After three decades of stops and starts, the literary magazine Sport folded last year. This essay by Sport stalwart and VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman opens the humongous new anthology A Game of Two Halves: The best of Sport 2005-2019. It has been tentatively abridged for length.
Sport was conceived in the back of Damien Wilkins’ yellow Ford Escort – he tells the story in the introduction to Great Sporting Moments – and born in spring 1988.
It has died three natural deaths. The first came after five years with the slender and tired issue 10, the cover of which features the large face of Jack Knox Barrowman, born in spring 1992. Sport 11 was nearly a farewell best of – the 1st XI – and thank you Forbes Williams for a good idea that we didn’t use – because resurrection came in the form of great new writing – ‘The Poet’s Wife’ by Bill Manhire, ‘Not Her Real Name’ by Emily Perkins, ‘After Bathing at Baxter’s’ by Gregory O’Brien.
The second death was in 2014, when after 41 issues of unbroken support Creative New Zealand declined a grant application without notice or discussion. Pooh to that (as Barbara Anderson would have said).
The third death was in 2020, when the pressure on me and everyone else of keeping the VUP show on the road in the pandemic meant there was no way of putting on a sideshow. And as the year turned we thought, yes, it’s time.
We were driving around the Basin Reserve – I can remember that, but not where we were going, or what produced the thought at that particular moment. But the pressure behind it was a degree of dissatisfaction at VUP. I was in my fifth year (good grief), and although with Bill Manhire’s leadership we had begun to open the press up to publishing more new writers – first books by Dinah Hawken, Elizabeth Knox, Jenny Bornholdt and Barbara Anderson in 1987-89 – there was only so much a firm with a staff of 1.5 (Damien was the half) publishing 6-8 books a year could do, and I was getting to know lots of terrific new writers. How could I publish more of them?
The local litmag scene was in a low state. Islands hadn’t appeared for a while, and while it hadn’t closed – Robin Dudding made that clear when we visited him to ask for his blessing (see pp62-64 below) – I saw an opportunity to copy what Robin did and take Islands’ place. The other long-lasting mag, Landfall, was being edited uncertainly by committee and turning down the very writers I wanted to publish. Meanwhile two stylish interventions had come and deliberately gone again. And was the kind of bracing intervention every literary scene needs from time to time, and stayed exactly its prescribed course of four issues, while Rambling Jack was more of a good-time coterie mag, which was having too much fun to stop at four and added a fifth issue.
And out in the world there was Granta, the mighty quarterly that after its reinvention in 1979 became the showroom for literary glamour: Dirty Realism, The Best of Young British, James Fenton riding into Saigon on the back of a North Vietnamese tank … That’s what we wanted to be: a fat paperback book of new writing on the front table of Unity Books every quarter. Or every six months, which was a considered decision: we wanted Sport to last the distance, as well as to be glamorous, and to have room for long stories as well as short ones.
And it wasn’t going to have a manifesto. It was clear to all of us that experimental writing – or postmodern writing, call it what you like – was just as rulebound as literary realism, and no more likely to be any good; that experienced writers took as many risks as beginning writers; and that older beginning writers – Barbara Anderson! – were just as alive in the moment of self-discovery as young writers.
It happened quickly. Elizabeth and Damien and Nigel said “Let’s do it”; Bill Manhire, Alan Preston and Andrew Mason offered loans; and, crucially, the Literary Fund quickly approved a first-issue grant to a magazine with no track record. (Wouldn’t happen now.) Damien and I looked in the VUP “under consideration” file; we wrote to writers we knew, to writers whose work I’d admired while assessing Bill’s creative writing course folios, and to some writers we didn’t know.
In fact Sports 1 and 2 filled up almost immediately, and it felt like only weeks before Sport 1 was published, although it must have been longer, because the publishing process was to edit in red pen and blue pencil and send the manuscripts to a typesetter in Christchurch, who would take four weeks to typeset them and a further four to correct the errors that had been introduced, and printing in New Zealand took five weeks.
Sport wouldn’t have been possible without VUP: the contacts, the facilities, the skills, the confidence. But I kept the finances strictly separate, and the hours for that matter – for years Sport was what I did in the weekends.
One by one my co-editors fell away. They were writers and had better things to do. I never quite solo edited – I would always circulate manuscripts for opinions – but it was a happy day when James Brown came on board as guest editor or co-editor for issues 12-25. James shook things up nicely. He could never be one of those editors who can quickly breeze through a large pile of submissions and reduce it to the likely 15%. No, James got to the bottom of every piece. In those days we communicated mostly by writing notes to each other on the covering letters. These of course can never be seen by the authors, so when accepting (10%?) or rejecting I’d detach and file them. They’re in a box somewhere secret.
The problem is easy to spot. Fine for me to donate my time, but James is a poet, so after Creative New Zealand twice rejected my application for an increased grant to pay him something, he retired. Subsequent editors – Catherine Chidgey (23-26), Sara Knox, Kate Camp – did it for love, mostly once.
Sport 15 was guest-edited by Greg O’Brien and was the first to feature photographs: ‘White Horse Black Dog’ by Peter Black. Greg’s idea, the move also reflected my love of photography, then and now usually regarded as inferior to painting and sculpture, and Sport went on to publish work by Bill Culbert, Alan Knowles, Bruce Connew, Mary McPherson, Andrew Ross, Bruce Foster, Peter Black again, and finally Harvey Benge, in issue 33, the first to be featured in this book. It wasn’t always popular – C.K. Stead cancelled his subscription because he wasn’t going to spend his money on dingy black-and-white photos of Wellington, which I took as a tribute to Andrew Ross – but it was fun.
We stopped because of the economics. Sport’s funding came roughly in thirds: donated time; income from bookshop sales, subscriptions and a few ads; and the Literary Fund/Creative New Zealand grant. Circulation settled at 400-600 copies depending, and on that basis each “normal” issue made a small surplus, which we would spend every two or three issues on photos. That no longer worked after Sport 31, when the twice-yearly magazine became an annual, and the issues got bigger, and the budgets got tighter.
We founded Sport early in the Golden Age of New Zealand Publishing (1983-2008). While researching The Picador Book of Contemporary New Zealand Fiction (1996) I found that of the 11 (!) New Zealand fiction titles published in 1979, six were published internationally and three of the five published locally were author-funded; and that by 1995 the annual totals were over 40, all of which were published locally, many of them profitably.
The Golden Age was fuelled by the hunger for local stories – Maurice Gee’s Plumb, Fiona Kidman’s A Breed of Women, Sue McCauley’s Other Halves, Janet Frame’s autobiographies, and above all Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning The Bone People. The British publishing industry noticed and increased their investment in New Zealand branches; the fourth Labour Government opened the economy and increased support for the arts; and before long VUP was selling out an 8000-copy first print run of a Barbara Anderson novel every two years.
The Golden Age was doomed by the loss of local industry market share to offshore internet retail, which really got going around 2004-5. British publishers saw that they didn’t need local warehouses to sell their books to New Zealand readers, so they closed them – and hasn’t the pandemic shown us how robust just-in-time supply from Australian warehouses really is? What has developed since then is in many ways more modest and local, but also more lively and open to a diversity of new writers, as the financial and technological barriers to publishing a book or setting up as a publisher have got lower. These have turned out to be ideal conditions for a risk-taking small-to-medium-sized publisher with a university’s support to thrive, and they have changed Sport.
Becoming an annual made Sport less magazine-like. There were fewer interviews and reviews, no photo-essays, fewer oddities and experiments, fewer personal essays even, despite this being the age of the personal essay. Instead, the larger issues became new writing anthologies, dominated by fiction and poetry. There are so many ways for writers to get new work in front of readers – in print and online magazines (such as the IIML’s own Turbine|Kapohau), on Twitter and Insta, in chapbooks and collective publications, at festivals and readings – why wait for something that only comes around once a year? And the line from a first-draft manuscript to a first book is shorter and straighter than it used to be too.
Sport grew closer to VUP, which had grown to a team of seven (FTE 5.5) publishing about 30 and as many as 42 books per year. Editing became a collaborative process involving other VUP staff, especially Ashleigh Young and Kirsten McDougall; and so many more writers in the whānau were obviously going to take up more space.
Most of all, Sport grew closer to the IIML – the International Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. If anyone wants a pragmatic answer to the question “Can creative writing be taught?”, this book is it. The first issues of Sport were full of unknown writers who had recently done Bill’s undergraduate course – Dinah Hawken, Elizabeth Knox, Jenny Bornholdt, Barbara Anderson … and a few years later those were our leading writers. As the undergraduate course became an MA class of 10, then under Damien Wilkins 20 then 30 students per year, those numbers flowed through to Sport. Pip Adam, Airini Beautrais, Hera Lindsay Bird, Eleanor Catton, Tayi Tibble and Ashleigh Young are just half a dozen of the new names that appear in this book.
My first connection with Bill’s course was before my job at VUP. In 1983 I was a teaching assistant in the English Department struggling with an unfinishable MA thesis comparing Seamus Heaney and A.R. Ammons (a publishing job with deadlines saved me) and Bill asked me to help assess the folios. It was really hard because there were no other opinions to benchmark against. Then he asked me to write a reader’s report on a collection of short stories by a New Zealand postmodernist. I gave it a thumbs-down. I guess I passed the audition.
It seems to me now that my involvement with this university’s creative writing course – writing assessments of the folios in 1983 then every year since 1985 – has been at the heart of everything I’ve done. That’s nearly 40 years of Novembers devoted solely to reading the best work that those writers can do inside the best workshop in the world, and reading it without any of the usual crutches like covers, blurbs, track record, publisher imprints and genre signifiers. I feel like Shift in The Absolute Book: periodically reduced to a condition of radical innocence, having to learn everything all over again.
And Sport, it seems to me, has been a practical application of that editorial negative capability. Over the years, it has been an exercise in open-hearted reading, extended to an at times exhausting number and range of submissions from across Aotearoa New Zealand, and producing both a record and a prefiguring of the literature of this place.
A Game of Two Halves finds room for about 15% of the million or so words that were in the 15 issues from 2005 to 2019. Reading all of those pages last summer was fascinating. I remembered everything, and still liked it all, and found it painful to leave so much on the bench. I based my selections on how immediately rereading each story, poem or essay rekindled the excitement I had felt when I read it the first time. I tried not to second-guess myself.
Some of my favourite things are the longer stories: Eleanor Catton’s chilling ‘Descent from Avalanche’, published shortly after her first book, The Rehearsal, and not reprinted until now; but equally the stories by Cate Palmer, Maria Samuela and Sylvan Thomson, whose first books we keenly await.
And the poetry is amazing. If Sport struggled with anything it was how to do justice to the extraordinary number of excellent poets who have been writing here over the past 15 years. In hindsight, I wonder whether we tried to squeeze too many poems into some issues, or too few poems by too many poets. Here, the mostly solo poems shine.
Several writers get two pieces, because I couldn’t resist, and one gets three. Altogether, and with due modesty, this is a staggeringly rich offering. Huge thanks to all of the writers who have sent us their work over the years, and to those who have allowed us to reprint it in this book.
Early this year, when I was asking myself whether it was a good idea to resurrect Sport after a gap year – could we go from publishing Sport every six months, to every year, to when it was ready? – I looked at a copy of Sport 47, the vibrant pink issue edited by Tayi Tibble. That was fun. That was different. But did it make sense to go on doing it that way, reinventing Sport every year? When would it stop being Sport?
I have regrets – all year I have been on the verge of changing my mind – but it is time.