Brow by Brow – Ronnie Scott (Interviewed by Kirk Marshall)

Verity La The Melbourne Review Interviews

Kirk Marshall: Over the years, The Lifted Brow has come to self-ascribe its format as that of a “bi-annual attack journal”. What’s the plan of attack? If there’s a manifesto for what you’re striving to accomplish, what’s its immediate thesis?
Ronnie Scott: The Brow is just called an attack journal because I don’t really like the term “journal” by itself — we’re not a publication for writers of literature, but rather for readers — and while I do like “magazine” a lot, people unfamiliar with the Brow who come to a launch show or something will initially look very uncomfortable when you tell them it’s a $25 magazine and then when they see it, they’ll say something like “Well, it’s more of a book, really, isn’t it!” Whereas this is the first time I have actually been asked why it’s called an attack journal.
I’ve come up with an embarrassing number of attack plans since the Brow’s inception, none of which I tend to care about by the time the following issue rolls around, so that is why it’s embarrassing. The very first Brow was designlessly filled with text because in Brisbane, in 2006, there happened to be a few literary magazines around that fell short of content after issue one and folded after a half-life of second and third photo spread-type issues. That’s not at all important anymore. There are things that are important to me, obviously. I have lots of special opinions! But if there’s a central thesis for the Brow that might potentially matter to other people, it’s that there are writers, artists, and aesthetics in Australia that aren’t published or paid enough to really get the chance to develop. I’ve heard people say that there are only 1,000 people in Australia who will ever buy a lit. journal, and the problem is that you’re competing with thirty magazines for that one, tiny audience. But the truth is, there are all these different markets of readers whom it is possible to access. Our sales don’t take sales from other lit. journals I don’t think. It’s just the “this, and also this”. So the “attack” idea – it’s not about attacking what is currently out there, it’s just that there is also room for other stuff.
KM: So, in effect, The Lifted Brow appeals to a market of literate readers within this country – in addition to further afield, because I, like many others, are aware of the prominent spike in popularity the journal has galvanised in places like the US and Canada, deriving from the success of your fourth issue onwards – that would be otherwise neglected by Australian journals. What’s your understanding of the literary community in Australia, when it pertains specifically to the publishers of journals? It seems evident, as you point out, that there are thirty magazines intent on competing for the same phantom readership – an entirely theoretical demographic – but this also seems to presuppose that the content generally offered to the public is therefore determined by a hypothetical. The Brow, on the other hand, is furious in its endeavour to explore & showcase new themes, forms and genres of writing. What’s your opinion on the substance of content offered by other journals, and do you think the success of the Brow demonstrates that the editorial values of these journals are no longer valid?
RS: No way, because there is so much to like in other Australian magazines. One of my favourite Australian essays ever was published in HEAT, a thing by Saskia Beudel about becoming trapped in a cave in the Northern Territory. The thing I’d improve about most of the big guys is for them to publish better fiction. The New Yorker’s fiction department publishes high-quality conservativeish fiction, but in Australia, we don’t have as much fiction to choose from full stop, which I think is due to population. So to me, the result of selecting fiction that appeals to a biggish number of people is often that these magazines will choose fiction that feels bland. It’s hard to find very high-quality fiction in Australia on a regular basis, so I’d rather publish something that fails with personality and aplomb. On the other hand, what these guys have in droves is top-quality essay, and that’s something for which you need a bigger budget than I have. My perfect magazine would be a mix of idiosyncratic fiction and extremely well-researched and well-reported essay. It’s not that we don’t publish idiosyncratic fiction in Australia — your magazine, Red Leaves, does it, and I attempt to with the Brow, so people who want it can definitely find it. Good. But as a reader, I’d like to either publish top-quality essay in my own magazine or read idiosyncratic fiction in one which also contains that. The other thing to remember is that in Australia, there are lots of magazines that are not reader-focused — something like Voiceworks or Wet Ink has the purpose of creating a home for writers, which is important, but is a different thing than what the Brow does.
KM: I agree with you that Australia has recently become, if not has historically long established itself as, a national proponent of sophisticated, rigorously-researched reportage (and you only have to look to a top-quality periodical like The Monthly, despite its occasionally too-evident conservative political inclinations, as an indicator for journalistic substance in this country). Recently, the essay format – whether that manifests itself as nuanced academic analysis bolstered by exacting research, or as creative non-fiction with the intention to function as a personal disclosure  – seems to have foregrounded itself more than ever under the stewardship of certain literary editors. And I think it’s not overstating reality to suggest that the Brow excels as a showcase for varying modes and genres of writing because the journal, by your industrious editorial bent, favours the model in which a literary publication frees itself of “specialising” in content. You’re an omnivorous reader, and your literary predispositions assert themselves in the content you incorporate into the magazine. What do you feel about the narratological argument that a literary journal should be less like a miscellany and “more” like an anthology: that it should solely publish fiction, for example? You also suggest that the present-day Australian literary community lacks the means to produce consistently excellent short fiction the way in which populations within the US are capable – do you therefore think it’s unproblematic, if not necessary, for journals like Chris Flynn’s home-grown quarterly, Torpedo, to source and solicit material from overseas to supplement Australian content?
RS: To be honest, I’ve never heard the narratological argument that a literary journal should solely publish fiction. I also don’t see how it could possibly be problematic that Torpedo solicited overseas material. I guess what I was saying earlier is that I don’t really care what other literary magazines do, don’t do, should do. Many of them do really interesting things. The Brow is fun because I sell enough copies to make back our expenses (other than the “expense” of the time I spend creating a thing I have fun doing), to usually pay the contributors a little bit of money, and to sustain my feeling that people are reading what I enjoy publishing. If I start to think about what journals should and shouldn’t do for too long, it feels kind of toxic to the soul. Is anybody literally upset that Chris is publishing overseas writers? Really? Why?

KM: Though I won’t claim to have instigated this with an auspicious stratagem in mind, I have to concede, for my part, that in the course of this interview I’ve been consciously striving to direct attention towards the divisive nature of literary publishing. More specifically, that editors often initiate a project like an independent magazine almost with a feeling of purity – uncompromised creative ambition deriving from a dogged passion to fill an existing gulf in the market – but then so frequently gauge the success of their own creative enterprise by sacralizing their journal at the expense of others. And I think the community with whom we engage and with which we interact, though providing us with likeminded company in our artistic endeavours, does knowingly foster this discourse of systematically outstripping one another because there needs to be some objective of accomplishment which is only attained through success to justify our editorial efforts. Whereas what you’ve vocally illustrated above is that, with the Brow, you consciously avoid having to buy into the culture of bullshit: each successive issue of TLB seems to be less influenced or determined by the curatorial predilections of any other local magazine. So let’s zone in on the concept of personality, because I feel that’s integral to a transparent discussion of the integrity of your magazine. How much of TLB is Ronnie Scott? A great many independent publications can seamlessly transfer from the hands of a founding editor to those of a fledgling fresh out of grad school, without appearing to deplete the stock, the significance, the ethos of the original. You mentioned the disparity of being paid for your diligence. If someone with persuasive hand gestures offered you the opportunity to jettison the Brow for sweet cash, would you? Or do you have an end-game for the magazine that you’re one day anticipating to reveal to us all?

RS: Well, I’m kind of tinkering around with the idea of guest editors, because I can easily misthink things and print stuff that doesn’t work very well. Like, the penis illustrations in the current issue are the result of my thinking it would be dumb and funny to print some penis illustrations, whereas what it really means, practically, is that I put off sending my parents their copy for as long as I can. But, no, I wouldn’t sell the Brow, and I wouldn’t pass it on to somebody else, even if you overcame the excellent question of seriously who would want it. But bringing in other ideas is good! There is a great guy named Mark Free who has recently come on to develop our live shows and music, in part because I get monomania and have for now exhausted my monomaniacal bloggy music taste over the course of the five compilation CDs I’ve published. In the magazine itself, it’s less problematic, because we get lots of submissions and that dilutes my monomania to a manageable level, but you can definitely see my interests reflected from issue to issue. Finding people whose creative input I trust feels increasingly important to the Brow retaining interest for me and for readers. I’m vaguely looking around for someone to guest-edit a celebrity special because I don’t think I have the resources to build a really good issue around that theme. But I want to read it.
KM: A discussion of TLB in the context of its patrons, champions, aides-de-camp and “unrivalled spruikers” – to restore the phrase which Thomas Benjamin Guerney used in his contributors’ bio in issue #004 – seems germane to any free-associative conversation about the way the magazine operates under the guise of your editorship. Recently, Voiceworks columnist Sam Cooney wrote an impressionistic review of issue #007, in which he stated that “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 backup dancers in a Beyoncé video (is Beyoncé past her use-by date as far as referencing goes? I’m not sure, sorry).” Insofar as I’m concerned here, I’ll surmise that the latter sentiment is a rhetorical – after all, ain’t it obvious that Beyoncé’s vintage ages like good wine? – but I’m intent to foreground a reflection of those proverbial backup dancers whose krumptastic/gymnastic moves must, by consequence, make you the envy of the emerging lit. community here, in Melbourne. In contradistinction to the traditional model for the curmudgeonly literary editor (there was a feature article in The Age a few years back in which editor Peter Craven maintained that “I may be a megalomaniac about [endorsing my own writers] but I’m confident of my judgement”), you’re widely recognised as a sociable guy whose interests within the framework of the community remain grassroots and opposed to mainstream convention. What are the pitfalls of commandeering a publication where those people within the periphery of your greater social circle are not only the ones who support the magazine, but are the ones who creatively contribute to and purchase each successive issue? Do you ever feel that, because of the phenomenally familial culture of TLB, that it’s difficult for the editors of more established literary journals (eg. Southerly, Meanjin) who exist beyond the parameters of the Australian emerging community – and whose own issues are funded by grants or auspiced by OzCo – to legitimate the good work you’re accomplishing through the Brow? Is there a tacit sentiment among this caste of older publications that suggest the Brow, and journals like it (James Bradley ascribes independent magazines as being inherently “transitory”), are not as “serious” or sophisticated in values as those belonging to the old guard? How do you react to the possibility that the Brow may be dismissed due to a binaristic category of “the haves” and “the have-nots”?
RS: Well, it’s not true that the people who buy the magazine are the people who contribute to the magazine are the people who are my friends. A few of our frequent contributors are definitely some of my closest friends, and they have been very supportive of the Brow since the start – at one point, Tom Guerney, whom you’ve mentioned, was even co-editor. But the bulk of our contributions come from people I’ve never met, as do most of our sales. A third of our sales come via our distributor, for example, who gets us into places like Borders. And probably 90% of our online sales and our gig sales are from people who are not familiar to me.
It’s still a familial culture, though – the next couple of issues are almost wholly commissioned, with long stories both by people I see all the time like Michaela McGuire and Chris Currie, and by people who contribute frequently to the Brow, like Tao Lin and Sean Casey. That’s mostly because when I was thinking about the issue, I asked myself the question: “If this person sent me 10,000 words of text, would I drop everything to read it right then and there?” It makes sense that those are usually going to be people I’ve already enjoyed publishing.
I don’t really know anything about Southerly, but I know that places like HEAT, Griffith REVIEW, and Meanjin like what I do with the Brow. You know, there are cynical ways to view mainstream publishing in Australia. The difference between publishing David Foster Wallace and not publishing David Foster Wallace is that suddenly publishers and agents will give me the time of day – and it can feel gross that my business is benefitting from my having published something that makes me proud and sad for reasons that are very personal, being that it’s my favourite writer who died. But even mainstream publishing is such a small world that it’s not worth worrying about, though the struggle to gain legitimacy for the Brow used to make me furious. Nowadays, I don’t really worry. If I were competing with established journals for grants or readership, legitimacy might worry me. Like, if you were an exciting startup magazine and these things you saw as inconceivably well-established and better-off were locking up all the grant money on a seemingly perpetual basis, I can see how that would drive you crazy. But I don’t apply for grants, have not applied for grants, and again, I really do think that all the literary magazines have pretty different readerships.
KM: Which brings us finally, with some circumlocutory charm, to the material content of issue #007, because although the conscious motivation to compete within the local community might not rationalise or catalyse the emergence of a new lit. magazine, there aren’t many publications whose editorial inclinations are so stylistically predisposed to seek out experimental aesthetics. This is something I love, on a personal level, about the curatorial objectives of TLB: that each issue of the magazine is meticulously organised in such a way to as to not merely showcase, but build into the framework of the issue, a platform in which (for example) a thirty-paged graphic contribution by Kirsten Reed or a 12,000-word work of fiction written by Krissy Kneen reaches its audience without compromise. If you’ll excuse the pun, is this lust to risk editorial convention and sling it out there – like your innumerable penises – ignited by a willingness to forge new boundaries, to defy impartial expectation? Or, if you’ll excuse the pun, does it – like the innumerable penises – just come together, with some luck, a lot of effort and a flick of the wrist?
RS: Coming up with the order of an issue is pretty much my favourite part. I’m glad you like it! Before I started the Brow, I tried making “literary mixtapes” for a couple of friends, because I like making mixtapes and I read a lot of short stories. To my knowledge, neither of my friends read them, because they were these clunky-ass spiral-bound photocopied slabs. But now I have a magazine and where are those friends now!! One of them is my best friend and one of them is my partner, and they are both living full and happy lives. My favourite publication in terms of layout is Sammy Harkham’s comics anthology Kramers Ergot, particularly numbers 5 and 6. Just like McSweeney’s takes these twinned ideas of being “a publisher of words” and “a publisher of books” in interesting directions — is it the first McSweeney’s where Dave Eggers incorporates some text to the effect that “If designers are designing words, then let them write the words”? — Sammy Harkham and Alvin Buenaventura take the idea of “publishing narrative art” a hell of a lot further than anybody else had. The entire book makes an argument for what it is. I don’t have the skills or panache to really do that with the Brow, and besides, I don’t have as clear or focused an editorial vision as Kramers Ergot, so a design that made an argument for what the Brow is would look reachy and half-hearted. But in publishing a lit. mag, you’re already fighting against most readers’ inclinations, like they don’t want to read forty jarring things by different authors they haven’t heard of. If the order of the work somehow makes that more enjoyable for people, good.