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In Defence and Critique of University Literary Journals

The inter-semester break provides a lot of things to a lot of different people. A select few use this time to prepare the three University of Sydney literary journals that launch in October. These are (from oldest to newest): Hermes, ARNA: The Journal of the Sydney University Arts Students Society (SASS), and Carillon: The Journal…

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The inter-semester break provides a lot of things to a lot of different people. A select few use this time to prepare the three University of Sydney literary journals that launch in October. These are (from oldest to newest): Hermes, ARNA: The Journal of the Sydney University Arts Students Society (SASS), and Carillon: The Journal of the Sydney University Literary Society (LitSoc).

By the time this article is published, the hard-submission date for all three will have passed. Editors will retire to sort through pieces and pick the best for publication, consulting with authors through a string of emails to bring the stories, poems and essays to a fine polish. The pages will be laid up, sent for printing, and then brought to a booze-soaked launch party during the Verge Festival, attended by the authors all-but exclusively.

Before I go further, it’s probably important to disclose that I was part of this process for the first issue of Carillon, which launched in 2014, then in my capacity as LitSoc President. It’s a metric fuckload of work to put these damn things out there, and any person who wades into the anxiety whirlpool that is student journals deserves an Order of Australia. After you beg, borrow and steal your way towards a decent submissions pool, you then have to correspond with authors who treat their work like their newborn children, and you as if you were threatening to smash said child’s face into asphalt. And then there’s the launch, and people actually hold the thing you spent hundreds of hours working on and flick through it.

Then they go home. You go home. The world moves on.

It goes without saying that no one really reads these things. I was published in ARNA last year and I read my story (to check for typesetting errors; there were a few), my friend’s pieces, and put the book on my shelf to sit for time in memoriam. All journals are only really available for purchase (or free pickup in the case of Hermes and Carillon) at their launch. We moved about 80 at Carillon last year, and I have a feeling that was because we tucked drink vouchers behind the front covers.

On reflection, it can seem like a futile exercise. Writers and editors take a keepsake and a credit for their résumés. The core issue is readership and engagement, and there’s no easy solution to this. There are only so many things editors can do to promote their launches, and there’s only so much impact one single issue can have on the academe. It’s a brute fact that those hundreds of hours might, if the planets align, give just one or two writers the edge they need to get themselves published in Overland or Southerly and actually be read by people who give half a dam.

These are the people at the receiving end of the widespread apathy. Being a writer is hard, and mostly pointless. Publication is an incredible rush, mostly owing to the recognition that someone somewhere thinks you’ve produced something that other people might enjoy looking at. In the process of editing Carillon I came across any number of works that reached for a goal other than a formulaic appropriation of what the author felt would be published in a literary journal. We can sit back and complain about the lack of brave experimentation in the USyd writing community, but no one will want to be brave if we continue to ignore the bleeding edge, even if it is still just learning how to bleed. Journals will produce more and more uninspired, forgettable work for a limited audience unless we do something.

When the Verge Festival rolls around this year, whether you are published or not, or know someone who is published, go to at least one of the launches. There’s always free booze, good literature, and excellent company.

Or just go to pick up an editor, no judgment here.