Sep 20, 2010
The Lifted Brow no. 7
ed. Ronnie Scott
Reviewed by Sam Cooney
The Lifted Brow no. 7. It’s good. (Could I leave it at that? Yes.) Ronnie Scott’s short editorial is about penises, sneakers and a forgotten Halloween special. I will extract two declarations from the editorial that sum up this Brow: ‘I’ve never heard a bad idea’ and ‘Do not search this issue for a theme’. Accurate. The pages of no. 7 are full of stories. Some of them aren’t to my liking, but a lot are. I’ll mention five, because it’s half of ten.
‘Cold Snap’ by Robert Shearman is about boy-narrator Ben, his father, and Santa Claus. But it’s more about loss, family and people changing. And it’s realistic and unreal at the same time. Santa is surly and a bit threatening. People turn into reindeers. Time disappears.
Blake Kimzey’s ‘Breeders’ has this great narrator. He’s an idiot, but he’s a charming idiot. Not a harmless one though, as his ‘uncivilised’ fixations involve others. But he’s a follower, and when we meet him he is kowtowing to his friend Jimmy in a plan to breed a Great Dane with a Pit Bull to make a Great Pit. Mauling ahoy!
I’ve read stories by Chris Somerville before, and he’s definitely locked down his style. Lucky it’s excellent, or he’d be in a pickle. Case in point: his story here, titled ‘Harold Holt’, which is only nine paragraphs long, is top-notch. I’m a sucker for what has been called ‘minimalism’ or ‘realism’ in writing, and Somerville continually taps away with little hammer strokes at this mode, reshaping and improving. This story describes a young boy’s obsession with finding the body of Harold Holt.
Dolan Morgan’s ‘Nuée Ardente’ is a little bit Steven Amsterdam, and a little bit Ann Beattie. On a train ride in rural New York (State obv., not City) strange stuff begins to happen, but always just out of frame. The train stops, the passengers disembark and interact, and the train leaves them behind, stuck in the snow. It’s end-of-the-worldish but not painfully so, and the narrative voice keeps everything tapered, tied down, and taut. As always in these ‘something big is happening somewhere’ stories, it’s the smallness of the characters, the dialogue, and the descriptions that become the focus.
Last of all, ‘Zero’ by Mike Meginnis imagines how we’d deal if we could resurrect the vegetative/comatose so that they could function, albeit without emotion or much ‘humanness’ at all, really. Told through the eyes of a wife who has elected to have her husband undergo such a transformation, we are witness to the upshots (few) and downsides (many). The eating scenes are the best, closely followed by the fighting, pissing and fucking scenes. It’s quite a visceral piece.
So there’s some words about The Lifted Brow no. 7. They aren’t carefully measured, there’s no retrospective gazing and comparing of this Brow to the previous six, and I haven’t given equal face-time to all facets of the journal (artwork, editorial, etc). I’m not going to call the Brow the ‘crazy cousin’ or ‘zany uncle’, and the small attempt to categorise it in some sort of lit journal (Australian or international) pecking order (below) just happened; it wasn’t planned. I think all that stuff is silly, anyway. What I have done is read the 276 pages of issue no. 7 and relayed what came to mind.
I told a friend the other day that I was going to write this, and she said something to the effect of, ‘you’d better hurry before it sells out’. (The Brow has a history of smallish print runs.) This to me is all wrong. I’m not writing words about lit journals to help sell copies. I’d be delusional to believe that my attention had any such influence, and promotional reviewing smells more sour to me than those loading dock doorways in the city that have been painted with urine for years. Fusty. I ‘review’ the occasional lit journal because they are underrepresented in the realm of critique, and because I like to read them so much.
Another friend, an editor of a recently-defunct lit journal (look how ‘industry’ I’m proving to be!) said to me that he is glad The Lifted Brow exists. And this seems to be the attitude most people have towards the Brow, as readers, writers or editors. They love it, or they love it. This is because it is different, and by being different it has sequestered a ‘niche’ (what a shitty word) that everyone knows is better for being filled. Brow editor Ronnie Scott seeks out certain types of contributors that other publications would (and do) immediately dismiss, and he hoists them up for us. He yearns to broadcast such writing and artwork (and sometimes music). Plus he has a squadron of loyalists helping him, not unlike like backup dancers in a Beyoncé video (is Beyoncé past her use-by date as far as referencing goes? I’m not sure, sorry). And he/they do it all without using government grant money, and they do it their own way. Ronnie had a go at explaining it in an interview with HTMLGIANT:
Australian ‘independent’ publishing is actually a grant culture. A lot of Americans would love to live in a country where the government pumps money into literature. But in fact it’s damaging, because magazines have less of an incentive to sell copies to readers, which to my mind involves publishing electrifying writing of one type or another – whether that’s writing that’s challenging, or writing that’s popular. In our grant culture, a lot of boring magazines are able float around in a half-life – no actual readers – for decades. And once these things get started, most are edited by committee, so you get this blanding-out of content; competent stories get through, and nobody has any incentive to write idiosyncratic work, because it doesn’t appeal to everybody and it probably won’t get published.
So first idea, you have this grant culture where the problem is even embedded in the text of the applications: they want to see that you’re providing a space for young Australian voices. So it’s about young writers, not young readers – which is what you’d think the writers might want anyway. And then second idea, these editorial committees are made up of groups of writers, who automatically have other writers, rather than readers, in mind. Or if they think of the reader, they think of the reader as some kind of LCD person. Lowest-common-denominator person, not James Murphy person-of-excellence. So in general, a generous and ostensibly great space is made within which writers can be published, and not a whole lot of space is dedicated to readers. So lots of these things don’t sell to anyone.
The Lifted Brow is literature that isn’t, it’s literature that won’t, it’s literature that refuses. But it’s also (paradoxes are so easy) literature that does, literature that must, literature that pushes. Plus there’s artwork too.
Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.