If every city has its own unique culture, it’s also true that most people who grow up in that culture internalise the ideas that are considered important within that particular time and space. Melbourne is one of the strongest examples of this that I’ve ever come into contact with. Writers from Melbourne are romanticised as individuals, locations in the city itself are romanticised, and particular concepts that resonate there are prioritised over everything else.
Discussions about the concept of Melbourne-centrism have been a strong cause of division in my personal and artistic lives. Whenever I bring it up, people either respond with enthusiastic and empathetic agreement, or derisively tell me I’m ‘just projecting’.
When you look at the prominent independent literary publications run out of Melbourne, you begin to see how all-encompassing the city’s writing culture can be. Melbourne has Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Archer, Voiceworks, Cordite, The Canary Press, Going Down Swinging, Overland, Meanjin and Dumbo Feather. (Compare this to the significantly larger city of Sydney, which despite a healthy literary scene, pales in comparison – Seizure, Tincture Journal and Quadrant are the first big ones to come to mind.) This is quite the list, and the many Melbourne-based publications not only have a presence in their home city, but are acknowledged Australia-wide as ‘legitimate’ literary publications. Some are even distributed internationally.
To be published in these journals is considered a big tick on a writer’s resume, a strong move toward accruing cultural capital within the literary scene. Consider also that both the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Digital Writers’ Festival are based in Melbourne, as is the Melbourne Writers Festival – and all of these regularly feature new young writers. Compare this to the Adelaide Writers Festival, as well as the Perth and Brisbane Writers Festivals, where it is difficult to find a guest writer who is not over the age of 30 with multiple published works.
I experienced a strong disassociation from these Melbourne-based publications when I was starting out as a writer. I would continually beat myself up over ‘not being contemporary enough’, and felt like my honest words simply weren’t valuable. The lie of it all is that all writers’ thoughts and feelings are valuable, no matter how they are expressed – but in the literary world, the economy of cultural capital dictates how creative work is regarded.
The idea of a ‘Melbourne voice’ was something I had been thinking about for years, but only recently felt I could properly articulate. As I spoke about it with others, particularly on a recent panel about regional writing at NYWF, I began to sense this had affected other writers too. The more I discussed it, the more I felt it was a shared experience and not something I was imagining. Communities of writers create supportive environments, and also allow for a healthy level of competition to arise that enables writers to create more ‘forward thinking’ works or styles. This means that dialogues between writers are frequently focused on a certain type of aesthetic that is, for lack of a better description, unusual for the sake of being unusual, but doesn’t hold much narrative substance or political purpose (although may perhaps create the illusion of doing so).
This is not to say that every piece of writing must be overtly political or have an intended end result. But the desire to be labelled as ‘progressive’ and to attain some kind of credibility can dictate a writer’s choices, even when the views they express aren’t particularly groundbreaking. This is particularly true of Melbourne, which rewards superficial engagement with the big ideas favoured by the city’s writing community.
Royce Kurmelovs, an Adelaide-based writer who frequently writes for Vice and Al Jazeera, says of the greater opportunities for writers in Melbourne:
‘It is a function of old-fashioned class on a national scale. Melbourne and Sydney may be crazy for cost of living right now, but if you happen to live in either of these places and are in a young age bracket, you are going to earn more money over your lifetime and have better access to work (either freelance or employment) than someone in Adelaide, Darwin or Tasmania, simply because that’s where the industry is.
If you happen to have a publication run out of Melbourne, staffed with writers from Melbourne, who all went to university in Melbourne and you have drinks with them after work on Fridays, opportunities within that organisation are more likely to go to someone else in Melbourne already in those networks. Cracking that market can be hard and to overcome it, you need to work even harder just to get there.’
Being a Melbourne-based writer makes it easier to exist within and benefit from social institutions like literary organisations. (Of course, these festivals and publications are run largely by hard-working volunteers and contributors, whose passion can’t be underestimated.) The danger is that Melbourne-based voices and styles that are inextricably linked to the city’s cultural landscape begin to be perceived as representative of everyone in Australia, and the opportunities that may be available. Thus, a stylistic standard, an expectation, is set.
A substantial portion of the literary world’s submission call-outs and opportunities take place in Melbourne-oriented spaces, both online and IRL, but I have not seen these limits acknowledged. For example, while publications may say that they are ‘interested in hearing from non-white, trans, queer, or Indigenous writers’, that’s only the first step. How can you realistically advocate for diversity when you’re preaching to the same crowds, and ultimately end up publishing the same writers over and over again?
My experiences with Melbourne’s writing spaces may be very different as an outsider, but I have written for some of the more well-known publications and recently joined the Voiceworks editorial committee as a nonfiction editor. While Voiceworks has been guilty of the above shortcomings to some extent, their team is very much committed to acknowledging that these issues exist and to expanding their reach, seeking out and regularly publishing writers from outside of Melbourne. Conversations about how this can happen occur regularly in editorial discussions. That gives me hope and makes me proud to be on the team. It feels like progress is possible and is visibly shifting already, which is not true of a multitude of other Melbourne-based publications. My concern is that ultimately these fraught issues are not often acknowledged in an intelligent, conscious or nuanced way that takes into account the extent to which the concept of ‘taste’ is absolutely linked to issues of gender, sexuality, class and race.
Tracy Chen recently wrote in Good Good Girl about the ways in which academic perspectives are brought to the forefront in discussions of social justice and race. Although hers was a more broad discussion, it tied in with a lot of ideas I was thinking about within writing scenes. She said:
‘I notice people are accepted and rewarded for (speaking in an academic or contemporary way or about those concepts), and that is strange to me. Not everyone has the educational or cultural background that enables that kinda expression. And so often, those are the voices we need to hear. It’s not really a matter of “welcoming” different people in either, rather being open and understanding there’s not a singular conversation. Since familiarising [myself] with feminism and race discussion, I don’t think I am now more valuable or worth listening to because I can express myself “well” and in terms of certain ideas. These are things I’ve been able to consider because of time, freedom, and an access to education.’
Many of Chen’s ideas are affirmed by an article in Rookie Mag by Jenny Zhang, who also articulates some of the anxieties I have about the Melbourne literary landscape. What we think is ‘good writing’ should ultimately be subjective, but is instead often just a compliment that gets given to writing that is overly polished, ironic, flowery or ‘clever’ on the surface but may not really go beyond that. Unsurprisingly, much of this writing is created by cis, heterosexual white men who have industry connections or access to cultural capital. In addition, young writers particularly are made to feel like these ideals are what they should aspire to, and that anyone who questions these styles just ‘doesn’t get it’ or that they are stupid or uneducated. It almost seems like blasphemy to challenge the status quo, or question why these writers became so revered in the first place. This may be subtler than many people realise, but I feel it very strongly. Hierarchies exist within the writing world, as they do anywhere else.
The question then arises, what can be done about these looming, oppressive ideas about what is considered ‘valid’ and ‘good’ writing? Why are academic concepts invariably favoured by supposedly progressive literary journals, when that kind of thinking is often available only to people with privilege? I don’t know if it’s as simple as a single problem with a single solution. I do, however, believe that editors particularly have a responsibility in the process of creating media. They are responsible for commissioning or rejecting writers who pitch to them. Creating cultural products means cultivating tastes and forging ideals that many people will internalise, and that is a huge power to wield.
When so many editors, writers and publications are located in the same place and share the same ideals and education, there is inevitably a risk that the styles they value become homogenous and exclusionary. Few people within that process possess the level of self-awareness required to challenge it. They may not realise they’re creating unnecessary hurdles, or it may be deemed just too risky to do something differently. Perhaps this isn’t even the fault of the Melbourne writing scene, but a failure of other state governments who don’t prioritise literary funding. Nonetheless, these one-sided dynamics still exist, and ‘Melbourne voices’ and ‘Melbourne ideas’ are continually pandered to by literary stakeholders.
Truthfully, I don’t know the complete answer to the problem of Melbourne-centrism, but I think the first step is acknowledging it, recognising how it is linked to favouring certain kinds of privileged voices, and beginning to generate discussions about how best to work through it. Every writer should feel validated and empowered within their creative practice, and not just those fortunate enough to have grown up or been educated in a certain time and place.
Image credit: Michelle Robinson