from the editor's desk

‘The Golden Years: 1986-1995’, by Delys Bird

NB. This is an amended version of the article originally published in Westerly 59.2 (2014). Many thanks to Sari Smith for pointing out the required corrections.


For most of this decade, Westerly enjoyed a relatively stable financial situation, secure, dedicated administrative support and a strong subscription list. It’s a significant period for these reasons (as well as others of course), and the first issue of Westerly in 1986 recognised, in its Obituary for John O’Brien, the major influence of his editorship from 1962 to 1965. It was during his time that the journal ‘first received Government funding and began publishing as a quarterly’. O’Brien was Westerly’s first contracted editor and it was during his tenure that Westerly became more firmly established at a national level, as one of a range of literary magazines—Westerly being the first from the West—able to attract funding from the Commonwealth Government. That first issue also listed for the first time, quaintly, ‘Secretarial’ (Caroline Horobin) and ‘Typing’ (Dorothy McCormick), together with editors Peter Cowan, Dennis Haskell and Bruce Bennett and editorial advisors David Brooks, Margot Luke and Hilary Fraser. My own long association with Westerly began when I became one of these advisors in 1988, poetry editor at the end of 1990, and co-editor at the end of 1992, with Bruce Bennett, Peter Cowan and Dennis Haskell. Westerly lost one of its most influential editors when Bennett left UWA for Canberra early in 1993; however, he remained part of the editorial group as Eastern States Editor. Peter Cowan officially retired at the beginning of 1994, leaving Haskell and myself as co-editors for the next nearly two decades. A Westerly editor from 1966, Cowan was recognised in a brief ‘Editor’s Note’ as ‘the longest serving editor of any Australian cultural magazine’ (1994:1). Cowan’s quiet presence, editorial acumen, acerbic wit and vast knowledge of Australian fiction and history were greatly missed.

During this decade, Westerly had consistent administrative and infrastructure support from the English Department at UWA. Caroline Horobin was named Administrator in the third issue of 1988. She worked part-time with the Centre for Studies in Australian Literature (now the Westerly Centre, which publishes Westerly) and part-time with the Department, and Westerly paid a tiny contribution to the English Department towards those costs. Horobin managed the office—and the editors!—from the mid-eighties until her resignation from UWA in early 1999. This long period when Westerly had ongoing, dedicated administrative support with little drain on its budget was unique in the journal’s history. Horobin’s leaving coincided with the increasing financial pressure on Australian Universities, felt especially in the Humanities, and the English Department could no longer support the journal as it had. Westerly became responsible for its own administration and could only afford very part-time assistance. In Horobin’s time, she and one of the editors would assemble the journal physically, then send it in hard copy to the printer for setting and printing. From around 1992, it was made print ready in the Westerly office using a desk-top publishing programme. These were productive years for the Centre, which published an average of one scholarly book a year as well as the journal.

Westerly remained a quarterly in large-page format throughout this period. While the cost of subscriptions gradually increased—an annual subscription in 1986 was $16.00 posted; in 1989, $20.00; moving to $24.00 in 1993—the single issue price remained at $5.00. In 1987, there was an announcement in the third issue that subscriptions could now be paid by credit card. This innovation, so much taken for granted now, was followed much later, in the last issue of 1993, when it was noted that articles could be submitted by email, or on disk. Westerly was also available from the beginning of 1994 for subscription by email for $10 as well as in the traditional hard copy, but few subscribers took up this offer and the idea lapsed. The title page of 3:1987 also carried the byline ‘The National Quarterly from the West’ for the first time, one later dropped, and the list of Advisors was re-named Editorial Consultants—a group of noted scholars and writers from across Australia and overseas. Importantly, that issue was also the first to credit a cover designer, Susan Eve Ellvey; formerly editors would choose an image for the cover and simply send it with the internals to the printer who would make it up. Ellvey went on to produce what became the signature Westerly covers, using original artwork from West Australian artists whenever possible. Ellvey remained Westerly’s designer until the first issue in 1994, when she moved away, and was succeeded by Robyn Mundy, who stayed with the journal for at least a decade and a half. Westerly now publishes Robyn’s stories.

1986 had been a busy year for Westerly. The first issue was a special issue on ‘Literature and Locality’—continuing the practice of occasional themed issues. It is unusual in that it contains only two stories and two poems. A short introduction to the articles which make up most of the issue notes Westerly’s ‘long … interest in literature as it emerges from or relates to particular regions of Australia’ (17). These articles draw on writing from localities as diverse as Gippsland and Australia’s tropical north. Ian Templeman, founder of Fremantle Arts Centre Press, celebrates ‘A Decade of Publishing’ and there are ‘Personal Views’ of the Press as a regional publisher by Elizabeth Jolley and Peter Cowan. Bruce Bennett’s addendum, ‘Writing West’, refers to ‘the buoyant state of Western Australian writing’ (96), indicated by the Press’s anniversary, and its continued strength. New novels by Tim Winton and Archie Weller had been launched at Writers’ Week in Adelaide in March 1986, and Peter Cowan’s selected stories, A Window in Mrs. Xs Place, was also published that year. The second issue has a ‘Focus on Elizabeth Jolley’, with a clever, unattributed cover photograph showing Jolley, seated and reading, while another Jolley peers out at herself, from behind a partially drawn black curtain. Westerly first published Jolley’s work very early in her career and continued to do so. Articles in the issue by Dorothy Jones, Helen Daniel and Andrew Riemer were important additions to what was then the growing critical attention being paid to Jolley’s work.

A second special issue that year, ‘The 1930s’ (4:1986), has an ‘Introduction’ that acknowledges the spasmodic nature of such issues at that time: ‘Westerly has published special issues from time to time’ (5), and ends hoping that the topic ‘may contribute to a revival of interest in a critical decade’ and thanking the Literature Board of the Australia Council for a subsidy ($2,000) towards its production. It’s a big issue, made up solely of articles, on topics as wide-ranging as censorship; working-class women in depression fiction; modernist art and architecture in Perth; on the novel, poetry, newspapers; on art (specifically that of Beatrice Darbyshire) of the decade, and one that summarises some of some of the findings of a survey carried out by Dorothy Green and Sandra Burchill arguing the very modern idea that studies of Australia, with a small ‘s’, have been going on ‘since the arrival of the First Fleet’ (59). Applying to the Literature Board again in 1987 for some extra funding for another special issue, Bruce Bennett wrote that the 1930s issue ‘was one of the most successful we have undertaken, … described as “an undiluted pleasure” by Barbara Jefferis in The Australian, and receiving favourable comment … from readers throughout the country’.

It’s during this decade that special issues began to appear on a regular basis. And while Westerly remains resolutely wedded to the practice of publishing unsolicited material which goes through a rigorous, independent editing and/or refereeing process, it is also often the case that some of the material at least for special issues is commissioned. ‘Australian Expatriates’ (4:1987), published responses to their expatriate experience invited from ‘Australian writers, artists, critics and teachers’ (5) including Glenda Adams, Peter Porter, Jeffrey Smart and Randolph Stow. Stow replied to the invitation with a brief message which the editors then wrote asking his permission to publish. He agreed. It begins, ‘I’m sorry to say that I can think of nothing to say on the subject of being an expatriate’ (9). In the correspondence for this issue are letters from others who declined—Shirley Hazzard wrote that she was ‘in the middle of a difficult piece of my own work’ and further, that ‘I don’t think of myself as an expatriate …’.

In 1988, the special issue, ‘Imaging Western Australia’ appeared mid-year, as a ‘Bicentennial Issue’ (2:1988). A brochure of the Western Australia Council of The Australian Bicentennial Authority listed it as one of a number of West Australian publications supported by the Authority in that year. Westerly received a grant of $8,800 from this Authority in that year towards this unusually large issue, although the assistance is not formally acknowledged. The back cover announces ‘Poetry and Prose by Western Australia’s best writers, including: Philip Salom, Andrew Lansdown, Faye Davis, Alec Choate, Julie Lewis and Marion Campbell’, and ‘Articles & Reminiscences’ from ‘Elizabeth Jolley, Veronica Brady, George Seddon, Peter Cowan, Dorothy Hewett and more!’.

The nineteen eighties have been tagged, retrospectively, as the decade when women’s writing was recognised as a significant category in Australian literary culture. The feminist politics of the 1970s had shifted and shaped the production and reception of women’s writing and this new wave of women’s writing unsettled the largely male dominated canon of Australian literature. At the end of the decade, Westerly entered what had become an energetic field of debate, publishing a special issue ‘Keeping Mum: Australian Representations of Motherhood’ (4:1989). In the editorial, guest editors myself and Dennis Haskell noted that Westerly special issues were generally ‘devoted to a topic in Australian cultural life which has received little critical discussion’ and that ‘the representation of motherhood in Australian texts has rarely been analysed, even by feminist critics’ (5), a statement which now seems outmoded given the ways mothering has been examined – critically, creatively, socially and politically – since then. The issue includes articles by a number of well-known feminist critics, including E. Ann Kaplan on ‘Discourses of the Mother in Postmodern Film and Culture’; stories from Elizabeth Jolley, Julie Lewis, Carmel Bird, Marion Campbell and others; among many poems are ones from Katherine Gallagher, Jan Kemp, and Jennifer Strauss, and there’s an extract from Drusilla Modjeska’s memoir of her mother, Poppy. This important issue marks the end of a significant decade in Westerly publishing.

In the early 90s, publication of special issues settled into a pattern, always located at the end of each year. ‘Suburbia’ (4:1990) was followed by ‘Eyeing the Environment’ (4:1991)—with a large number of articles, including two that are particularly notable. George Seddon’s ‘Journeys Through Landscape’ features photography by Richard Woldendorp, whose work is also on the cover, and regular contributor Veronica Brady writes on ‘The Environment: A “Bran Nue Day” or a Very Ancient One?’. ‘Beyond Good and Evil—Justice in Australia’ (4:1992) was next, with a number of articles on a range of issues both literary and cultural, then ‘Crossing the Waters; Asia and Australia’ (4:1993). These signal the range of socio-cultural issues Westerly focussed on. In ‘Crossing the Waters’, guest editor Beverly Hooper, Director of the Centre for Asian Studies at UWA (together with Harry Aveling, Head of the Division of Asian Languages at La Trobe University) writes that the issue ‘continues the Westerly tradition of attention to the diverse cultures and societies of our neighbours’, a ‘feature of the magazine ever since it commenced publication in 1956’ (5).

Westerly has indeed always looked towards Asia, but it is also the case that during 1986-1995 fewer writers from the Asian region were published than in previous decades. This issue features the poetry of Kirpal Singh and Edwin Thumboo, who were published fairly regularly, and Hersri Setiawan, while there are stories by Dewi Anggraeni and Shahnon Ahmad, with a piece of ficto-criticism by Sang Ye with Sue Trevaskes and Nicholas Jose and articles by Koh Tai Ann and Ouyang Yu—also a regular contributor of poetry and articles. Number 1, 1994 carries a notice announcing the forthcoming ‘Mediterranean Issue’—the first time a special issue had been flagged in advance—that describes Westerly’s special issues as having a very coherent focus: ‘Each year the Summer issue (no. 4) of Westerly is a special issue of poetry, fiction and articles on a selected theme’ (2).

This decade had been one during which, as I’ve indicated, Westerly enjoyed a relatively stable financial situation, with quite substantial funding continuing from the Literature Board of the Australia Council (the journal’s most generous funding partner in this period) and the WA Department for the Arts. Finding ways to market a small literary journal is, however, always a headache. Great covers count—Westerly’s remain distinctive—as do high production standards and varied content, but it’s always proven difficult to achieve a level of professional distribution or raise Westerly’s profile other than very locally. A one-off grant of $4,000 in 1993 from the Literature Board to promote Westerly meant that many schemes were proposed and some undertaken, with the help of a commissioned marketing expert. One of her most successful ideas was to have postcards made of several standout covers and distribute them as widely as possible, through coffee shops, book shops and so on.

Despite this initiative, Westerly’s funding situation worsened late in 1994 as the golden years drew to a close. The annual funding application to the WA Department for the Arts for 1995 was greeted with the news that the grant would be reduced by $4,000, almost a quarter of the amount it had been receiving for some years; that the journal could expect more drastic cuts in the future, and should seek other funding strategies. At the same time, Literature Council funding for 1995 was savagely slashed by $9,000 representing more than a third of that expected. The co-editors responded in the first issue of 1995 (wrongly attributed on the cover as ‘Number 5’)‘From the Editors’ Desk’, announcing both the theme for the special issue that year, ‘Westerly Goes to War’, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, and an issue on which Westerly was itself going to war, ‘Westerly Funding: The Bleak Future’. Having already written to their funding bodies to preview a change in the cover price and subscriptions structure, the editorial response to these cuts went further. Each issue of Westerly ‘for the foreseeable future’ would be limited to a maximum of 96 pages with no internal colour. In addition, ‘regrettably’, levels of payment to contributors would be reduced.

The editors went on to point out that ‘Westerly is a non-profit making venture that survives only with the assistance of the Department for the Arts and the Literature Board, and the Centre for Studies in Australian Literature and the English Department at The University of Western Australia. The Co-Editors are not paid.’ At the same time, they wrote, the Literature Board of the Australia Council planned to review its funding of literary magazines, with ‘the likelihood of [more] funding cuts’ and ‘a proposal being mooted that the Board fund fewer, larger magazines’. Such a proposal ‘may limit even more severely … the chance for Western Australia to be heard’. They urged Westerly readers interested in ‘the role of magazines in Australian literary and cultural life’ to make their own submissions to the Literature Board on these issues. While funding is always a concern to editors of small literary magazines, and Westerly has gone through many such crises over its six decades, it has survived throughout that time on tight budgets, much voluntary labour and the continuing presence and support of the writers and readers who keep the journal alive. And one positive result of the announcement of bad times is that subscriptions and sales increase for a while.

As had been the case in earlier decades, during this period Westerly published a mixture of creative work and critical articles, in varying proportions, with an increasing number of book reviews. Numerous emerging writers who went on to become more established and sometimes very well known are here. Kim Scott first appears in Westerly as a poet in the second issue of 1986. Shane McAuley, Sarah Day, Diane Fahey, Michael Heald, Jean Kent, Paul Hetherington, John Kinsella, Tracy Ryan, Andrew Lansdown, Andrew Bourke, Jennifer Compton, Paul Hetherington, Shirley Lim, Jill Jones, Anthony Lawrence, Roland Leach (poetry editor for the last three years), Lawrence Bourke (poetry and articles) and Jan Owen are among the poets who appear throughout the decade. Barbara Brandt (later Barbara Temperton) has stories and poetry and Marion Campbell stories and critical work. Nikki Gemmell and Brigid Lowry are among the newer story writers, as is Sari Hosie. Her first Westerly story was published in 4:1988 and she continued to contribute over the next decade, then to the bi-centennial Westerly (2005) and to a 2010 issue under the name Sari Smith.

At the same time, Westerly featured the work of renowned writers. The striking black and white cover of 1:1987 is an engraving by Arthur Boyd, ‘Narcissus’, the title of a book (one of several) published from a long period of collaboration between the artist and Peter Porter. Porter writes in this issue, ‘Working with Arthur Boyd’, about collaborations between writers, musicians and painters and specifically of his ‘fulfilling’ (69) experience working with Boyd. His article is illustrated with several of the engravings from the book. Porter was a writer-in-residence at UWA from February to April, 1987, and the cover of 3:1987 features a photograph taken of him during that time and no less than six new poems, written during the residency. More follow, and 3:1995 carries an interview by John Kinsella with Porter on his collaboration with Boyd. Ee Tiang Hong’s poetry appears once or twice and an Obituary in 1:1990 recognises him as, ‘a pioneer in Australia-Asian literary culture’ (2). Among others with already well established reputations are poets Fay Zwicky, Les Murray, Eric Beach, Dorothy Hewett, with stories and critical work too, Bruce Dawe, Hal Colebatch, Alec Choate, Ian Templeman and Jeff Guess for example. There are stories from Julie Lewis, Joan London and Pat Jacobs, while Robert Drewe and Alan Seymour contribute occasional prose pieces. It’s in the rich and varied work Westerly has published throughout its history that its heritage lies, and Westerly has continued to play a major part in the ‘buoyant state’ of Western Australian writing Bruce Bennett noted in the first issue of the decade.

Delys Bird was co-editor of Westerly from 1992-2014. As a writer and academic, she has conducted extensive research in Australian Literature, with a focus on women writers and feminist theory. In 2011, Bird was the recipient of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature’s A.A Philips award for her long period of excellence in the editing of Westerly.

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  1. […] champion for writing in the state. He remains Westerly‘s longest serving editor (we recommend Delys Bird’s excellent article on his time at the helm) and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre continues to support Perth writers in […]

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