Jonathan Green (Ed). Meanjin A – Z: Fine Fiction, 1980 to now. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press (MUP) 2018. RRP $29.99. 225pp. ISBN: 9780522873696
A note from the Westerly editorial team:
Here at Westerly, we love taking the opportunity to promote our sister journals across Australia. We’re all about serving the community of fresh new writers in Australia, and we see that goal as one we share with Meanjin. We’re happy to support Australian writing by promoting Meanjin A – Z: Fine Fiction, 1980 to now, and we hope that our readers will buy books like this one to keep innovative writing growing.
While the short story is often where budding novelists begin to hone their craft, the publication of this art form in Australia can be a little sparse, with literary journals themselves thin on the ground and the commissioning of the short story even rarer.
Since their first issue was released in 1940, Meanjin has continually set the standard for what Australian literature should be. Through their publication, they have fostered the careers of creatives we now regard as national treasures—writers such as Tim Winton, David Malouf, John Kinsella and the late Georgia Blain—and is one of the few publications on Australia’s literary landscape that still invests in the gem that is the short story.
Their latest publication, Meanjin A – Z: Fine Fiction, 1980 to now is a celebration of the short story in all its varying forms. Collected from the archives of stories published by this literary magazine, the collection provides readers with a unique look at where the authors we have come to know and love so well began.
From this collection, it’s easy to see both why Meanjin is still such a highly regarded contributor to Australia’s literary landscape, and why the authors featured in this particular volume went on to become such masters of the written word.
Even in his 1981 piece, ‘And the Darkness Complete’ (211-216), Winton had that je ne sai quoi in his writing. Published around the time he won the illustrious Australian/Vogel National Literary Award for the manuscript that would eventually be released as An Open Swimmer, this short story has those special lines that, even with such brevity, continue to captivate millions of readers—including myself—time and again. The following lines in particular are, in my opinion, evidence of that poetic nature for which Winton has become so well known.
Wails and ceilings clamp me and let me loose. They squeeze things from me until I am unable to distinguish contraction from expansion. I cry out but there is no sound in this nothing. The walls are still. I feel nothing, nothing … (215)
David Malouf is an author whose stories I became familiar with when reading Remembering Babylon (1993), and as I continue to discover both his most recent and past published catalogue, I am increasingly struck by the freshness of his prose.
You arrive at the crest of a ridge and a whole new landscape swings into view. Hoop pines and bunya command the skyline. There are palm-trees, banana plantations. Leisurely broad rivers that seem always in flood go rolling seaward between strands of plumed and scented cane. It is as if you had dozed off at the wheel a moment and woken a whole day further on. (127)
It is with these few poetic sentences from the beginning of ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ that Malouf instantly captivated my imagination with his descriptive visualisation of the scene; the story itself, therefore, is a standout of the collection for me.
With books such as these, and publications such as Meanjin, the uninitiated would be forgiven for believing these are stories that would fall into the category of high-brow fiction. Though this may be the case with some of the pieces that feature in this collection, it is not all it has to offer. The variety and diversity within this book allows it to appeal to readers of almost any genre, giving them a taste of what each author has to offer without the commitment of a novel.
More “modern” authors (for lack of a better phrase), whose work I have yet to delve into, are showcased just as prominently as the stalwarts of the industry. Briohny Doyle’s ‘In Season’ (43-52), originally published by Meanjin in 2013 was a revelation and a reminder that I should add her most recent novel, The Island Will Sink (published by Brow Books in 2013) to my must-read list.
The story itself is quite simple. Essentially, it seems, a woman has journeyed to Melbourne in an effort to escape her mundane life. Whilst there, she works at a market stall. This is the tale of her experience there throughout the seasons, and the affect the people she meets have on her throughout that time. For me, it wasn’t really about the unique prose used within ‘In Season’, but the fact that it is a good story well told. It’s more about the brevity of her prose, the vibrant characters she creates and their interactions with one another that draws the reader’s attention.
Melissa Lucashenko’s 2001 short story ‘Sissy Girl’ (119-125) was another highlight in this volume. It’s yet another story in which characterisation is at the forefront and, when done well, is able to draw the reader in like a magnet. There was something so raw and unpolished in Lucashenko’s work that I found magnetic. One often hears talk of characters leaping off a page in fiction, and ‘Sissy Girl’ was certainly an example of that. It’s confronting from the very beginning, our main character fully formed and lively from the very beginning, such as in the following lines from the opening paragraph:
The best thing that’s happened to me lately is how I’m startin ta feel sorry for whitefellas. You probably think that’s pretty funny, eh? Seeing as I’m the one what’s locked up, and youse … well I don’t know where youse are. School, maybe. Home. Whatever. Not jail, that’s for sure. They don’t call it jail. They call it juvenile detention, but you believe that you wanna look out that window la. See that mesh welded on? Try opening that window on a hot arvo in January. It’s jail, orright. (121)
Meanjin A – Z: Fine Fiction, 1980 to now contains a plethora of literary gems from the archives of their previous issues. Not only does it highlight the importance of the short story and its influence on the landscape of Australian literature, it also allows readers to reconnect with their favourite author’s early writing, and discover new ones.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist and editor and proof-reader based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.