Battle was joined again, in the pages of The Drum, over the corpse of The Australian Literary Review, the twice-dead journal once wrapped in the clammy embrace of The Australian. Peter Craven returned to the fray in a piece that, George Perec style, limited itself to two parts of speech, names and verbs. The piece is not without its own goals, as in this passage:

“Who but Slattery would have given us Pierre Ryckmans on seafaring yarns? The piece he published early on in which Barry Oakley surveyed Delia Falconer’s monograph about Sydney was far and away the most significant review the book received, a superb piece of criticism.

“This last issue includes James Ley on the new book by The Virgin Suicides master Jeffrey Eugenides, it has Nick Jose on the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a piece on the Mafia by Stephen Bennetts, Brian Castro on the idea of the university and [ALR editor Luke] Slattery himself reviewing Stephen Greenblatt’s Epicurean book, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.

“I was dismayed the other day when my friend Sophie Cunningham, novelist publisher and former editor of Meanjin, tweeted to the effect that who cared about the death of the ALR, too many men reviewing too many men’s books. It’s not the 1980s and a lot of us, even Sophie, are not in our 20s anymore.”

Common sense would suggest that you don’t help your case that gender is irrelevant by citing 12 writers, 11 of them male, as evidence of the publication’s worth. Your correspondent is also slated for suggesting that Luke Slattery, the last editor of both failed ALRs, and possibly of failed ALRs to come, had created a “right-wing circle” — “the silliest comment”, Peter remarks, and it would be, if that was the substance of my criticism.

What I said was that Slattery had created a skewed notion of Australian intellectual life by excluding a whole range of more theoretical and leftist types, and not extending his reach (with one or two exceptions) beyond a couple of safe left-liberal types.

That’s why, when Peter asks what will happen, post-ALR demise, to the “boy in Broome who wants to know what ‘the lefties and right fight about’,” one finds it hard to mourn. The idea that they would go to The Australian, that stack of dead wood in the corner of the newsagents’ that old men buy, rather than the internet, is as absurd as, say, having your emails printed out.

Even if they had stumbled on the ALR and saw the roll-call Peter cites above, what would they think? That they’d wandered into the intellectual equivalent of Norman Bates’s sitting room, I suspect. Compare any issue of The London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books and you’ll see what ALR wasn’t doing, that it might have done, and that might have guaranteed continued Group of Eight support.

In any case, it’s irrelevant. The days of these behemoths are over — or the days of paying for them from public funds anyway. People who want to make intellectual life in Australia aren’t faced with the old problem — the printer’s bill — that publications lived and died by. They’re faced with the dissolution of any barriers to intellectual exchange, and the need to compete within that for scarce attention.

The competition is no longer silence and apathy — it’s n+1EdgeThe Boston ReviewThe New York Review of BooksArts & Letters DailyMcSweeney’sNew Left Review, and a thousand others I don’t know about. No offence, but you’re going to need something a bit more compelling in your kick, ideas-wise, than Luke Slattery on Stephen Greenblatt. That demands a rethinking of just about everything associated with the idea of a “national public sphere”.

There’s no excuse for not doing that. Shoulders to the wheel, all — somewhere out there is a kid who doesn’t know what Pierre Ryckmans thinks about seafaring tales …

Peter Fray

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