Mary, No. 3
Edited by Christopher Fieldus
A couple of months before he resigned from his post as editor of Granta Magazine, John Freeman explained to a gang of readers and writers at Sydney’s Gleebooks that the themes for Granta’s issues, at least under his editorship, aren’t planned. Rather, they coalesce. When enough writing can be logically grouped together – with only four issues per year, they can sit on an accepted submission for quite some time – that becomes the theme for an issue.
The process highlights one key difficulty faced by literary journals. Themed issues or anthologies force cohesion and give the editor some direction, but for the reader the themed issue can be problematic. Themed issues purport to have something reactive and spontaneous about them, as if each writer, upon seeing the theme, had a current of inspiration run through them. But it’s a cumbersome and not wholly satisfying approach. As a writer, I think about ways I can bend work that I’ve previously done into something that might be able to fit the theme. As a reader, it’s a distraction, a treasure hunt for the ways a piece does, or doesn’t, fit. I don’t want to read an issue devoted entirely to Doom or Ancient Egypt or Breakfast – it’s limiting.
The obvious alternative is to throw the best pieces received during the submission window together and hope their quality does the talking. We’re used to this – a fractured reading experience – now: the news in the paper hangs together on the sole fact that all the stories have some sort of currency, a television show’s narrative is interrupted the moment an ad comes on or the channel is changed, and nothing creates a more fractured reading experience than the internet. That this sort of reading experience is common doesn’t also mean it’s good.
Useful to the discussion of the themed versus unthemed literary journal is Melbourne-based Mary.
“I’ve been writing and rewriting myself into dead ends, trying to find a unifying theme to No. 3.,” editor-in-chief Christopher Fieldus writes in his editorial. Interesting that he uses the phrase dead end – across the cover is an image of a vandalised inner city streetscape late at night. The street in the cover image angles into the centre of the photograph before turning and continuing out of view – it’s not a dead end.
Most striking about the image is the streetlights that hang in the night sky and follow the curve of the road, and the reflection of their light in the wet, cobblestone gutter. If a theme is required, the light in the dark is a good starting point.
The journal opens with a short story titled – maybe fortuitously – ‘Light’, by Katia Pase:
She says she took my sister to the altar in the big dance hall and the Pastor performed corrective healing and slayed my sister’s spirit. She was still for ten seconds then opened her eyes and was healed.
Though in this case light mean weightless, Pase’s piece about lost kids enacts what becomes a common theme – for want of a better term – throughout Mary. Again and again, the pieces in the journal mine the dark for the light.
Peter Sherwood’s short story ‘Sausages for Breakfast’ is one of the best proponents of this. The unnamed narrator, either freshly grieving or stuck in grief, wanders the house he grew up in and which he has now been bequeathed. He is writing a cookbook, and examples of the recipes are incorporated into the narrative:
Bits of Cheese: File Under ‘Cracker’
- Put two pieces of cheese in a frying pan and push them together.
- Place on a cracker.
Sherwood’s writing is confident and funny, and shows he is adept at straddling the line between the pain of grief and the humour in that pain. ‘Sausages for Breakfast’ is the journal’s strongest piece.
Ben Walter contributes a haunting poem titled ‘Your Roots’, and Eddie Paterson’s two poems are funny and rambling – the redacted names and words only add to the feeling that you’re reading extracts from Paterson’s private emails. The journal nears its end with a curious poem by Helen Patrice ostensibly about bottle-feeding a lion cub. The poem’s evocations – “he shreds the rubber / with pointed teeth, / and kneads your arms with pads and claws” – resonated in the days after reading it, which is exactly the kind of response I want to my own writing.
Running parallel or, more correctly, adjacent to this theme of light-in-the-dark is a discussion of feminism. Not every piece touches on this, but it works to pull together some of the nonfiction pieces. Samantha Tennant’s essay on French artist Orlan both explores the positives – the light, if you will – in cosmetic surgery, and the way in which the surgery can be used to “plasticise, de-form and fragment notions of the female body.”
Jane Hoan’s essay ‘Getting Away With It’ is about “why it is still important for women writers to write about personal experience.” That such a subject is even up for discussion should seem, to the mature reader, ridiculous. But perhaps the bigger issue is that even more ridiculous would be an essay on why men should continue to write about personal experience – and therein lies the problem. The essay’s fault is in its focus on Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip – a book that is now over 30 years old. Without focusing on novels released more recently – there are several perfect candidates released this year – it may therefore have been better framed as why it was important for women writers to keep writing, despite being subjected to harsher critiques than men.
Hoan’s essay ends with the claim: “Women need to keep writing about themselves, and about the issue of writing about themselves, both in creative and academic writing so that women like me can read it and, in turn, feel it is okay to write like that.” Mary is doing exactly that. Despite any shortcomings of the academic pieces, they aid in fortifying Mary’s identity both by encouraging the discussion of feminism and by giving that discussion a forum.
Another of Katia Pase’s short, melancholy pieces about fractured lives closes out the journal, further working to give the publication a distinct but understated cohesion.
Mary Journal is little, slim as a zine, and has a vaguely homemade feel. Its size means it’s easy to read and to take with you, easy to shove into the hand of a friend. Fieldus and crew might be new arrivals to the alien planet of the literary journal, but they have dealt with one of the key challenges – pulling together a mix of fiction, poetry and nonfiction that coheres without slapping the reader across the face with it – and that they have done so with subtlety is not a small achievement. To appropriate Erasmus: “One is not born a literary journal, one become a literary journal.” Mary is on its way.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney. He twitters here: https://twitter.com/tristan_foster and writes here: http://tristanfoster.wordpress.com/