8 December 2015

On Defiance by Connor Tomas O’Brien

 This speech by Voiceworks Designer, Connor Tomas O’Brien, was written to  launch of Voiceworks #102 ‘Defiance’ at The 2015 Express Media Awards.

A few months ago, Philip Edmonds, my old honours supervisor and former editor of Wet Ink, published Tilting at Windmills, the first full-length examination of literary journals in Australia. The ‘essay about the literary journal’ has become almost a genre in itself, especially in Australia, where the community is small, likes writing about writing, and loves to get meta.

In that spirit, in an essay in the Sydney Review of Books, Emmett Stinson summarised Edmond’s position on Australian literary journals, arguing that “lit mags are idealistic gestures that speak to niche audiences: they are quiet conversations in a very noisy room”.

In the context of the internet, where all audiences are now nicher than ever, and publications as diverse as Vice and Mamamia are carving themselves up into increasingly specific niche group verticals – think Rogue, Mamamia’s mummy blog for Buzzfeed readers, or Munchies, Vice’s culinary website for those who eat shit food ironically – the role of literary magazines becomes harder and harder to place. As online publications that live on user clicks ascend and promulgate, literary magazines can sometimes feel oddly unfocussed, marked by collections of works from writers with vastly disparate interests and obsessions.

That leaves the other part of Edmond and Stinson’s estimation of the value of literary magazines: the space for quiet conversations in a world in which, elsewhere, writing is produced and edited to elicit particular reactions, and increasingly extreme, but flat versions of those reactions – anger, or outrage, or share-worth euphoria.

There is space for these kinds of writing – and most of us end up producing it, at some point or another – but there is a great reward for those who listen in closely, pick up a literary magazine, and spend time moving through written work that behaves differently.

Voiceworks has always been one of these kinds of magazines. The remit – the best written and visual work from young Australians – could be interpreted as being too broad, but in fact, what happens is that this broadness leads to work emerging in each issue that traverses the very boundaries that many online publications now aggressively maintain. There is something important, too, about the fact that Voiceworks comes all at once, as a collection of pieces that ask to be read, perhaps in one sitting or several, without comment boxes beneath them, and without the invitation to respond with hashtags, nods of agreement, or ‘hate-share’ condemnation. There isn’t a logic that leads Liz or the editorial committee to ask for writers to amplify or simplify their message, or to speak more loudly to be heard, which flows to the design of the magazine, allowing me to design for a unique and now rare form of quiet.

In a way, this is fitting, because the theme of the current issue is ‘Defiance’. Defiance doesn’t have to take the forms we expect – rallies, confrontation, slogans chanted through megaphones, deliberate disobedience. Of course, it can and should take those forms, but sometimes defiance can be quiet and unassuming. It can take the form of subtly going against the grain, or opening a space for slower, less reactive or reductive conversations. Sometimes, as in the current issue of Voiceworks, it can mean being willing to show grief in a way that doesn’t demand pity or immediate sympathy. The poetry in this issue is defiant in this way. Defiant in telling the reader that a perfectly acceptable response to things that are difficult is to sit and think and not necessarily react.

There are complex relationships between pieces in this issue – as in every issue, but, in Defiance, we have writers exploring military service and migration and mental illness, all of them opening a space for thought and empathy, and a desire to delve in further, that challenges the desire, stoked by newspapers and online publications, to immediately respond to what we read. The writers of all of the pieces in this issue are defiant, refusing to allow the reader to nod in ready agreement, or to taunt a reader by playing the Devil’s Advocate whose voice we’re now so used to seeing amplified. None of the pieces in this issue sit easily. They demand the reader find out more, to go deeper and to reassess previously held beliefs in ways that don’t require complete repudiation, but which ask for the introduction of nuance into how we think about the world we live in.

“Perhaps fragility remains lit mags’ defining feature,” Emmett Stinson argued in his piece. This fragility, it strikes me, comes from a combination of two things, which Liz and the editorial committee always work to combine when they make the selections for each issue, and which are, paradoxically, incredibly powerful when combined: defiance, on the one hand, but resounding empathy on the other.


Voiceworks #102 ‘Defiance’ will be available from the Express Media Shop from Monday December 14.