Guest review: Sam Cooney on Cutwater Literary Anthology Issue 1

Them at Cutwater do things different.

Cutwater Literary Journal was published and launched earlier this year, some time around July. Since then it has garnered glowing praise:

It was interesting to note this sense of internationalism in the new journal Cutwater, which made its debut this year; while its stories tended more toward the realist, they also seemed to carry a looser, more playful energy with them that one tends to associate with some of the younger generation of US writers, like Dave Eggers. (Delia Falconer in her introduction to Best Australian Stories 2009)

as well as coming under fire from certain parties (such as during one National Young Writers’ Festival panel). And still it hangs around, in the wider literary consciousness, in spite of everything. Perhaps it is this mixture of positive and negative opinions—so often books that are either overly extolled or emphatically panned quickly disappear. A friend of mine bemoans the fact that most novels have a shorter shelf life than yoghurt (he may or may not be the same person who revealed to me the authors’ trick of visiting bookstores that carry his novels and secretly signing every copy, so that the said bookstores cannot send back unsold copies to the publisher. He said he’d rather have his novels sell for two dollars in a bargain bin than be returned, pages unopened). So why has Cutwater refused to go away?

The first and most obvious answer is that Cutwater is remarkably and wonderfully different. Not so atypical as to be unrecognisable as a lit journal, but enough to be a refreshing slap to the face. I have to reiterate this: Cutwater is good.

I picked up my copy from Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne. I asked owner/operator/proprietor/poet/& lit legend Kris Hemensley while purchasing Cutwater if he had read one of the few randomly shelved copies of the new journal. He hadn’t, but remarked that everyone who had eventually came back with some sort of compliment. He then went on to say that this was something unusual, considering that Cutwater is from not-Melbourne. I have to agree. Hailing from the coast somewhere above Sydney (some say Newcastle, others Toukley), Cutwater is wholly Australian in its scope. As the editors mention in their foreword, writers from every state and territory except Tasmania are included.

But this is not simply an equal opportunity publication with a focus on geographical spread. No, no. Within the 190-odd pages are some of today’s, and I mean right-now’s best writers. Like who? Names like Swinn, Lemon, Krien, Wright (Tim & Fiona), Caward, Curnow and Sometimes—names that any journal in Australia would and do publish. I imagine the editors of these more established journals would cut off their left hands to have all of these writers in just the one issue.

Like I’ve said already, you would be hard pressed to find any holes in the quality of this issue. So I won’t, either. Instead, a couple of highlights. The decision to print two Clinton Caward stories back-to-back? Brilliant. This guy, who I’d never heard of (my fault entirely, because he has been published elsewhere), this guy can write. I’m talking gritty, gravelly, spit-in-your face fiction. And it works. Caward’s stories are contemporary in both setting and focus (suicide bombings, the freshest and newest racisms) and are obviously the work of an industrious and naturally talented writer. But not only does he have these two first-rate stories that I would call Australian dirty realism, but we are also treated to a four-page interview with Caward. This is where the writer outlines his reasons for and his process of writing, and his answers are simple, rewarding reading:

Once you have a destination you’re writing towards, and you know where you’re going, well, I think in one sense the writing is over from the minute you know. After that it’s just the smoke and mirrors to make the journey or progression appear plausible and seamless. Quite often I don’t know what I want to write about until I’ve written it down. Then, I have this strange experience of recognition where I realise I’ve been thinking about what I’ve written for quite some time without really being aware I’ve been thinking about it, as if I’ve suddenly remembered a recurring dream.

Rebecca Giggs was the other highlight for mine. Her creative non-fiction ramble Actual Air and Fictitious Water: On some continuities of keepsakes, dead fish and the poetry of David Berman, replete with footnotes and wide-ranging references, is the last piece in Cutwater. It is both touching and distant; Giggs’ descriptions of the lake in her favoured park are inspired (often by the resident koi named Einstein), and her ruminations on Berman, lovers, thesis writing and localised nature are witty and winsome, without ever encroaching on pomposity or chutzpah. Because I have no word or space limit, here is an excerpt from Giggs’ piece that may not show her at her most affecting or at her cleverest, but I still found my pen circling it once, twice, and again:

I took my laptop over to the park during the day to work on my thesis. Landscape. That compulsion of all Australian writers, tongued raw like a scald on the roof of my mouth. White’s Voss. Chatwin’s The Songlines. Stowe’s Tourmaline. The poems of Les Murray. Here in Perth we have the International Centre for Landscape and Language, as if words only actually exist on the ground, the possessions of topography.

My hands hovered motionless over the keyboard, the alphabet a hotplate set to burn off my fingerprints. All inspiration melted in the smithy of landscape; another writer lost in the work of the desert and defined by geography. Winton and Drewe held the beaches. When (or if) I became an adult author I anxiously reasoned, this was the work that the critics would dig up to define my “early career-stage preoccupations”. I thought of David Foster Wallace’s daunting thesis Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality. I thought of the first novels of Jonathan Safran Foer and Aleksandar Hemon. And I stared uselessly into the lake.

Now, there is no doubt that Cutwater isn’t perfect, although what is between the pages is damn near close. From reports, the editors in Dan Collins and Sam Tywford-Moore could be taught some lessons in both communication and forward planning. And many people will despise the David Foster Wallace-style introduction—I laboured through it the first time, especially the short story part of it, but enjoyed it more every time I went back. It also must be acknowledged that Cutwater was financed by a Write In Your Face grant from the Australian Council, and was originally supposed to be a Black Inc-style ‘Best Australian Young Writers’ publication. Maybe not trickery, but not the typical methodology, either.

But again, I’m going to grate some people’s nerves by claiming that it is these different approaches, this refusal (conscious or not) to tow the lit journal line that makes Cutwater so much more interesting and layered. Argue with me, please, because I have thought about this a lot and believe it. Cutwater is willing to be the black sheep, and at least for this first issue, it has worked. They don’t treat writers like they are gods on earth, they don’t write the standard polite foreword drivel, they don’t publish on name but on merit. Some of these are shared by other newish journals who some say herald a new internationalism and approach—publications like Torpedo and The Lifted Brow, who are winning plaudits for their different tacks.

Ultimately, Cutwater is simply a superb read. Sam Twyford-Moore and Dan Collins must be congratulated. The two of them have brainstormed, worked their arses off, infuriated and upset some people, but as they say in their introduction, ‘all decisions were our own’. We can only hope they choose to put as much effort into their next project, whether it be issue two or something else. Whatever it is, hopefully it will be cutwater-like (the forward part of a ship, dividing anything that gets in its path) and Cutwater-like (challenging, memorable Australian writing). 


Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. He recently completed a BA (Professional & Creative Writing) with a second major in Literature. He writes fiction, non-fiction, articles and reviews, and is the Books & Literature columnist at Voiceworks magazine. You can find him in all the usual places on the internet, or in Berlin next year.

To find out more about Cutwater, visit their website here.


8 thoughts on “Guest review: Sam Cooney on Cutwater Literary Anthology Issue 1

  1. Pingback: Review: Cutwater Literary Anthology – Issue the First « Not Dark Yet

  2. Great review, Sam. I think I’d like to take a look at this. You’re right, it does seem to defy rules. At 190 pages I guess they had a lot of room to play with.

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  5. Pingback: Book review: Love Machine by Clinton Caward « Sam Cooney

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  7. Pingback: Guest review: Sam Cooney on Clinton Caward’s Love Machine | LiteraryMinded

  8. Pingback: Review of ‘Cutwater’ issue 1 - Sam Cooney

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