Landfall 214 – Open House : Editorial (2007)

Jack Ross, ed.: Landfall 214 (November 2007)

Rules of Engagement

Amy Brown: The Propaganda Poster Girl (2008)

I thought it might be as well if I opened by describing the criteria I applied in guest-editing “Open House,” the first non-themed Landfall for a while. I’ve put together quite a few issues of literary magazines in my time (twenty, by the last count), and have made a few observations along the way:
  • First, editors (by and large) love themed issues. It means you can impose a shape on the material that comes in to you, and give yourself the sense of constructing a single unified piece out of other people’s inspirations. It’s rather like anthology editing, in fact – the closest most of us can get to the editor-as-hero.
  • Second, writers (by and large) detest themed issues. It means that unless you were specifically invited to submit something to the issue, that you have to contort whatever you happen to be working on to fit – however loosely – that particular theme. Or else you write something else entirely, something designed for the occasion, which may or may not end up going in. If it doesn’t, you’re stuck with an eccentric piece which may never find a home elsewhere. It’s fun every once in a while, but tiresome when it becomes the exception rather than the rule.
  • Third, readers (by and large) are indifferent whether journals have themes or not. Mostly, I suspect (I’m generalising here even more wildly than usual), they read magazines to follow the fortunes of specific writers who interest them.

So whose interests should prevail? It’s a little like the American political machine, I think: that delicate balance between the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. What’s needed to keep our literary magazines lively and relevant is a system of checks and balances between the three interest groups. After all, most of us straddle all three categories at different times, so it’s hard to conclude that either editors, writers or readers should be deprived of their own special brand of amusement.

“Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn,” as the good book puts it (Deut 25: iv). It’s a lot of work to put together an issue, so editors (the executive) do have to reserve themselves a few private satisfactions. When that turns out to be at the expense of writers (Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world”), though, we have a problem. Hence the need, in most cases, for some kind of ratio of themed to non-themes. In the end, of course, it’s you readers (the judiciary), who decide what qualifies as entertaining and instructive and what doesn’t.

I tried to read, accordingly, through the – very many – contributions for this issue with as much objectivity as I could muster. Anything, in theory, was grist to my mill. In the end, though, I do have my own views. I have invited certain authors to contribute pieces who might otherwise not have thought to do so. I’ve also tried consciously to introduce new faces, which has led me, in some cases, to put in only one or two pieces each for poets (in particular) who would really merit a more comprehensive selection.

Do the results sound piecemeal, fragmented? Up to you to judge, but I feel that there’s a spirit in much of the writing I’m encountering nowadays which does succeed in giving unity to this disparate-by-design assemblage of pieces.

Many of our younger writers wear emotional extremism as a kind of badge of honour. The best of them seem intensely aware of contemporary literary theory and linguistic philosophy – the heartbeat of postmodernism – but they’ve gone beyond it into a world of private concerns and fragilities.

Take Amy Brown (“Siamang”), for instance, who sees a captive monkey in a zoo as “tailor-made to comfort / someone as sorry as me.” It isn’t that she’s unaware that the monkey is suffering more than she is – it’s because of that he can serve as her ambiguous double.

Then there’s Thérèse Lloyd, whose Levin kids:
… drag race
their souped-up Ford Escorts
leaving thick black stripes
that come to abrupt endings.

Both Brown and Lloyd are recent graduates of Bill Manhire’s International Institute of Modern Letters Masters programme in Creative writing, but their work shows little of the ironic distance generally seen as characteristic of the Wellington school.

Actually I’d say that the strength of writing programmes such as the Manhire school can be seen in the fact that these two writers, fresh from its workshops, do not sound at all homogenised or smoothed out – rather, individualised in a way which fits larger trends in New Zealand writing.

It’s easy to mock the tendency of every editor to detect new trends and incipient literary movements. “Jack says that if you’re depressed, over-educated, self-absorbed, and anxious to go on about all three then you’re on the right path …” It’s not as simple as that.

My selections for this magazine may well have ended up privileging a personal impression of what is most pointed and relevant in contemporary writing. But some of the poems and stories included in this issue move me in quite a new way. I feel intensely curious to read what these new poets and fiction writers will produce next. If any of this excitement communicates itself to you, the whole venture has been richly worthwhile.


Landfall 214 – Open House. ISBN 978 1 877372 93 3. (2007): 5-6.
[Available at: The Imaginary Museum]

[895 wds]

Landfall 214 (2007)

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