Stet! Theodore Ell speaks at Gleebooks


On Tuesday 27 May, Contrappasso’s poetry editor Theodore Ell took part in a panel discussion on new Australian literary journals, at independent bookseller Gleebooks in Sydney. Also on the panel were editors from new Australian writers’ launchpad Seizure, formal poetry journal New Trad and journal of sexual diversity Archer. As well as comparing notes on the labour (and love!) involved in starting and sustaining a journal, the panellists took questions from the audience and played ‘Would you rather…’ – which revealed that most editors would prefer one outrageous error on the cover of their journal to one on every page inside. An important question that each of the panellists addressed was how their journals defined their roles in the Australian publishing industry, which has been changing rapidly, unpredictably and not always for the better. How do you know who and where your audience is? How do you do the same job as publishers who have more resources than you, but aren’t concerned with the material you want to expose? Here is how Theo approached these and similar questions.


‘The industry.’ I’ve always been unsure about that word. It adds too many illusions of glamour and careful planning to work that is usually messy. It also creates the idea of a club that you need permission to join. Two guys preparing a journal issue in an Ashfield living-room, with Bob Dylan on the turntable, last week’s coffee cups stacked dangerously in the kitchen, and utility bills buried deep under sheets and sheets of proofs – does that count for the industry?

It depends what kind of industry you mean. Industry can mean work, effort, dedication, passion, or it can mean business, money, trade, profit. The trouble with publishing is that these meanings get confused, and the business meaning of ‘industry’ starts to eat away at the other meaning. The industry-as-business is so huge and so involved with itself that to a new writer it can seem overwhelmingly daunting. Incredibly hard work goes into writing, but then the writer is faced with the even harder job of selling the book’s way into print. In the culture of spin and hype, there is often little evidence that the material itself will matter. With journals it’s different. Journals are closer to the realities that writers face: they deal with more writers more often, and offer more space for more kinds of writing. As the first testing-grounds for new writers and editors, journals also offer essential experience in learning how to get on with each other, how to listen, how to be patient, how to negotiate artistic habits and effects.

I think what we are talking about here tonight, and what we’re calling by the name ‘industry’, is really a third thing: community. All of the journals we represent, and many others you will find on the shelves, were created in recent years because there was a feeling that the business-meaning of industry was eclipsing its other meaning, the effort-meaning. There was a sad run of journals closing: Australian Literary Review, HEAT, Wet Ink. Australia seems to be a remarkably hard place for writers to have their work published and introduced to a readership, but with the loss of these outlets, it was getting even harder. There was a real sense of dismay, but the reactions that followed revealed a great deal else about ‘the industry’ that I think should give us cause for optimism. That dismay, that outcry, was so widely shared, in such similar ways by all kinds of people, that it proved something very important, and very inspiring. It proved how big the audience is for new writing and how prepared that audience is to seek out its forums. The situation now is, I think, far more positive and encouraging than anything we could have imagined only a few years ago. We lost three publications, but on the strength of people’s objections and new efforts, we have gained dozens. Aside from the four here tonight – Seizure, New Trad, Archer and Contrappasso – there are The Lifted Brow, Ampersand, Cuttings, The Saturday Paper and Verity La, to name only a few. In every city in every state, whatever you are looking for, you will find it.

When we founded Contrappasso, it was out of just this mixed feeling of objection and hopefulness. The name is weird, I know, but that is half the point with a title. You hope that it will sound different and make a reader curious, and over time it grows to mean something. But Contrappasso does have a specific meaning: it means counter-punch or counter-step in Italian, and it is the word for the ironic punishments in Dante’s hell and purgatory, the equal and opposite punishments that fit the crime. In 2011 when we decided to do it, the ‘equal and opposite’ reversal in the trend of journals closing was well underway. A number of the other journals I just mentioned already existed. But we wanted to challenge rhetoric as well as trends.

Opening a journal seemed like the exact opposite of what a sane, business-minded person would do – which was fine, because we weren’t. Questions of money and profit were exactly what were causing stress for journals and writing at the time, and the idea of publishing and promoting good writing for its own sake, thanks to the good will of the writers involved, seemed a fitting slap back to an assumption that people only properly value what they pay for. (Now, the journal has grown to the point that we do offer payment, a little, for all that we print; one day we hope finally to pay those writers who donated their work to the first couple of issues.) We wanted to test another ‘industry’ assumption as well, which is what exactly constitutes ‘new writing.’ ‘Previously unpublished,’ yes; the only things we publish that have appeared before are the works in translation, but while they have appeared in their original language, they have not in English. Most writers we have published so far would be called ‘emerging writers’. But ‘new writing’ isn’t restricted to ‘emerging writers’ – established writers are constantly producing new work too, and many go through the same struggle to find outlets for it. Our approach was to open the journal to writers at any stage of their careers and to place their works on an even footing. This creates dialogue and exchanges, on and off the page. But what loomed largest in our minds was the fact that our industry – the community of writers and readers in Australia – felt rather isolated from its counterparts elsewhere in the world, and that it tended to filter out the sound and experience of languages other than English. Writers from elsewhere appear in many Australian journals from time to time, of course, but there did not seem to be one with a consistently international outlook, or an interest in projecting itself overseas. With all the opportunities that the internet offers for this kind of contact, it seemed right at least to try and create a magazine that, while based here and ready to consider Australian work of any kind, was nominally borderless and open to considering new writing by anyone, from anywhere. Wherever possible, English translations would appear opposite the original language. In our five issues to date, we have published writers from twelve countries in five languages (English, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and Russian, with French to come in our next issue). We did not know if the experiment would work and nobody could be more surprised than us by the way in which it has. The unlikely turned out to be quite possible.

In part this has had to do with new publishing methods. The saddest phrase in the book trade is “Out of print.” An author’s effort, a publisher’s faith, a reader’s interest, a bookshop’s sale, who knows what potential social results – all these are defeated when the book itself is made unavailable. Out of print, out of mind. Sometimes a writer or their estate revokes publishing rights, but the saddest thing is that the permission for a book to go out of print is an integral part of the publisher’s own production line. To print and store books in warehouses costs money, and where a book is judged not to be selling enough, not to be earning its keep, it is cut from the list, not printed any more, and often the remaining copies are pulped – to make room for another book, which will run the same risk. For decades the production line has had this in-built loop for disposing of its own products. Careful management of waste and risk, you might think, but the decisions of what to allow to go out of print have often been dismaying. To name only two examples, Patrick White was out of print for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, while Patrick Leigh Fermor’s European journey trilogy has only just come back in. Poetry collections, if they are lucky, often go through only a couple of print-runs before being left aside. So often it is the writing that offers unusual and perspective-altering rewards that suffers most. It does not sustain enough sales to survive macro-economic rationalism. Except that for some years now there has been an alternative, which more and more publishers are taking up: print-on-demand. Books are stored as digital files – cover, text and all – and printed in response to specific orders. The costs of storage and large print-runs are greatly reduced and most importantly the work is available for interested readers. As a production model, it is ideally suited to new, small, start-up publishers who want to make work available but who only have a low budget. It becomes possible to order a first ‘bulk’ print run of a title – say, fifty copies – to sell and spread the word, then to keep that title on a permanent digital back-burner, ready for anyone coming later who would like to read it. It is a way of “hastening slowly” in growing a small publishing business. Your product can always be produced, you avoid the risk of getting too big too quickly, of having too much stock and overreaching yourself financially. You can get into this for the long haul. And that is what at Contrappasso we hope to do.