Ed#439 Please Mr Postman

16 August 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#439 Please Mr Postman

Photograph © Matt Hoyle

Every year, in the week or so leading up to the closing date for entries for our fiction edition, the pile of mail heading up to the Editorial office gets bigger and bigger. As the cut-off date draws nigh, the colour of the envelopes changes. Bright yellow becomes the predominant hue as writers opt for Express Post to ensure their stories arrive in time. The last day ends with a table piled high with entries – this year, we received 291 in all.

But it wasn’t always like this. This is our ninth fiction edition; some of the early versions were magazines that appeared in summer, when things get a bit quiet, featuring content solicited from the usual suspects. I know this for a fact, as there was at least one year when I got a call from Big Issue Mission Control, asking if I had a story to contribute. That is not so much a confession as a reflection on the way we were. Like so many other aspects of the magazine, the fiction edition has come a long, long way. Vendors and readers now anticipate its arrival, and as one of the biggest-selling story collections it has earned its place in the Australian literary landscape. Over the past couple of years, largely through the efforts of Associate Editor Melissa Cranenburgh and support from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, it has become our biggest issue, with 16 additional pages. It is also something of a monster – as shown by those annual piles of envelopes. Never, ever, underestimate how many people out there yearn to be, or already are, published writers.

This year, we gave them a specific (yet also open-ended) theme: Make Me Smile. I take the blame for this. It reflects a frustration I have felt for some time; a feeling that many people apparently believe that to be taken seriously as a writer you have to write very serious stories. This isn’t true, of course. Some of the best writers – PG Wodehouse, Mark Twain and James Thurber come to mind at once – were very funny. Charles Dickens had some brilliant comic creations; Henry Lawson could spin a funny tale. The other change we made to this year’s edition was to make it 100% open entries. In recent years we have commissioned some stories from established writers (or actors, in the case of last year’s celebrity author, James Franco); this time, the edition was open to anyone who heard about it. The key thing was that all stories were judged ‘blind’: authors’ names were kept separate from their work. Salman Rushdie or Kate Grenville, for example, might have entered and we wouldn’t have known until we matched selected stories with their creators’ details. This led to some surprises: there was just one selected entry by a contributor to last year’s edition, Jude Bridge, while another was by one of my sons, Max Attwood. (Memo Media Watch: I didn’t know the story’s title, plot or even the assumed name used by its author until our panel picked it.)

Who sat on this panel? Well, the hardest work was done by our Books Editor, Thuy On, and a Big Issue veteran, former Film Editor Rochelle Siemienowicz. They considered all entries and whittled them down to a more manageable long-list of 28 stories, from which they nominated personal favourites. Joining them on the jury (to read work by all 28 finalists) were members of the Editorial team: Patrick Witton, Lorraine Pink, Sophie Quick and myself. When votes were tallied, we had our 13 authors – representing quite a spread in geography and writing experience.

A special feature of this edition is work by photographer Matt Hoyle. He has very generously allowed us to reproduce some pictures from his book Comic Genius: Portraits of Funny People. It all adds up to a very special edition. One that started with a big pile of envelopes…