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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