As the title suggests we are trying to look at the market in India for contemporary Indian writing in English through the peculiar category of the little magazine. Before moving on to the little magazines let’s go back to the project statement to outline the basic presumptions that underlie the project:
“From superficial observation it would appear that the patterns of publishing and distribution of Indian literature in English and English translations of literature in Indian languages, hereafter referred to, for the sake of convenience, by the generic title of Contemporary Indian Literature in English, have undergone a change in the course of the last two decades. This appears to be symptomised, for instance, by the currency enjoyed by this literature at the present moment – in terms of its unprecedented accommodation in school and university curricula, its easy availability in both big-city and small-town libraries and book shops, and the engagement of many mainstream India-based publishers with it. In brief, it now appears that a niche has been created in India for Indian writing in English, both in translation and in the original, published by India publishers for a predominantly Indian market - a niche that is unrelated to Anglophone Western markets.”(1) [Italics mine]
The statement locates this phenomenon in the post late 1980s and early 1990s.This is broadly what we are looking at, now where to locate little magazines in this project? What is more important- how much of market do they occupy? Or just the fact of their presence in the market? Or the service they do to Indian Literature.? Because genres like poetry and short story which do not really sell find space in these magazines.
We are going to look at three such ventures- all Delhi- based, two of which are more of creative writing journals [Yatra and Civil Lines] while the third tries to be an issue based magazine as well as a creative writing journal [The Little Magazine]. Before we move on to these, let us look at the Little Magazinephenomenon itself, rather try to trace the lineage of this category of literary magazines. Little magazines appear at one or other time in the literary history of every country- whether it is the 18th and 19th century little magazines in Britain and America, the modernist journals; the little magazine movement in the 50s and 60s in Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam and Gujarati languages or the Bengali little magazine movement in India in 1970s and 80s which focused entirely on poetry.
These movements and the work published as a part of them share certain common features which can be enumerated as follows:
They are most of the times ideologically driven non-commercial ventures.
Their primary concern is making visible new writing or previously unknown talent.
They have a tendency towards coterie.
Intellectual pretensions, revolt and innovation form the basis of these ventures.
Most of the times they have short life spans.
The journals we are looking at have almost all these characteristics, while “Yatra” tried to make visible previously unknown talent, “Civil Lines” is a kind of coterie publication thriving on a coterie audience and The Little Magazine is more innovative in its efforts.
In our interaction with the editors of “Civil Lines” and “Yatra” we discovered almost co-incidentally a common strand- for both Alok Bhalla [editor of Yatra] and Rukun Advani[ editor of Civil Lines] , the British new writing journal Granta, served as a model.
A brief look at Granta as described by the editor Ian Jack on their website:
Granta magazine publishes new writing—fiction, personal history, reportage and inquiring journalism—four times a year. It also publishes documentary photography. Every issue contains at least 256 pages in paperback book format.
Granta was founded in 1889 by students at Cambridge University as The Granta, a periodical of student politics, student badinage and student literary enterprise, named after the river that runs through the town. In this original incarnation it had a long and distinguished history, publishing the early work of many writers who later became well known, including A. A. Milne, Michael Frayn, Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. During the 1970s, it ran into trouble—dwindling money, mounting apathy—from which it was rescued by a small group of postgraduates who successfully and surprisingly re-launched it as a magazine of new writing, with both writers and their audience drawn from the world beyond Cambridge.
Since 1979, the year of its rebirth, Granta has published many of the world's finest writers tackling some of the world's most important subjects, from intimate human experiences to the large public and political events that have shaped our lives. Its contributors have included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Saul Bellow, Peter Carey, Raymond Carver, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin, James Fenton, Richard Ford, Martha Gellhorn, Nadine Gordimer, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Jayne Anne Phillips, Salman Rushdie, George Steiner, Graham Swift, Paul Theroux, Edmund White, Jeanette Winterson, Every issue since 1979 is still in print. Some of them—Travel (Granta 10) and The Family (Granta 37), for example—have found a place in the recent history of literature. In the pages of Granta, readers met for the first time the narrative prose of writers such as Bill Bryson, Romesh Guneseekra and Arundhati Roy.
Granta does not have a political or literary manifesto, but it does have a belief in the power and urgency of the story, both in fiction and non-fiction, and the story's supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real. Two years ago, the London Observer wrote of Granta: 'In its blend of memoirs and photojournalism, and in its championing of contemporary realist fiction, Granta has its face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world.' This commitment means that it rarely publishes reviews or essays or other forms of writing about writing. Also, it rarely publishes poetry. There are few other restrictions, other than that pieces which appear in Granta must not have been published before in English.
It is a magazine, alive to the present, and not a conventional literary anthology.[ italics mine](2)
To know what happens to Granta when the idea is imported to a linguistically and culturally diverse country like India, let us look at our first venture :
The journal was launched in early 1990s, to be precise in 1993. When asked whether he saw a space for a journal like "yatra" in the market, the editor answered that he perceived a gap in the market. He said “There were a number of reasons. The most important ones were: the sense that there really wasn't a journal where one could get information about, read review, or write critical review concerned with the wide range of writing being done in the Indian subcontinent. There was no journal, and there still isn't one, where writers could find a place without too much of an ideological imposition.
The journal was to be distinct from the few that were around. it was not EPW, which had its own special and important place and was a part of a ideological grouping, it was also not New Quest which at that time belonged to the vaguely definable liberal group -- slightly to the right perhaps. It sought to fill the gap left by them and be more inclusive than Indian Literature published by the Sahitya Akademi. I think the model at the back of my mind was Granta.
There certainly was felt need for such a journal. there still is. Where can you read the work of Intizar Husain, or Nirmal Verma, or Anand, or Sunil Gangopadhaya -- or even find out about it.”(3)
Agenda of the journal.
As expressed in the editor’s note to Yatra 1
“ we hope that the journal, which will be produced twice a year, will create a visible space for an imaginatively strong and intellectually distinguished variety of stories, poems, images , philosophic meditations, plays and film scripts, which are being produced across the Indian subcontinent at present.
Yatra will also make available, in new translations, works from the past , which have either been lost or forgotten but which are essential for any reconstruction of the literary and cultural map of the country” (4)
As evident from this note, the journal attempts a certain kind of cultural reconstruction.
Yatra also had a significant political orientation comment upon by the editor as follows:
“The idea of insisting upon literature from the subcontinent was the only political move I had made. I wanted to suggest that there was common civilizational base to which all us belonged -- Indians Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans . That we did understand each other, despite an acrimonious political past as a culture, as a society with aspirations for freedom. This at least was our social, moral and political heritage and that the present sectarianism of some was an aberration -- hopeful a passing one.” (5)
This is what the editor of TLM- Antara Dev Sen- also insists on, to broaden the idea of Indian literature, she says “you can’t look at Bengali literature without looking at Bangladeshi literature, you can’t look at Punjabi literature without looking at Pakistani literature” (6) and argues for South Asia as an entity.
Yatra is committed to publishing new and unknown writers, it also publishes a lot of translations.
When asked to comment on linguistic, geographic and historical diversity of the content in the journal, the editor said “The primary attempt was to highlight the work being done in the present. But there was also a sense, in me specially that we had for too long neglected the wide range of writing that had gone on in the subcontinent before 1947 about which we didn't know much -- we still don't. Who, outside of particular language groups, knows the work of Tarashankar, or Agyeyya etc .The English writers had their work being made available but this was not the case with the regional language writers.” (7)
It is quite evident that journals like Yatra and TLM have been trying to change the perception of Indian literature, they seem to be arguing that it has more to it than a Rushdie or Ghosh. They both try to be as inclusive as possible and honest to the cultural diversity of the subcontinent.
Urban , academically aware, middle aged reader is what the editors of “Yatra” seem to have in mind
Yatra was funded and published by Harper Collins, India
Demise of Yatra
This is what the editor has to say on the sudden demise of Yatra-
“We managed 6 issues. Then we ran into a whole range of difficulties with the publisher. Perhaps, because it was not selling well -- about 500 copies of each were sold. Partly because Pankaj Mishra took over as the editor of Harper Collins for a brief while and wanted to shift the focus to critical writing.”(8)
Civil Lines is, in a way more honest to the idea of Granta than Yatra, its extremely focused on publishing new writing, that too almost always in English.
The first issue of Civil Lines dates back to 1994, published by Ravi dayal , edited by Rukun Advani, Ivan Hutnik, Mukul Kesavan and Dharma Kumar. When asked about the reasons for a venture like Civil Lines, the editor commented:
“The idea derived in part from GRANTA which published promising new writing in Britain, with many first-published authors of that forum subsequently going on to make their reputation as writers. In India at the time that CIVIL LINES beganthere seemed to be a reasonable number of new writers wanting to publish in a high quality literary journal.”(9)
From this comment, it seems that Civil Lines was a product of a certain kind of literary scenario.
The editorial introduction begins as follows “ Civil Lines hopes to appear irregularly, later as frequently as the editors can garner enough fine, unpublished writing connected with India to warrant an issue” (10)
Civil Lines did appear irregularly, the first issue in 1994, second in 1995, third in 1997, fourth in 2001 and fifth in 2002, when asked about this feature of the journal, the editors commented:
“We thought our journal would make a name if we kept the quality extremely high and did not publish anything we didn’t consider really very good. That also meant not publishing it at regular intervals, but only when we had 175-200pp of high quality submissions.”(11)
This feature seems to put the readership at some risk, for the reader is uncertain when to look for Civil Lines in a bookshop. Though this irregularity has its own share of admirers too.
According to one of the editors, the envisaged readership was intelligent literate urban Indians who value high quality English writing and buy fiction/non-fiction for the pleasure of reading. He doesn’t think there’s been much change in the kind of readers CIVIL LINES attracted over the period it was appearing, sales for all five issues were about 1100-1200 copies.
Ravi Dayal funded the first four issues. Sanjeev Saith of India Ink funded the fifth. The British Council gave a small grant to help with publicity and marketing.
The Little Magazine
The Little Magazine began in 2000. A venture very different from both Yatra and Civil Lines, TLM is extremely ambitious, it tries to be both national and international; a creative writing journal as well as a social and political review; a book review journal simultaneously. It also publishes film scripts quite regularly.
When asked if there was a space in the market for a magazine like theirs, the editors commented that there was a void.(12) According to them most of the mainstream magazines “Talk only about the surface level of news, they need to go to the roots of the issue.” They said“ we wanted to make a connect between what is happening now and with the larger picture of Indian culture and South Asian literature and culture. (13)
They see it as a “seamless reality”
TLM attempts to bring news issues and literature and culture together, this seems like an ideal kind of reporting. It tries to broaden the scope of serious journalism and a literary magazine.
On its website, TLM describes itself as 'India's only professionally produced independent publication on literature, art and social concerns'. Thus it locates itself within the spectrum of two categories of magazines – magazines or newsweeklies dealing with current affairs like India Today and Outlook, as well as the category of 'literary' magazines/journals like 'Indian Literature' brought out by The Sahitya Akademi. And through this self-posturing, TLM also proposes to overcome what it sees to be the deficiencies of both.(14)
• The usual categories according to which the contents of an issue are arranged are: essays, poetry, fiction, novella, news story, new fiction, “Roundtable” (chat with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum), books, reviews, storyboard etc. Every issue has a distinctive theme such as, gender, violence, crime, history, the imbalances of globalization, development, the environment, childhood, the role of media vis-a-vis each of these. The sheer volume of discursive writing on these themes published in the magazine reflects how the magazine broadens the concerns of a 'literary' magazine (by no more limiting itself to merely “creative” writing).
• TLM publishes short stories, poems and novellas translated from other Indian languages (like: Punjabi, Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu) in large numbers. Most of those published are literary giants within the context of their respective language. Thus, it tries to bring about parity between writing in English and literature in other Indian languages, as well as between genres.(15)
It also publishes writing by non-professional or first-time writers under the category of “New Fiction”. However, this is not a regular feature within the magazine.
TLM’s editors harbor a healthy skepticism regarding concepts like target audience or marketing departments.
“One needed to stop taking data seriously at one point, one had to go with one’s basic common sense and intuition, and my common sense and intuition told me that there are people like me outside, I am not unique, nor are my friends unique”(16)
TLM, much like the other two journals expects an urban, aware, middle aged reader.
In the reader response “letters to the gnome”, readers confess to share the concern for issues like war, violence, gender etc. with the editors. Also there are readers who criticise the magazine’s exclusivity and some who find their political articles heavy stuff. But most of them agree to the need for a journal like Little Magazine.
Little magazine boasts of a circulation of about 5000 copies
The editors say they sell in more than 150 bookshops, that’s as far as distribution is concerned. About publicity, they said they used to sell posters to be put up in the bookshops, they consider display as main publicity, according to them displaymakes or breaks a magazine.
The magazine is privately funded along with subscription and sponsorships.
While the magazine advertises the books brought out by the same publication and offers a substantial discount on the same to its subscribers, it also used to advertise what was called 'The Little Bookshop” on the internet, at which these publications as well as books reviewed within the magazine and back issues of TLM were available for purchase. But ‘The Little Bookshop’, was wound up last year. The reason for that as told by the editor was “ It went on for three and a half years and it made a huge loss. So that’s why we started the online bookshop because a lot of us don’t really go out to bookshops as much as we would like to and if its there on your computer, then you can browse and you can just decide to buy and let them know.”(17) So now the only bookshop is the online one which has some regular buyers, something like a niche audience. According to the people from TLM, online marketing in India hasn’t had the same response as it has abroad.
TLM has also recently launched SALAM or the 'South Asian Literature Awards for the Masters and New Writing Award' 'brush[ing] aside language and political boundaries and hav[ing] an award for the whole region'. It is the only professionally chosen honor that treats South Asia as one cultural unit. SALAM is a lifetime achievement award for literary stalwarts of South Asia.
As is evident from the sales and circulation figures above- 500 for “Yatra”, 1100-1200 for “Civil Lines” and 5000 for TLM- little magazines have a limited presence in the market. While a journal like “Civil Lines” is unashamedly comfortable with it, for TLM it’s a question of survival. These journals are very self- consciously niche, they occupy a paradoxical position in the market, a position that falls somewhere in between materialism and idealism. Their importance lies in the space they provide to new, unknown writers, authors like Rajkamal Jha and Siddharth Deb were first published in
“ Civil Lines”, also these journals fulfill a sort of cultural vacuum in the market driven by commercial interests.
Notes and references
(1) Ferguson Centre collaborative research project proposal on “Contemporary Indian literature in English and the Indian market”
(3) Interview conducted with Mr.Alok Bhalla, the editor of Delhi- based journal “Yatra”, in May 2007.
(4) General editor Alok Bhalla’s note to “Yatra 1”, published in 1993 by Indus, an imprint of Harper Collins.
(6) Interview conducted with the editor of “ The Little Magazine”, Antara Dev Sen , by the Ferguson project research assistants, Arunima Paul and Shvetal Vyas in November, 2006
(9) Interview conducted with the former co-editor of “Civil Lines”, Rukun Advani in May, 2007
(10) Introduction to “Civil Lines 1”, edited by Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan, Ivan Hutnik and Dharma Kumar, published by Ravi Dayal, 1994.
(14) Ferguson project research assistant Arunima Paul’s presentation- “Sighting Markets, Moulding Readerships: An Overview of The Little Magazine” at the project workshop held in Jamia Milia Islamia University in March 2007