literary culture

A seven-point manifesto for the Indian literary magazine

Online or offline, literary magazines can bring new and under-discovered writers to readers in ways books can’t.

Who likes a preachy article? Yeah, no one, I know. This will not stop me from sharing my thoughts about publishing ethics in the country. The digital age has created major volume in English Indian writing and as a result we have a ton of new domestic literary magazines.

India works with minority and diversity with a radically different software – owing to our micro-cultures, languages, dialects and class paradigms. In the last decade we’ve seen many young urbanites taking to the Internet to found literary magazines that aim to find writing talent in the country and give them a platform to show us their work.

The literary magazine is perhaps the most durable thermometer of a nation’s literary growth. It mirrors contemporary issues, considers experimental styles, values linguistic history, interviews current writers and influencers, and takes the time to find golden translations.

That said, it’s really hard to find literary magazines in India (In print or online) that go into their own ethics and purposes for publishing fiction, poetry and non-fiction from new writers. A few lines about trying to find good talent and attempting to provide a platform for readers and writers is usually as detailed as it gets.

This might not sound like an issue at all, but when we are talking about a country that has over 100 languages and dialects, micro-customs, cultures, and sub-cultures, how do we define talent? What are the parameters of inclusive representation?

Most writers writing in English today will almost certainly speak another Indian language, and that in turn can steer their style and focus. In India soliciting work almost directly translates to cronyism and, exceptions aside, transparency on how the editors manage their slush pile to find real talent is limited.

Here’s my manifesto template for the Indian literary magazine. Feel free to ditch all points here and create your own. But create one.

At least 60% of an issue will feature work from the slush pile.

This means that as an editor you will make it serious business to read submissions from writers unknown to you. You will read them blindly without knowing their names and judge their work for their work.

The other 40% can be solicited. Yes, that means you can call your writer friends, their hotshot writer pals, and other such “contacts” and ask them to submit too. But you are not going to find new talent if you aren’t going to commit to actually looking for it.

We will allot a certain proportion to minority writing.

That means looking out for writers who write about alternate sexuality, caste, religion, and gender. If editors cannot value minority writing, there is no chance in hell anyone else will even begin to appreciate it.

This is not to say pick up work just because the writer comes from a minority background. Bad writing is bad writing, agreed; but if you look hard enough you will find great work that needs to come out and usually doesn’t because there are too many mainstream writers and subjects that are easier to publish.

We’ll learn to read and appreciate work that might not fit with our personal tastes.

I was an editor once for my magazine in grad school when I was doing my MFA. I was usually turned off by science fiction and speculative fiction. Still there were stories that I read from the slush pile that pulled me in for entire minutes.

Even though I might have never chosen to read the story on my own if it were in a book, I realised there were others who would find it compelling. An experimental style can hold potent storytelling but might not match with your reading choices – remember to think about your own objectivity in the selection process.

We’ll look, seek, beg, and read till our eyes bleed for a good translation.

As urban readers most of us are losing out on superbly rich narratives and subjects simply because they’re lost in books – some dusty, some forgotten – by old, modern and contemporary writers from different regions. Finding good translations is hard, but there are many in our country that have understood the importance of doing this work.

Encouraging translators to submit previously translated work will allow your readers to enjoy what would otherwise be completely lost to us. Some of our best work is written in languages that aren’t English. A fabulous literary magazine will make sure to have at least one fabulous translation per issue.

We’ll write out nice rejection letters. We’ll take the time to tell the writers who almost made it why they still rock.

Not all magazines can afford the time to write out personal rejection email. Any good editor will have to write many of these every month. If yours is a small magazine, I’d recommend taking that extra time to make your letters a little more personal – not full-blown edits and reworking the stories but just a note to say what they could work on, and what you might have appreciated.

This goes a long way in encouraging writers to keep writing and keeping the publisher-writer energy in balance. If yours is a bigger magazine, at least send a personal note to the writers who almost got selected and tell them to submit again in the near future.

We will solicit a diverse set of people to become guest editors.

This is an almost foolproof formula to keep things fresh and fair. Solicit editors and writers from other cities, states, and countries to guest-edit the slush pile. Their insight and reasoning might give your issue a new perspective and keep your magazine fresh and exciting. It’s also it a great way to collaborate with others across the globe and get more eyes on your magazine.

We’ll write courageous, meaningful editor notes that provoke thought.

Because we desperately need it. Literature is endangered and we can’t blame everything on the digital age. We’ve lost the ability to read, converse, and apply new thoughts and ideas to life around us.

Literature can bond a community. It can drive us forward, it needs to be supported. If you are running a literary magazine, chances are you understand how critical this issue is. Make the time to choose a nuanced topic about what’s on your mind as an editor, as a reader, as a writer and as a citizen of this world.

These are my seven highly opinionated rules for a progressive publishing manifesto. How would you change it? What am I missing? Well, say something, because this conversation is needed and the more involved we get with our own publication ethics the more our writing community will grow – both in quality and in intent. And usually when those come together, we’ll have some fabulous reading ahead of us.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.