The Kindness of Strangers: On New Zealand’s Literary Journals

By | 1 November 2018

The question that underpins all of this is whether New Zealand’s literary journals are worth nurturing and protecting long-term. Barrowman has been thinking about this too. ‘I was reflecting on your questions this afternoon,’ he tells me, ‘while my Dad was talking about the uncertain future of bowling clubs, now that older people have much more diverse leisure tastes and opportunities, and are less likely to make the time and financial sacrifices that have always kept these community institutions going. Are lit-mags like bowling clubs?’ I only have my personal experiences to answer with – as a young writer, literary journals were my stepladder towards publication of a book. The two days a year when we send out the Starling acceptance notifications and get a flurry of excited and grateful replies in return, make me feel that this continues to be true for emerging writers at the beginning of their careers. But it feels like this is a conversation worth having, because with it, we might be able to instigate that support and infrastructure to help sustain our journals for longer. The downside to a wild literary landscape is precariousness, a constant underlying threat or tension to survival. Currently, we have an environment that relies on the kindness of strangers to establish and keep our literary journals afloat, with the journals generally burning out when its founders and editors do. And perhaps that is enough. But if we want a landscape where journals might continue beyond five or ten years, and build their own backstories and reputations, then it’s not enough to extend sympathies or express remorse when a journal folds prematurely. If we – editors, arts funding bodies, support services and writers – want sustainability, then something needs to change. As Barrowman says, ‘I think the future for Sport – if it has one – is to be formally taken over by VUP.’ It’s the phrase ‘if it has one’ that scares me, and I hope it scares other people too.

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