Quadrant’s funding problem

Yesterday I received a ‘we wuz robbed’ letter from Quadrant complaining that its Australia Council literature grant had been cut from $50,000 to $35,000.

Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle is calling the decision ‘patently political’. Given that left-leaning periodicals have had their funding maintained – particularly Overland which keeps its $60,000 despite coming out only four times a year instead of Quadrant’s ten, and having a far less distinguished poetry editor (Keri Glastonbury to Quadrant‘s Les Murray) – that looks like a fair call in the absence of any contrary explanation from the Australia Council. [Update 21/12: Crikey reports the Australia Council saying Quadrant was cut for having too small a group of literary writers.]

On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of these kinds of subsidies. It’s not just my usual philosophical objections to big government (and in the scheme of big government, a few hundred thousand dollars for magazines doesn’t make much difference). The Australia Council props up nine little magazines serving a small audience for literary material. Arguably this makes it harder for any of them to get the critical mass of contributors and readers needed for a high-quality, self-sustaining literary magazine. A few of them going out of business could help the rest.

Of the nine, Australian Book Review (which is getting $115,000) and Quadrant are the two that look to me like they have the strongest chances of surviving on their own. ABR regularly seeks donations along with subscribers, but this Quadrant letter is the first I recall asking me for money, through a ‘premium’ subscription of $300. It looks like the Australia Council was displacing private effort.

Windschuttle is setting out various other options, including cutting the literary content by 30%. I don’t know about the literary content, but I think the magazine itself could safely be much shorter (I’m sure some of the regular commenters would suggest starting with the climate change articles). Windschuttle expanded it from 96 to 128 pages, but I’m not convinced the quality justifies the added length. The ‘Sharon Gould’ article simply wasn’t very good quite aside from being a hoax. It’s the kind of thing you publish when you have too many pages to fill. Nobody expects small magazines which pay their contributors nothing or a pittance to be of a uniformly high standard, but the more you publish the lower the average standard is likely to be.

The Australia Council may have made a politically biased decision, but better management of Quadrant can solve its financial problems and end up with an improved magazine too.

30 thoughts on “Quadrant’s funding problem

  1. I (almost) completely agree Andrew. I had just decided to let my subscription lapse for a little while when I received the letter. I just don’t have time to wade through Quadrant at the moment, even though I’ve become more adept at filtering the content (approx 1/2 of it usually doesn’t interest me, mainly the bits that the Australia Council funds).

    It’s always seemed that the Australia Council only funds Quadrant so that it can appear to be balanced, so the reduction only chips away at the pretence that these kinds of funding mechanisms can be anything but ideological. Plus, it should free Quadrant up even more to bash away at the ridiculousness of the likes of AC, ABC, ‘arts’ funding, etc. etc.

    BTW, I’m also having trouble getting through my backlog of Policy, hopefully that will improve without Quadrant for a little while.


  2. I agree with having no subsidies at all, the best would succeed and we would not be paying for what is not wanted. I subscribe to Quadrant and I agree that the magazine has become a little too large for it’s own good, however I would get rid of the short stories and the poetry, I never read them. As for the climate change articles I thought a person such as yourself would be horrified with what will become of our economy if these carpetbagging unreasoning fools who support the AGW theory get their way. What they propose is nothing more than a transfer of wealth from western countries to everywhere else. There appears to be no scientific basis to their claims and the whole movement seems to be more faith based than anything else. I recently read ‘Etraordinary Public Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ and we appear to be suffering from a similar madness now. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?


  3. Ken – That’s why I mentioned Overland – like Quadrant it is a mix of literary and political, and Quadrant’s money is only for its literary content. Political bias looks plausible at least, because it is the only thing that marks Quadrant out as clearly different. While only Gail Jones on the Board is an obvious lefty, the academic-literary world contains few right-of-centre people.


  4. Perhaps because not everyone likes being glued in front of a screen and turning the pages of a newspaper or a book can be fun.

    You want to ban it, Charles?


  5. Of course it sounds like it was a political attack. Like Andrew I’m not in favor of these subsidies however there will eventually be retribution.


  6. If Quadrant cuts its literary content by 30%, then the Australia Council will have the perfect prextext to cut its funding further.

    And if the decision was political, then that is just the way it goes. One of the joys of being in political power is the ability to screw one’s enemies in ways that really hurt them but not anyone else. Windschuttle needs to realise that his friends are no longer running the show.


  7. Though as JC suggests, the trouble with setting a precedent for politicisation is that when the political times change the left-wing magazines will have their funding cut.


  8. Andrew is completely right: look for donations from readers; and cut down on the size of each issue. I think that it is not very seemly for the editor of a magazine that broadly supports small government and non-dependence on government to be complaining about the size of the handout.
    Quadrant would only need 50 subscribers to sign up to the premium membership and the shortfall would be made up (more or less). Another 120 and the magazine could relinquish its grant. On this, I don’t there’s any solid evidence of bias (though some circumstantial) but if Keith Windschuttle is right in his claim of bias then he would be wise to reduce significantly his dependence on the grant, which must be subject each year to the same bias.


  9. Most of the Quadrant articles could be heavily cut. Who could possibly find the time to read all of it?
    Q was always subjected to discrimination in Commonwealth funding, on political grounds. Principled lefties should regard this as a very bad thing. How many have ever objected?


  10. Quadrant could always try going back to the CIA for money, just like in the glory days. Andrew, the precedent was set a long time ago. The key for all concerned is not to be on the government teat. Then you can give them the finger and they can’t do anything about it. If Quadrant stays dependant on government money they are going to suffer for a long time yet.


  11. Of the nine, Australian Book Review (which is getting $115,000) and Quadrant are the two that look to me like they have the strongest chances of surviving on their own. ABR regularly seeks donations along with subscribers, but this Quadrant letter is the first I recall asking me for money, through a ‘premium’ subscription of $300. It looks like the Australia Council was displacing private effort.

    Are you suggesting that no magazines should receive a subsidy even if only two survive or that only those magazines that would not otherwise survive should receive a subsidy? If the latter, I think I recall you making the same argument about aspects of higher education. I think the issue is not whether a good or service would survive at all in the absence of government funding (after all, even that most archtypal of public goods, defence, would attract some private funding in the absence of a national defence force), but what is the size of the positive externality (if any). If there are no magazine externalities, then no subsidies should be given even if none survive and if all confer externalities, then all should receive subsidies. After all, we all want Quandrant to be the socially optimal length…
    Like higher education, I suspect there are no obvious positive externalities for most arts and sports funding, including the ABC, theatre companies, local films, the AFL and so on.


  12. S of R- Never have a donor you can’t afford to lose is my general principle on these things. While personally I would not want to take government money, provided government subsidy is a low % of total income I think other opinion/political organisations can take some government cash while retaining their independence. I don’t see much evidence that Quadrant’s $50K made them uncritical of government.


  13. Uncritical of government? It depends on which government you are talking about. Quadrant was the leading ideological spear carrier for the Howard government? It is a magazine of right wing cultural ideology, pure and simple. (It isn’t and has never been consistently a magazine of free market ideology, except where the two coincide) What did Windschuttle think was going to happen with a change of government? Business as usual?


  14. The Australia Council funding dates back a long way – certainly to the Hawke government (where my Quadrant collection starts) and perhaps much further. While the magazine was probably less critical of the the Howard government than governments before or since, it has never been a partisan cheer-leader, and has been highly critical for much of the time, without so far as I am aware any Australia Council consequences. It was reasonable to assume business as usual, or if cuts had to made that the pain would be spread evenly rather than targeting Quadrant.


  15. But surely you can appoint Australia’s most prominent poet as literary editor and expect that to be positively recoginised?


  16. “surely you can appoint Australia’s most prominent poet as literary editor…”

    Which is probably why they got $35000 not $0.


  17. Andrew Norton says: “The Australia Council funding dates back a long way – certainly to the Hawke government (where my Quadrant collection starts) and perhaps much further.

    I believe that Q was getting funding from the Feds back in the late 1950s. (The periodical itself started in 1956). There may have been some State Government input also. And of course some money came from foreign sources, or rather, one foreign course: the Congress for Cultural Freedom, probably best known for subsidising the long-defunct Encounter magazine.

    Back when Q began, and for a good while afterwards, there was no such thing as the Australia Council. There was a Commonwealth Literary Fund, but if memory serves me, the Prime Minister (who of course at the time was Menzies) had the final say as to what literature received funding and what didn’t, though there might’ve been some input from the Opposition too. A similar system presumably prevailed with subsidies of music and the visual arts.

    In any event, Mr Windschuttle has only himself to blame if, even as he publishes hagiographies of Ayn Rand, he wails about the recent limits on his ability to soak the taxpayer.


  18. In the past it was true that Quadrant, while clearly rightleaning, wasn’t a partisan cheerleader, but McGuinness was clearly appointed precisely to fill that role, and Windschuttle has taken it further. I’m not qualified to judge the literary pages, but I would have thought it likely that the polemical tone, extreme positions and poor quality of the political content would drive away potential readers and contributors for the literary section of the magazine.

    So maybe the Literature Board looked at the literature and decided it wasn’t as good as it had been.


  19. Paddy was too eclectic in his interests and contrarian in his nature to be a partisan cheerleader.

    I can’t do a comparative analysis of the literary content because of the other magazines I only read ABR, but Quadrant’s poetry at least is still pretty good: apart from Murray himself, I would note Jamie Grant, Bruce Dawe, and Philippa Martyr.

    The purely literary criticism is perhaps less strong, though Windschuttle has substantially increased the number of book reviews and brought more discussion of books to the front of the magazine.


  20. The Commonwealth Literary Fund refused assistance in 1957 on the ground that Q carried non-literary articles. Meanjin and Southerly were supported and Meanjin carried non-lit material, in addition to being radically left, so much so that Professor Geoff Leeper, a social democrat and long-serving Assistant Editor seriously thought about resigning in protest.
    In 1961 the fund started to assist Quadrant with 250 pounds pa, compared with 1000 each for the other two.


  21. Meanjin was on the amount of money that Quadrant has been cut back to for many many years. We only went up (to $40,000) last year after we changed our approach to funding applications. This year we got $50,000 – again we put a huge amount of work into our application to try and have more success in these matters. So, while I don’t blame Quadrant for feeling frustrated, they are not alone in sitting on $35,000.


  22. JC.
    December 19th, 2009 13:29
    You want to ban it, Charles?

    Nope; just don’t see the reason to fund it. Let the free market rip.


  23. The internet is probably making the case for public literary subsidy of any kind of dead tree publication a little bit untenable. It used to be the case that someone of genuine singularity and talent but limited audience (like Les Murray early in his career) needed subsidy – and/or a subsidised publishing mechanism – to get his words out to any potential audience at all. It’s just not the case any more. The mythic days of the starving unrecognised genius in his garret are long gone. You just arc up a blogsite and your words can strut their stuff direct to your audience, big or small. If you’re any good you’ll start to get paid for it, sooner or later – commensurate with your writerly pull…ie as it should be.

    There’s still a strong argument that the hard copy publishing process (including at least some funding/commercial imperative), and the self-critical pressures it imposes on writers at the primary production stage, remain important to fostering literary merit and careers. But the kind of editing and distribution heft that hard copy mastheads and imprints currently (still) bring to bear on raw talent, lifting the good writers out of the scrum, won’t be wedded to the printed page forever either, especially as e-books and e-zines (and PoD for those like JC who prefer hard copy) evolve.

    I think that the most defensible subsidy future will be an overwhelming skew back towards direct funding of writers’ living expenses, as opposed to their publishing apparati. Certainly the subsidy of the more hazily-defined ‘literary community’ – as manifest in what seems to be the recent explosion in publicly-underwritten literary festivals, competitions, workshops, marketing drives and general ‘churn’ – will be harder to justify. It really is quite remarkable to see, when you start to delve into the Lit Board breakdowns of late, just how much of the modest public allocation is spent on the latter. There are (as ever) a lot of struggling writers with impressive ouevres behind them, even if they may not be to your own (or many payers’) taste…and an awful lot of the small pool of money being splurged on downstream literary bells and whistles. I think, anyway.

    It is also, as Rafe Champion points out, pretty illuminating that few non right-of-centre subsidised lit players are getting terribly exercised about what would have been, had the cuts been to one of the (rather more typical) leftish little mags under Howard, cause for great hysterical beating of breast about bias and the death of democratic vitality. (I did plenty of exactly that through the Howard years myself.) The truth is that – just as when the Bully folded, or any other potential paying outlet for wannabe writers folds or suffers cuts in funding – no Australian writer should be anything but a bit dismayed by this. You might hate its politics, ideologies, have an unkind view of the literary quality, even…but Quadrant, like our other scraping-along places to stick our words, for pay, has a fine and laudable tradition of giving new writers, epecially of fiction, a go. I’ve found it very hard to get published anywhere over the years, much less paid, and while of course I would sing hymns to his editorial judgement right now (having just got my first ever Quaddy piece up), personally I can’t speak highly enough of Keith Windschuttle and the magazine, be thankful for its tenacious existence, and object to what I find hard to see as anything but a loaded, retributive cut.

    Thank you for the space, Andrew.


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