler disputed this, saying the previous advisory committee hadn’t been very active, and that the board had decided to reconstitute it and give it a formal timetable: “these are leaders of the Australasian literary community, and we are very pleased to announce their involvement.”

The Meanjin changeover comes amid upheaval elsewhere in Adler’s ranks. Crikey can reveal that respected Executive Publisher Foong-Ling Kong, the partner of Gangland author Mark Davis, will also up sticks this month. Her exit would appear to leave MUP short on senior staff, with publisher Elisa Berg also soon to be temporarily out of the office.

However, Adler said her university-backed venture was going from strength to strength, alerting Crikey to a slate of “excellent releases” in the pipeline for 2011 and pointing out that at tonight’s Walkley Awards two out of the three nominees for book of the year — March of the Patriots by Paul Kelly and The River by Chris Hammer — emanated from the MUP stable.

“All is well at MUP,” Adler added.

Peter Fray

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