The Literature Board’s New Low

Last month, the Literature Board of the Australia Council slashed its annual grant to Quadrant magazine by 50 per cent. The board reduced our funding from the $40,000 we received in 2012, to just $20,000 for 2013. This is a big chunk out of our modest operating budget. All our Australia Council grant goes to the writers of Quadrant’s literary content, that is, our book reviews, poetry, short fiction, and essays on literature, film, theatre and the arts. We have to account for every dollar of this expenditure. The Literature Board does not fund our opinion pieces, political commentary, administration, printing, Quadrant Online, or the books we publish.

As I wrote in a letter to all subscribers last month, the Literature Board has made a blatantly political decision. Throughout the eleven years of the Howard government, its appointees never reduced the funding of overtly left-wing literary magazines like Meanjin, Overland, Griffith Review and Australian Book Review. Under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, those journals continued to receive much more money than Quadrant—more than $60,000 a year—even though they carried only a fraction of our literary content and had much smaller circulations.

Meanjin, for instance, is published only four times a year, compared to Quadrant’s ten issues, and carries less literary content in each of those editions than we do. In its Autumn 2012 edition, Meanjin published three pieces of short fiction and twelve works of poetry, while in December 2012 Quadrant published two pieces of short fiction and twenty-seven works of poetry. Meanjin sells less than 1000 copies per edition, while Quadrant’s subscription and newsagent sales total 5500 copies per edition. Yet the Australia Council rewards Meanjin with a privileged position as one of its “key organisations”, which guarantees funding for three-year periods, while Quadrant is made to stand in line like a naughty boy and re-apply for funds each year.

So when the Gillard government this year appointed former Meanjin editor and left-wing feminist Sophie Cunningham as chair of the Literature Board, we knew what to expect. Still, we did not anticipate such a ruthless and heavy discounting of our good name. Under Cunningham’s editorship, Meanjin published at least one derogatory article about Quadrant and several articles and blogs criticising me in particular. With such a track record, she was obviously an interested party and should have stepped aside from any decision about our funding.

Cunningham was not a distinguished editor of Meanjin. She got the job in 2008 but resigned in 2010 after a much-publicised falling out with the board of her publisher, Melbourne University Press, especially its chairman Alan Kohler, over what she claimed were his plans to cease publishing Meanjin as a printed journal, and put it online only. Kohler denied any such plan existed. Nonetheless, it was obvious that the magazine’s poor sales within the context of heavy losses elsewhere in the MUP organisation meant something had to give.

Meanjin does not survive in its own right but is subsidised by several public institutions including the Victorian government, Arts Victoria, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne City Council and Copyright Agency Limited. Much the same is true of the other leftist literary quarterlies, Overland and Griffith Review, which besides the Australia Council have major institutional backers, especially the public universities. They too have been favoured by the Australia Council and been declared “key organisations” who get at least $60,000 a year, guaranteed for three years. Despite these resources, they have only limited appeal to readers, with circulations in the same ballpark as Meanjin. In other words, without taxpayer funding, none of these publications would have enough readers to survive.

The only other literary magazine that, like Quadrant, publishes monthly is Australian Book Review. For several years it has had a special deal with the Australia Council that has netted it more than $110,000 a year. This deal was done when ABR pledged to review all Australian-published trade books in literature and the other humanities. Yet even though ABR no longer keeps this pledge, its funding continues unabated. It has never reviewed any of the works published by Quadrant Books, even those written by such well-known and acclaimed authors as Peter Ryan, Peter Coleman, Les Murray and Sophie Masson, who have in the past had roles not only as authors but as publishers, anthologists, editors and/or participants in various committees of the Australian literary industry. In the early 2000s, ABR reviewed publications from my own firm Macleay Press, including The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, but so far it has not seen fit to review Volume Three on the Stolen Generations.

When Nicholas Hasluck, a former chair of the Literature Board, published his novel Dismissal (Fourth Estate, 2011) about the fall of the Whitlam government, the ABR failed to review it too. In a Quadrant article in December 2011, “How to Write a Political Novel”, Hasluck noted this failure by ABR. However, he observed that reviews of his book in both Quadrant and Spectator Australia appeared promptly. In other words, Literature Board funding still favours a left-wing publication that does not fully comply with its public obligation to discuss the broad range of literary works produced in this country.

When I became editor of Quadrant in 2008 and expanded the size of the magazine from 96 to 128 pages and established Quadrant Online as a high-traffic website, we successfully argued for an increase in our then grant of $30,000 and were awarded $50,000 for the 2009 year. This was the last year that appointees of the Howard government influenced Literature Board decisions. Once the Rudd government stacked it with new appointees, we found our funding suddenly cut by 30 per cent to $35,000. We appealed to subscribers to help make up the difference—which you did generously, thank you.

At the time, however, several subscribers urged us to abandon altogether any dependence on government subsidy and rely entirely on the commercial market. Although this market provides most of our income, I was reluctant to give away Australia Council grants altogether. For a start, Quadrant has received government literary grants almost since its founding in 1956 when the Menzies government sponsored the Commonwealth Literary Fund. This is a tradition I am loath to break, especially since it had the firm support of the magazine’s first and longest serving editors, James McAuley and Peter Coleman, who knew how hard it was to get money to publish literary work.

I also believe that current generations have an obligation to the future to nurture and preserve great art forms that have stood the test of time, whether they are commercially viable or not. Poetry, on which most of the literature grants to Quadrant have long been spent, is clearly one such art. To thrive, it needs the support of patrons. In Australia, where private patrons are thin on the ground, the democratic state is an acceptable source, provided no strings are attached.

And this brings me to the far bigger issue underlying last month’s Literature Board decision. When state grants are subject to the kind of overt left-wing politicking revealed by that decision then they definitely come with strings attached. With this move, the Australia Council abandoned any sense of fair play or dispassionate review in order to reward its leftist friends and cronies, and to demean its conservative enemies. If this happened to us, you can bet it has also happened to other organisations that do not toe the currently acceptable political line.

This is plainly not just a problem invented by Julia Gillard’s government and her brand of radical feminist socialism. The fact that the Literature Board can use our application for funding to treat us in such an audacious fashion—“we’ll show these right-wing misogynists who’s on top”—is evidence that there is something deeply wrong not just with the kind of people who get appointed to its boards and divisions but with their entire approach to the allocation of state funding. The Australia Council is overdue for a serious review that goes to the heart of what it stands for and what it should be doing.

In previous decades when ministers for the arts came from conservative governments, most were content to simply do the job decreed for them by the bureaucracy and bask in flattery on opening nights. Most seemed oblivious, or didn’t want to know, that the arts in Australia have long been deeply entrenched in the culture wars.

If you doubt this, check out the recent guests at writers festivals or the winners of literary awards in Liberal-governed states, or better yet look up the YouTube clip of the 2012 Miles Franklin Award winner Anna Funder discussing fear and conservatism, especially her comments on the Howard government: “Conservatives hold that it is a dog-eat-dog world, and they want to be the ones doing the eating.” It is time for conservative politicians to recognise how much of their arts funding supports people who loathe everything they stand for.

In the meantime, at Quadrant we are nonetheless determined to maintain the quality of our literary content. We intend to continue to publish the same volume of poetry, fiction and literary essays and to pay the same rates—modest though they have always been—to the contributors to our literary pages. In the past, when we have asked readers for assistance to do this, you have responded generously, and I hope you will continue to do so.

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