The search for the Aussie ‘New Yorker’ or ‘Atlantic Monthly’..

There’s a real feeling in Australian media/literary/intellectual circles that we are somehow lacking in something because we don’t have a magazine of the venerable calibre of the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly. That’s why every so often there’s an attempt to remedy the situation by a brave new enterprise–starting up a new monthly magazine. It’s not only independent publishers who have valiantly tried to nail their colours to the mast; a few years back, such an attempt was even bankrolled by none other than the redoubtable Rupert himself, in the shape of The Australian’s Review of Books. Today, we have The Monthly, published by Black Ink, the publishers of ‘Quarterly Essay.’
Sadly, though, I think this latest effort fails in its efforts to replicate the magic of those old American magazines.
Partly, that’s because something funny happens to many Australian writers when they self-consciously try to replicate the kind of writing found in those magazines. People can become over-solemn, measured, grave, often worrying at tiny little points in the mistaken belief that tedious focus somehow equals gravity and thought a la Atlantic or what have you. That was certainly the case with the hideously long, hideously tedious Margaret Simons piece on the internecine warfare at the ABC, a piece whose readership seemed to me to be miniscule (and at $1 a word for 11 pages, a severe dent in the magazine’s budget!) Then there’s John Birmingham’s patronising, consciously gonzo piece on Ipswich, Don Watson’s grouch about how country towns have changed (sorry, Don, about the sad fact we country hicks can’t dwell in aspic for you–and let’s forget about the fact you wrote speeches for one of the people responsible for the ‘economic rationalist’ devastation of the country)..and so it goes.

The problem is, what audience does The Monthly reach for? Novelist and SMH literary editor Malcolm Knox’s piece on Bookscan is certainly interesting for writers like me; Helen Garner’s review of Birth is excellent; I enjoyed Mungo Mc Callum’s jesting, but surely jinxing piece, on working for other, sadly-demised monthlies; the few book reviews are interesting; the short story is rather dull but very tasteful (New Yorker style!). But though there was a lot of excited talk about how The Monthly was going to publish ‘fresh voices’ and be ‘unpredictable’, ‘optimistic’, none of the above seems to apply to the latest issue. I mean, it’s not like we’ve haven’t heard from any of these people before, is it?
I’ve bought the 3 issues of ‘Investigate’ too, and whilst I think it too has problems–there’s not enough to read for the price, layout is often crap(text overwritten on photos for example, making it impossible to read), and some self-indulgent stuff (and really, I can do without reading Ann Coulter, read one you’ve read ’em all), still, there’s a lot more new voices in there than in The Monthly, by a long shot. There’s bloggers–John Quiggin, James Morrow(also the editor) and Alan RM Jones, for instance; and there’s been some amazing scoops, like, for instance, Matthew Thompson’s great piece on the situation in Mindanao, in the first issue. Plus it’s got lots of good book reviews. It still feels like it’s feeling its way–but I think that it might well find a bigger market than The Monthly. (interestingly enough, when I bought the last copy, the girl at the newsagent’s counter said, ‘Have you read this before? I’ve bought every issue–I really like it’–volunteered information I’ve never got before from any of the staff there. ) And at least it has no pretensions to being a ‘New Yorker’ or ‘Atlantic Monthly.’
Which is lucky, because I don’t think, frankly, there just is ever going to be a magazine like that here. We simply don’t have the size of population to warrant it. And nor do we have the history for it. It’s interesting to note that in Britain, a country with three times our population, there isn’t a monthly magazine of that kind either. The weeklies like The Spectator, The TLS, the London Review of Books, come closest–but there’s nothing quite like the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly. (Incidentally, we have many more general magazines, and ‘little’ magazines too, than the Brits do. British visitors often comment on the wild and colourful proliferation on newsagent displays; and certainly, there’s nothing like the range in the High Street WH Smiths’ and what have you, in the Old Dart.)
The magazines that come closest to that tradition here in Australia are Quadrant, Overland, and Meanjin. There’s a whole lot of newer ones than those, but those are the grand-daddies of them all, in terms of general, monthly magazines of ideas, politics, culture, society and literature. But they will never be seen in the same way here as the NY or the AM are in the US. None of them has the wider profile, or the support across political/cultural lines. Quadrant has three times the circulation of any of the other ‘little magazines’ and is known internationally, plus has the most hospitable poetry pages of any magazine in Australia, due to its literary editor, Les Murray. But it is little regarded by Australian literary/media/intellectual classes(apart from poets!), unfairly so in my opinion, generally (the magazine has published a very wide range of writers and views, and there’s no compulsion to agree with everything every writer says in any magazine, after all!) Overland can be occasionally interesting, but in recent years has become rather tiresomely predictable (I liked it best under Stephen Murray-Smith’s editorship), and Meanjin, dear God, how it can be dull and earnest!
But it’s not just that we don’t have the numbers or the history, or the simple fact of not enough money, too many magazines to subscribe to! There are particular aspects of our national character which make it seem difficult , in my opinion, to ever be able to create the kind of public, thoughtful, centrist space that the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly have created. There just doesn’t seem to be the readership or the inclination, particularly at the moment, when a great deal of the literary/intellectual/media class seems to be completely out of sympathy, disjuncted, from the great mass of the population. Plus there’s the old impatient tendency to loving the biff–the heat instead of the light.
That doesn’t mean Australia’s inferior. It just means it’s different. Why try to run after Holy Grails of publishing that just aren’t relevant here? Part of the pleasure of reading the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly (and they are by no means free of boring, forgettable or idiotic articles) is that we are detached from American cultural affairs. The jealousies and backbitings and paybacks that must occur, even in such well-mannered magazines, the internecine warfare of media or literature or intellectuals is not something we have to engage in directly, when it occurs in the US. Those venerable magazines can stand like monuments, and we their awestruck admirers, without having to see any of the blood and guts behind the scenes.
Despite all that, I wish the best of luck to both The Monthly and Investigate, and hope they’ll still be standing in a year’s, five years’, twenty years’ time. But the precedents aren’t exactly encouraging.

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avocadia
2021 years ago

John Birmingham “consciously gonzo”? You mean as opposed to the style of everything else he has written? I think there is a point in every writer’s career when describing their writing style as if it is a clumsy affectation ceases to be meaningful; you just accept that that is the writer’s voice.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

Fuggedaboutit!

Neither The Monthly or Investigate is gonna last six months. Australia doesn’t have the criticial mass of buyers or contributors to support what either at aiming at. Plus paper and print bills will kill their cashflow within six months unless they can talk all those glossy full page A/B advertising budgets out of the weekend newspaper colour supplements. I think not.

Russell Allen
2021 years ago

The New Yorker works so well because it is involved and hilarious in equal measure. It appeals to both the high-brow and the slightly lower-brow. Most of the Aussie literati is so po-faced and so contrived in their expression (why use 1 page when 11 will do), that every new media release is dull at best.

It can be argued that more happens in New York and its surrounds (Seinfeld anyone) that a whole magazine is devoted to it. Just thinking out loud, if the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly were not the models, and maybe a hybrid of ‘The Economist’ and ‘Wallpaper’ were, then there could be more success.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Slightly OT – the best thing about Quadrant (certain contributors aside) is the poetry. There’s some absolutely marvellous stuff there. Les Murray should be encouraged (forced?) to publish an anthology of Quadrant poets.

Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

Interesting Review Sophie. I thought the Monthly was pretty underwhelming. I’d not heard of the Investigate, but it sounds more interesting than the Monthly which is offcuts from all the poeple you’ve heard of before. Fair enough if there’s a market for it – but ‘new voices’ – pahleese! It completely astonishes me that it makes such little use of the blogosphere. In the words of Kim of Kath and Kim Fame – “Hello”.

jen
jen
2021 years ago

from the hip as usual and in whole sentences almost and almost whole ideas too. You lucky lucky readers!

I bet $100 that the old rags from across the Atlantic were in some way innovative on inception in order to define themselves in the market place. They must have been culturally relevant and useful as well and thus voila tradition. You can’t create tradition. Daaa. It grows. da again.

So any conclusions to be reached here re: the venerable sub-set of literary endeavour weblog?

Any sign of potential tradition growing up here? Or do we take only the greatest blogs and… wait…. I know. Archive them! Where? ahhh…… I dunnno…. a library somewhere maybe….

That’ll make the medium good and dusty. Ironic. I thought this lot (blogs) was disposable and ephemeral… some charm there.

Parish I Knew you belonged in the History Department.

Paul Watson
Paul Watson
2021 years ago

Nabakov wrote:

“[P]aper and print bills will kill [The Monthly and Investigate’s] cashflow within six months unless they can talk all those glossy full page A/B advertising budgets out of the weekend newspaper colour supplements.”

Flicking through The Monthly at a bookstore, I was surprised by the upmarketness of the products being flogged in its ads – it’s definitely closer to Vanity Fair (or, in Australian terms, the AFR monthly mag) than the Good Weekend Fairfax insert. Previously, I had assumed that the mag would be aimed at the (not especially affluent) literati.

Nabakov is wrong on another count as well. The Monthly’s publisher, Morry Schwartz, has deep pockets, courtesy of his building several ugly, but profitable, developments around Melbourne.

I assume that Schwartz’s publishing empire – of which the The Monthly is only one (surely) not-profitable part – thus represents some kind of guilt transference. In which case, the cross-subsidies look set to last for as long as his buildings.

Topping off this awkward balance between culture and commerce, the mag’s uber-glossy ads send a big demographic “F*ck You” to my generation. As John Davies writes in today’s SMH, “We cannot afford to buy what you are selling”.

http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/Job-slaves-live-in-eternal-limbo/2005/05/16/1116095907778.html

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Paul, neither you nor I can afford what they are selling, but they will know from the oceans of research on this stuff that heaps of people in Gen X and Jones either can afford it, or aspire to it.

Part of the problem is that mags of that scale are never aimed at us literati precisely because we are short on dosh. And Morry doesn’t want another Quadrant.

He may have deep pockets, but he doesn’t want a hole in them. I am sure he has targets and redline points.

susoz
2021 years ago

The Monthly was free from my local library, so I took one home. (I don’t know what it means that a pile of free mags was to be had there.) I read the Margaret Simon ABC piece and the Bookscan piece and found both interesting but could not be bothered with the rest. So – the two pieces I read were both investigations of aspects of Australian life/culture, not just the-usual-somebody’s feelings or opinions about something. (I suppose Birmingham’s piece was an investigation of a sort, but it did not appeal to me.)

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2021 years ago

Christ Paul, not another intergenerational rant. Without these glossies, possibly no magazine, get it? So why don’t you think of it as those ad viewers subsidising you? I was born in 1975 so presumably I’m of the same generation as you. Please don’t claim to speak for all of us as people will get the impression we’re all a bunch of whingers. There’s better therapy than moaning about your fate on blogs you know?

wbb
wbb
2021 years ago

I’ve subscribed for 12 months. Cheaper than Sophie’s sacred text, the New Yorker and more relevant to me.

And hopefully if reading it cuts down my weekly blog consumption by an hour or so, then it’s money well spent, methinks. (The Birmingham was very good Australian political writing. He has been roundly slagged off in the blogosphere I’ve noticed. But I put that down to chipped shoulders. Certainly haven’t seen anybody putting their hand up to challenge him. Blogs are mostly about ideas and emotions and very rarely about the writing.)

David Tiley is one of the few who actually writes – most of us just post.)

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

I liked Birmingham’s piece as I said in a number of places.

Rex
Rex
2021 years ago

Yep. Me too. The Monthly gets a big thumbs up as far as I’m concerned.

TimT
2021 years ago

I used to subscribe to Quadrant… but got bored.

Frankly, the layout is dreadful. I was lucky enough to see some of the older issues at a Uni book sale: image on the cover, and real pictures inside! Why did they ever give this up? They must REALLY be running on a tight budget.

Haven’t read The Monthly yet. Your description of Investigate sounds fairly spot on (read the first issue).
I’ve read a few issues of The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and The Spectator – my favourite being the last one (The Spectator).

But magazines are full of such a diversity of material that only small parts of them ever appeal to individual buyers. One buys them for a certain columnist, another for the editorial and news roundup, a third for the photographs, a fourth for the games… and so on.
Myself, I’d buy them for the letters page, the columnists, the humour, the occasional article, and the games… not necessarily in that order. Perhaps this helps to explain why I have on occasion been underwhelmed by the Serious Journalism found in the pages of the Atlantic and the New Yorker.

kel  lowry
kel lowry
2021 years ago

The Monthly needs a really good designer – for a start! There’s something sadly vague & understated about its margins, typeface and gloopy-coloured covers.

Please – I very much want it to survive, but as a more beautiful beast than it is at present.