The story so far … your correspondent opened his Crikey yesterday to find a long, angry reply from Luke Slattery regarding my coronal inquiry into the death of the Australian Literary Review. Having penned a reply of such tedious particularity that it has been exiled to The Stump, it was realised that, amazingly, a piece of it broke off neatly into a coherent article about kultur. Now read on …

When the Australia Council funded The Australian’s Review of Books in the ’90s, many of us protested over public money being given to a private media giant, and warned it would be wasted cash. So it proved — but at least there was a rationale, in those early web days, that The Australian‘s reach would allow viable distribution. Now there is none — people who want an Australian review of ideas to partner the existing ABR should simply start one up, online, and create Kindle and other e-book editions. Fortunately, the demise of ALR under Slattery — for a second time — will focus attention on, as Mel Campbell noted, the conditions of intellectual life particular to this country, and ways in that the digital revolution levels the playing field in, er, the public sphere.

Our country’s intellectual culture has always come from the Left, and from self-activated labour. The founders of Meanjin, Arena, Overland, of film festivals and theatre companies, worked immensely hard to create that, with no expectation of public funds for years and decades on end (and in Arena’s case, a refusal to seek them still). The Right’s intellectual contribution has been funded by the CIA, a politically rigged Commonwealth Literary Fund, rorted grants to Catholic schools, Big Mining, Tobacco, Food and Drink etc, and then OzCo and others giving money to Rupert Murdoch.

Indeed, in the recent case, Anti-News Unlimited was cutting its book coverage in one place, as it took public money to do it elsewhere — ALR coincided with the decision by the Herald Sun to effectively abandon a Saturday books section. This was in the apparent belief that not one in 10 of its million plus readers would actually read reviews — a pretty effective exposure of the disdainful and elitist view the group takes of its readership.

The conditions have never been better for motivated people to actually make the next level of Australian intellectual culture happen. Any time up until about five years ago, if a small publication wanted to double its reach, it had to double its print run, which was often financially impossible. Digital publication means that the energy can be focused on making the best site/magazine/journal possible and letting it take off. It’s no level playing field — given the millions that go into something such as  The Conversation or HuffPost — but it’s a lot less tilted than it was.

Paradoxically, the only thing that stops this from happening is the atomisation and lack of purpose generated by the digital revolution — no one will lash themselves together to make something that punches above its weight. People used to print through the night to make small magazines with a 2000 copy circulation — because the very difficulty of such emphasised its importance.

Now — and notwithstanding the achievements of group blogs/sites from Larvatus Prodeo via The Enthusiast to Catallaxy — it seems difficult for people to really commit to a project that will, by its demands, limit their individual options. The expense of powers on the flat, ephemeral pamphlet or the boring meeting, is now foregone, with people unwilling to lose time writing that (pointless, identikit) novel, that confronting refugee play, go to that underwhelming art film, or the like. The struggle to make culture in a sparsely populated, culturally thin land used to revolve around the struggle with inert matter- – paper, ink, the recalcitrant press. Now it revolves around a struggle to make enough people believe that it matters to work together.

What could be easier than starting a website? But what could be harder, now, than convincing half-a-dozen people to commit — and solemnly, seriously commit — a year of their free time to it? Consequently, much of the state money that goes to once-autonomous cultural publications is more important in guaranteeing their structural survival (via paid staff) than it is in paying for the printing. We end up with a cicada culture, life long since vanished from the exo-skeleton.

Sadly Luke Slattery’s ALR was part of that. Those who want something more, better, now should commit themselves to the process, and understand that really making a culture is to accept that there are books, plays, films you will never read, see or watch — or write, direct, produce. It wouldn’t hurt, if it didn’t matter.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey