In the introduction to the latest edition of his lauded literary anthology Freeman’s, editor John Freeman writes, ‘This issue of Freeman’s is an attempt to give space to the variety of stories out there…’
The key motivation behind this (roughly) biannual anthology is to ‘give space’ – to stories around key universal experiences, like family, that are so often pushed out of view in an oversaturated and overstimulated internet age.
The first edition of Freeman’s debuted last year, concerned with the experience of ‘Arrival’, and collected new writing from the likes of Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell.
Freeman returns this year with the next instalment. This time, the acclaimed collection interrogates the theme of ‘Family’, and features work from Alexander Chee, Booker Prize-winner Marlon James, and our own Helen Garner. At this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, Freeman is appearing at a sold out in-conversation event with Garner, and will also be running a masterclass on editing.
I spoke with Freeman about the anthology, his involvement in online literary publication Literary Hub, and his belief in the incredible importance of literary journals.
KYD: The first instalment of Freeman’s was widely praised, both here and abroad. What originally motivated you to start this anthology?
John Freeman: I believe that in the age of the internet we’re drowning in choice and opinion. We have more nodes of reaction to current events than we have hours in which to live a day. Add Twitter to this and forget it, you can surf rage and response all day. I’m not against this multitude in any way, but I’m interested in how longform narrative can change the subject, or find the deeper subject. Not ‘let’s build a wall,’ but who is it exactly a wall would keep out?
You’re also an executive editor at Lit Hub. What role do you think Lit Hub is trying to play in today’s literary marketplace?
Lit Hub is trying to close the gap between criticism and conversation and to start bigger conversations – about entitlement, gender imbalance, about what’s lacking from English-language literary culture, and hopefully shine light on work that deserves more attention. It’s working, too – there are over one million readers of the site a month now, and it keeps growing.
I think part of its strength comes from that model of collectivism – as in the site is fed by over 160 partners* – literary journals and publishers. The idea was, why do we all go to dozens and dozens of small sites? What if one site had the best of all of them? It helps to have strong editors, too. Now there’s a book review channel on the site, ‘Book Marks’, which amalgamates reviews and you can literally see how the critical conversation is shaping up. I’ve felt our literary culture has needed this for a long time.
Magazines like Harper’s and Bookforum prioritise their print magazine over their online content. As the editor of both a print literary anthology and online literary website, do you think this can be a precarious position to take?
Not at all. I think if something only exists in print, that’s where it’ll live. It’ll get passed along on word of mouth if it’s good enough, not by algorithms. It’s a different kind of walk – more of a crabwalk, but there’s motion.
I deliberately didn’t start a website for Freeman’s until now, and even now it’s just a placeholder for the tour schedule and a place where you can find out how to get an issue. I wanted people to pick up and read the physical thing first.
How do you source your contributors for the anthology? You’ve published an incredible and diverse pool of writers. How do you go about approaching these people to write for you?
I just chase what I find to be beautiful and try to stay open to what I don’t know exists. I think an editor who doesn’t evolve with the times somewhat is sort of a museum piece.
For the past decade or so I’ve done a couple things to try to outfox my own blind spots. I read what is sent to me, no matter where it comes from – agents, people who find me on Twitter, friends, and acquaintances. Robots. I also go to readings quite frequently, sometimes just to listen.
The same thing happened with Helen Garner. I know she has been around a long time but it is only in the last year and a half that I’ve become absolutely possessed by her work. Since then I’ve read every word I could find of hers. I was lucky she had these diaries to show me for the ‘Family’ issue. Such intelligence and observation turned to the day-to-day – it’s exhilarating, because it feels like consciousness, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we read. To feel what thinking feels like and to know we are not alone in it.
In 2016, the Australian government significantly cut funding to a number of established Australian literary journals. What role do you think literary journals play today, in particular for young and emerging writers?
I think they’re an essential part of the literary ecosystem. Look at all the cultures where short story writers and poets thrive – they’re almost all in places where the literary journal exists. You can’t just yank them out any more than you can replace coral reefs, and other small organisms that bigger predators depend on smaller animals eating.
It’s very hard, nearly impossible, for these publications to exist without some form of support. And it’s such a drop in the bucket compared to what nations spend on arms, for example. For the price of, say, one B-1 bomber that will never be used, you could create the richest, most vibrant literary culture the West has ever seen. It just takes imagination, and that is sorely lacking in our political cultures today.
John Freeman will be appearing at several events at the Melbourne Writers Festival: ‘Masterclass: Editing’ and ‘Helen Garner: Everywhere I Look’ on Saturday 27 August, and ‘Writing Family’ on Sunday 28 August.
*KYD is a partner organisation of Lit Hub.