A Letter regarding The Canary Press and literary magazines

This letter, by our editor Robert Skinner, was published online in The Monthly here, as a response to another article in The Monthly, by Robyn Annear, puzzling the purpose of literary journals in Australia

Dear Robyn,

I am writing to say that I enjoyed reading and appreciated your article in the Monthly.

I'm interested to hear if your criticism is with literary journals in general or just with those in Australia? If literary journals in general, then – I have just realised – I will have to write a completely different response, which I don't really have the time for, so let's hope your criticisms are specific to the Australia literary scene and plough on.

I came to Melbourne as a cultural refugee of sorts (I had been living in Adelaide and working as a tour guide in the outback. For the record, I did meet Andy in a Creative Writing course, but it was a one- semester course to make up units for my Biology degree). When I arrived I had a lot of the same frustrations that you voiced in your article. I still do. A lot  of Australian fiction (especially short fiction) seems to be written for a crowd that I'm not a part of. Our funding bodies are so concerned with being 'Australian' that they forget to be good. And for a country that prides itself on humour, it's pretty hard to find it in our fiction.

Since you only read our first issue of Canary Press (we now have a whopping back catalogue of two), there was bound to be a chasm between what we were setting out to do and what we actually managed to do (there still is, of course). We started the magazine with no money; no contacts; no credentials; and no idea, really, what we were doing.

I thought it might interest you to know the space we're trying to inhabit, the magazine we're trying to become and also, the things we're not trying to be.

I don't want to fight over the present-day readers of Australian literature (which, as you suggest, is a small pond indeed). I want to create new ones. I don't think the world needs more writers. But it could sure as hell do with more readers. Reading, I'm convinced, is an art form in itself. We are trying to survive on our readership. We have not applied for any funding. We have run a few ads, and will continue to do so, but they have so far made up only a tiny percentage of our revenue. If we don't reach a big enough readership to sustain ourselves then we will gracefully (or disgracefully) fold.

I don't think what we're doing is particularly noble in and of itself. It will only feel worthwhile, to me, if we can reach a bunch of people that would never normally read short stories, and survive on the money they're willing to pay to read them. (Our first issue, despite having only a Melbourne distribution, sold about 700 copies; our biggest lit. journals, with a national distribution, rarely sell more than 1500 copies. Of course, many of our sales can be attributed to us being a new magazine; the real test will be our second issue which, content-wise, I think is much stronger than our first.)

You wrote that “The absence of literary magazines would discommode contributors far more than readers.” Shit. I couldn't agree more. At the end of a radio interview the other day, the interviewer suggested that people should buy our magazine because it was important to have a home like ours for people to publish their work. I said, Christ, don't buy it because of that. Buy it because you want to read the bloody thing. Otherwise what's the point? We could just sit around in a circle licking each other's faces.

I have no interest in running a magazine just to provide opportunities for writers. I want us to be a magazine for readers. People in Australia have such diminished expectations of what a short story can do to you. I want to raise those expectations and meet them. The writers I'm interested in fighting for, are that rare 1% whose talent roars onto the page. When you see their work they are unmistakeable, but they're getting harder to find, as a reader and as a publisher, because you have to wade through so much to find them.

I agree with your point that some of the material in our magazine could have been published on a blog instead. Part of this was deliberate, on our part. I feel that people's reading muscles have atrophied, for various reasons. Our latest issue has a story by George Saunders, called 'The 400-Pound CEO'. I think it's a masterpiece. But it's hard to get someone these days to read a 7000 word story except by accident. By gently hooking them. And that, more or less, is what we're trying to do: get people to become accidental readers of literature. That's why we sprinkle our magazines with “literary candy” as it has been described – even though some of them were not quite 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' and could probably succeed just as easily on a blog. Our second issue has, in amongst the longer fiction, short short stories about famous animals. Not because we thought the 200 word story about Caligula's horse would be in contention for the Pulitzer, but because we thought it was fun, and because all of those little stories spoke in some way to a greater human truth, and because it helped build a home for people to find the longer pieces, just as theNew Yorker might publish a cartoon in the middle of a Junot Diaz story.

I think all magazines have their idiosyncrasies that you put up with if they regularly come up with the goods. McSweeney's is one of my favourite magazines. It can be regarded as twee at times, but that's their thing. In amongst the occasional twee-ness they uncover some seriously great works of fiction and present it to a readership that will actually read the thing. Many literary journals here, I think, face the same problem as Julia Gillard towards the end of her government – after a while it didn't matter what she said or what policies she implemented – people just weren't listening. Australians seem reluctant to pick up a short story unless they are wearing running shoes and have a clear path to all the exits. I don't know anyone under the age of 30 that reads our literary journals (the big ones) unless they happen to be published in one. And so, even if these literary journals do uncover something really good, who beyond the established literary scene is going to read it?

You might be right about artisanal being the 'hippest of words', but I recoil at the thought of our own magazine being categorised that way. If I thought people were buying our magazines just because they looked nice, I would burn the lot of them* and become a farmer. (*the magazines, that is, not the people – although even that seems extreme now that I write it down.) It's too hard, too expensive, and I have to wash too many dishes just for something that looks nice. We have put a lot of thought into the design of the magazine, but for a specific purpose: to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible for people to become readers – for people to carve out enough space and time in their lives for literature to weave its magic.

I'm interested to know if and why the situation in Australia is different to that in America? I'm not sure how much of it has to do with population size, but America, unlike Australia, has numerous high-quality literary journals that engage a readership far beyond their potential contributor base (again, I'm talking mainly about short fiction here.) If you and I were both living in America I don't think I would have started a literary magazine, and I'm not sure you would have written your article.

Where are Australia's readers?

When I read a lot of submissions I think: Have these people never read a story before? Have they never experienced the pleasure of reading? Because it seems like many of these people are trying to become writers before they become readers. I'm not quite sure what's behind it all. I know that there are a hundred different writing courses in Melbourne but no courses for reading. Harriet and Chloe (who both work on the magazine) are studying creative writing at RMIT and had never heard of Flannery O'Connor or Tim O'Brien or Alice Munro. Sometimes I think Raymond Carver is revered by budding writers because he feels achievable. Other days I wish Hemingway had never written 'Hills Like White Elephants', because now we're so goddamn inundated with stories about people sitting around looking at things.

I want people to read literature on trams. I want people to talk about ideas, and for me, fiction is the quickest and most enjoyable way of getting to deeper truths. It bypasses all our bristly, antagonistic bits and wins us over with story – that truly marvellous thing that has captivated me ever since my dad read to me that great story: 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'. It teaches us empathy better than any other art form. Certainly better than the screaming headlines of the Murdoch press that inhabit so much of our consciousness.

I wax lyrical a lot, but really, we're just a few anxious people that no one's heard of before. Our office has a dead pig in it. I get frustrated at the literary scene in Australia, but most of all I'm frustrated at myself. I'm frustrated that we have this 2-page story by Jim Shepard which makes me cry every time I read it, and chances are it will reach hundreds of people in Australia, instead of the tens of thousands I think it deserves. I get frustrated that I do so much flapping and so little flying.

If we succeed at what we're doing, it will be because of luck; by not leaving our Canary Press toolbox full of coins on the tram again; and by relying on writers who, much better than me, can engage a reader, take them somewhere completely different and show them something they've never seen before.

There are many more roads to failure to choose from.

If we do fail, and it's quite probable, I'll do something else. But I'll still be reading.