Review of The Lifted Brow, Issue 18
Edited by Sam Cooney
“Let me introduce you to a concept. Two concepts, actually. Important tools for surviving the human condition. One is called irony. Say it with me. Eye-ron-eee.” – Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Literary journals are weird. Anyone who has ever settled in to read one and been met with a range of subjects in a range of forms by writers both known and unknown will have become aware of this to some degree. It’s not an anthology, collecting the best writing released during a given period or on a particular theme, nor is it quite a magazine in the strict sense. The literary journal in fact falls somewhere between the two, in form and in function.
Literary journals have been around for a while now, serving to both connect readers with a community of writers and as an alternative publishing route for new writing, occasionally making a writer’s name. Perhaps it’s because of the latter that a mythology has emerged around them and that they’re still with us despite an inherent anti-sales driven focus, even experiencing something of a renaissance in this here digital age. Of course, as with other media, going “digital” doesn’t solve all a literary journal’s problems but rather defers or reframes them. But maybe life was never easy for them and it’s quite reasonable to suggest that it’s the way it’s always been, even at times when there was less of a shortage of kindly but zany aristocrats to donate to their favourite periodical.
The charity thing, however, hasn’t gone away. Poetry Magazine was bequeathed a tower of cash by the estate of Ruth Lily, sole heir to a pharmaceutical company, and Granta Magazine runs on Swiss food packaging money thanks to publisher Sigrid Rausing, so they’re sorted. But everyone else has to hope and dream and run annual “subscribathons”. And when a subscription ends, marketing comms that necessarily straddle the boundary between friendly and cloying are sent out to readers that are mostly current, former or hopeful contributors, or their friends and relatives, anyway. Such is the precarious existence of the literary journal.
On the other hand, maybe the casual reader is dead. Maybe this is the state of publishing now, and all readers are potential writers because we’ve bought that dream. Maybe publishers of all kinds would do well to corner a market and acknowledge the now-symbiotic reader-writer relationship.
All of this is a rather uneconomical way of saying that literary journals are curious endeavours that are presented with several challenges throughout their lifetimes, funding and audience related-issues not always the least among them.
Issue 18 of The Lifted Brow thrives off the peculiar nature of the literary journal. Its first line is, “I fucking love Bejeweled”, pen and ink faces mark the inside cover and dot drawings of food and boots and turtles are scattered throughout the journal, as if someone had gotten to it before I did. It comes in the shape of a removable arts supplement of a weekend newspaper, and even has its own removable arts supplement – like a weekend newspaper.
First up are a handful of columns; a piece on the disciplined, melancholy existence of Vito Bernasconi, dancer with Queensland Ballet, is followed by “Say My Name, Say My Name: Why Was a Wasp Named After an Infamous Paedophile?”, an article by Rhianna Boyle on the nomenclature of new species. Humorous pop and literary references abound and make for what is a surprisingly informative piece. “Looking for Loretta” by Briohny Doyle is ostensibly about “proximity tourism” – visiting somewhere because of what it used to be – but is really a story about the author’s realisation that irony is not always recognised as such, particularly not when it’s embedded in lives or culture – or the American dream. “We can Remember It For You Wholesale: Cryptomnesia, Spiritualism, Zeitgeist and the Anxiety of Influence” is a sharp piece from Nina Gibb on examples of literary cryptomnesia, the phenomenon of accidental plagiarism. Rather than examining the politics of Picasso-esque artistic theft, Gibb takes the alternative route and instead argues for an evaluation of the final product.
It is after these pieces that the strangeness really begins to coalesce: a snail in a seaweed packet; bong-hitting werewolves; a short story completely in code; “the inside of my cat’s ear is very weird looking, like an alien cave” is not the strangest nor the funniest line of James Brown’s poetry; and other pieces, comics mainly, in which I have no idea what’s going on.
“Law School” is an agony aunt-style column in which confused readers seek the wisdom of Benjamin Law and his mother, Jenny. Questions include those by a woman coming to terms with a boyfriend who regularly dresses up as a clown for non-professional purposes and a confused young man who has been prescribed cunnilingus practice by his girlfriend while she is away overseas. What could be bizarre and awkward is instead bizarre and sweet.
But it is by its fiction and poetry that a literary journal is truly judged, no? The Lifted Brow’s distinctive style is perpetuated and enhanced by its fiction and poetry. Ryan O’Neill’s rendering of the authorial moods into a coherent work of fiction in his short story “The Writer and His Moods” is funny, smart and fits the tone of the journal perfectly. Ben Walter’s short story takes readers on a tour of the huts on Tasmania’s Mount Wellington. It’s mysterious and atmospheric, and, maybe because of its form – a catalogue of huts and their construction dates and owners, as well as a record of the visit – borders on the gothic.
Best of the poets is Pip Smith. Her suite of poems are lyrical and evocative and are characterised most strongly by the light patches she hides among the dark:
They say methane in the lamps was to blame
for all our murky, Victorian ghosts. So when the permafrost melts,
let’s all get gassed and raise the dead together.
The unifying element of all of the fiction and poetry featured in the journal is that I can’t think of another local print journal that these pieces would have reasonably fit (Ryan O’Neill, in his short story, writes: “This story has already been rejected by six literary magazines”). Too jokey for Overland and Griffith REVIEW, too unconventional for Island and Meanjin, the pieces all go some way in fortifying The Lifted Brow’s identity.
At the centre of all this, literally, is Middlebrow, The Lifted Brow’s “arts lift-out”. The joke here is that while it’s in the middle of the journal, it’s no different to the rest of it – it’s a newspaper, all of it can be “lifted out”. Middlebrow, it turns out, is the journal’s meatiest section. An Australian Gatsby, discussion of the latest novels by J.M. Coetzee and Sheila Heti, the Guggenheim’s controversial No Country exhibition – the area covered by Middlebrow is wide and varied. It is also delivered with a straighter face than the rest of the content, so offers a break from the literary kookiness that takes place on either of its sides.
The highlight of Middlebrow is a profile by Lucas Smith on the rich and meandering life of Barbara Baynton. It should be ironic that one of Australia’s classical writers is featured in this particular publication, but by now it probably shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
The Lifted Brow is the London Review of Books of the bizarro world. They both come in newspaper form, are therefore equally unwieldy to read on a crowded train, and both talk literature. But where one champions sprawling, canonical essays, the other champions the ephemeral and hip. In case I’m not making myself clear, there is nothing conventional about this journal. It’s thick with playfulness and irony, has ambition without taking itself too seriously, and has the feel of something put together by talented friends and made real. The gang behind The Lifted Brow are clearly comfortable with this, and so it works.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney. He twitters here: https://twitter.com/tristan_foster and writes here: http://tristanfoster.wordpress.com/