Friday, July 20, 2012

Why Peter Rose is the emerging writer's new best friend - QWC and ABR.

It was Thursday night and I passed up the highly-publicised Trent Jamieson event at Avid to attend a small talk at the Queensland Writers Centre headquarters in the State Library. It was an intimate talk with the editor of the Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, and something told me it was going to be a gold mine of juicy advice and information. That hunch proved correct, and the words that follow are an attempt to reproduce some of the brilliance that eloquently spilled out of Mr Rose that evening. The event was also Kate Eltham’s last as Chief Executive Officer of QWC, and she was wished a warm farewell.

Mr Rose is a poet, and has also written a memoir and two novels. He’s been the editor of the ABR since 2001 and was at Oxford University Press Australia before that. He’s written a total of 5 poetry collections, the most recent of which is ‘Crimson Crop’ released earlier this year. You can listen to him talking on 4ZzzFM here.

ABR turned 50 last year, and Mr Rose began the evening with a brief introduction to the magazine and its content. He said its core mission is still the same as it has been for decades - “to cover Australian literary culture”. Reviews featured in the magazine are approximately 1200 words (which really is quite large) and, rather impressively, only about 20% of the content isn’t either Australian-written or Australian-published.  There have been some priority shifts in the recent years, however, and Mr Rose highlighted the development of their competitions and prizes focus. The ninth annual Peter Porter Poetry Prize, for example, is currently open for entry and has a first prize of $4000. There were 1300 short stories submitted for the 2012 Elizabeth Jolley short story prize which carries a total prize pool of $8000. There’s also the Calibre prize for an outstanding essay with a totally prize pool of $10’000. It’s an intense and exciting list, and spectacularly funded, too.
Mr Rose himself.
A query by Ms Eltham into the financial situation of the magazine gave Mr Rose an opportunity to express something he seemed to be itching to say, which is that “actually, the magazine is in robust health.” I want to end this sentence with an exclamation mark to indicate his satisfaction and my surprise simultaneously, but for some reason I feel like he wouldn’t appreciate that. Later on, though, he did mention that “it’s not Shangri-La,” and that “there are realities here.” There was a nod and assenting murmur from our Brisbane audience, all too aware of the abysmal cut of funding to the Premier’s Literary Awards.
So how is ABR funded? “Through philanthropy we’ve been able to fund a lot.” Mr Rose explained that “anyone who works in literature is aware of the purpose of private patronage.” Later on he came back to the topic of financial support, and expressed a kind of mild exasperation that “our literature is amazingly sophisticated for a country of 20 [or so] million people,” and yet “literature cops it in the neck regularly,” as compared to, for example, the film industry. Apparently the film industry in Australia receives considerable government funding, and yet something like 1% of films consumed in Australia are actually Australian films. There appears to be a stupid disparity between what the respective industries bring in and what they create, and how much funding they receive.
Moving on from the accounting talk, though, and Mr Rose began singing into the ears of the nervous children (read: emerging writers) surrounding him. In other words, we moved on to the part of the talk where he got super encouraging and cuddly. Well, as cuddly as a tweed-wearing literary critic can be. “It’s been a particular pre-occupation of mine… to help improve and cultivate the next generation of critics.” Well thank you, Mr Rose, thank you very much. He even acknowledged the stigma surrounding literary criticism, but insists that ABR “is not a cliquey organisation... we are not terrifying.” It seems a humble thing for such an established publisher of such a prestigious publication to be saying, but he made it abundantly clear that ”ABR can be a very useful launching pad for reviewers and also poets and short story writers.”

I also found out that this QWC event was just one part of Mr Rose’s sweep of Brisbane. He spoke earlier at UQ that day and had a talk at QUT scheduled for Friday. He even mentioned that at UQ he met with 4 to 5 writers whom he will “certainly commission in the coming months.” I mean, come on, how goddamn encouraging can one dude be! For the trip, he even prepared a lovely checklist for those newbies considering writing for ABR and other publications in general, which is now available here. Many things on the list just gave me déjà vu from the So You Want to be a Writer session I went to a few weeks back. The first thing he emphasised was that “If you want to write for ABR, or indeed any magazine, get to know it.” Specifically, he encouraged people to just send him a succinct email (with emphasis on the word ‘succinct’ definitely clear). “By and large, if the person can spell, use correct grammar, and they don’t address the email with ‘Hi Pete’, then usually I’ll email back.” 

Some considerable discussion also covered the editing process. When a review or piece of writing is submitted for ABR it is, of course, edited – “no hissy fits” Peter adds. The group chuckles. Here’s the great thing about ABR too, they show the writer all the proofing and editing as it goes along. As an emerging writer this process has a very particular and intense appeal. It allows me to glimpse the editor’s thought process, it allows me to learn from my mistakes with a precision that equates to real growth. It’s awesome. “If you want to be a reviewer, you have to be prepared to be edited. It’s an artistic process.” Yessir. Oh – and don’t be afraid to call a spade. Mr Rose said “I don’t think we see enough decidedly stinging reviews…” and he blames this on Australia’s literary culture being so very “polite”. I always imagined that a scathing review from a newbie writer was just too presumptuous and borderline arrogant, but it seems that sinking your teeth in, no matter how sharp, is fine. So long as it is justified, spelled correctly, and contains no grammatical errors.
Something else mentioned on the evening which I haven't covered properly in this post, is the paid internship position that ABR offers to a young graduate each year. This is Milly Main, the Ian Potter Foundation intern for 2012. Read more about how awesome this programs is here. This position is the perfect example of Mr Rose putting his money where his mouth is in terms of supporting emerging writers and publishers.
Another topic of conversation was the virtual side of things. Mr Rose got a little bit negative here. He doesn’t seem impressed with the whole online/blogosphere phenomenon, which initially made my fur prickle, but he went on to explain his opinion that online content is responsible for the suffering of artists, and I ended up agreeing with a lot of what he had to say. He expressed genuine concern that the lack of money involved in online content usually means that “someone is getting screwed.” I can relate to this on so many levels. I blog, and I blog a lot about books and writing, and I don’t make a cent from it. I do it because I love it and I do it because each post makes me better at what I do here, and one day I’m going to get paid for working in the industry. In the meantime though, I have a job with absolutely no correlation to what I want to do with my life, and the hours I spend on poiseonarrows are always rushed because of pressing university deadlines. I’m certainly not unique in this lifestyle either. Blogging is a tough mistress, and it can feel unthanking when you can’t see the faces of the people you’re writing to. I keep doing it though, because I’m writing for myself more than anything, and I think I would have gone insane if I didn’t have this platform for unloading my thoughts all through 2011. Anyways, enough about me. I think Mr Rose is sweet in his concern for people whose content is online when he asks “you do wonder sometimes, how is the writer going to survive?” but it’s also a little dismissive. The literary world is moving to the virtual plane in swift paces, and whilst I admire people like Mr Rose sticking to their guns and continuing to publish their magazines in print and support printed works, I would have really liked him to be a bit more positive on this front. I don’t think constructive adaptation to support emerging artists online as well as in hard copy is too much to ask from our industry.
One of the last things Mr Rose spoke about was the freedom of ABR to follow its own vision because it wasn’t tied to profit-making requirements. In fact, he seemed to trash talk the idea of similar organisations which work for profit, saying they suffer from a “relentless compromising of [their] standards”. Conversely, he says that “working for a not-for-profit organisation is so liberating.” I mean, his argument makes complete sense, but for some reason I still found it a little too high-brown and impractical. I’m no expert on the industrial side of things, but I cannot imagine it would be practical for all literary criticism magazines in Australia to offer tens of thousands of dollars in prizes, and not have to make some kind of gross income at the end of each July. I’m not saying I like it this way, but I think ABR is in a very unique and privileged position, and it’s not really fair to judge other magazines too harshly for their basic profit-based decisions. Perhaps this is a cynical Brisbane opinion, but in our current socio-political climate, I think all literary magazines that still function and support the industry in any way should be encouraged.

I think that’s about it! Mr Rose said he went on this Queensland trip to “encourage people to cut their teeth” with ABR, and repeatedly assured us that “there is a lot of work around for reviewers,” so I think most of us left the night on a truly positive note. With his focus on young and emerging writers, I think Mr Rose has made a bold and excellent decision to really dig ABR’s roots into the future of Australia’s literary industry. His passion as a poet and writer as well as a critic has clearly established the organisation as a supportive and encouraging yet prestigious and impressive publication. It’s a balance he himself seems to strike as well – walking the fantastic line between warm and professional. I came away from the evening with an excellent impression of Mr Rose (if you have the time, I highly suggest reading his regularly updated blog on the ABR website), and an itch to write for ABR which I might just slave and sweat to scratch. 

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