Literary journals

Twenty years of ‘Biblio’: Serving up book reviews in the face of heavy odds

The journal has soldiered on the strength of personal effort, donations, goodwill and a smattering of advertising.

In 1995, Dileep Padgaonkar, then an editor at The Times of India, wanted to emulate the New York Review of Books – that venerable journal devoted entirely to critiquing and discussing literature. His suggestion to the newspaper’s management came at the right time – space for book reviews in mainstream media was shrinking and there were only two other “poorly produced” journals that took literary criticism seriously.

Once he got the management’s nod, Padgaonkar and his colleagues Darryl D’Monte, Anikendra Nath “Baadshah” Sen and the late Arvind Narain Das got working on what eventually became the Times Review of Books – a 72-page journal, filled with essays and reviews of books. However, later Padgaonkar at the team that launched this journal quit soon afterwards, forming a company named the Asia Pacific Communications Associates and relaunched the Times Review of Books as Biblio – mentored by Sham Lal, the former editor of Times of India.

Twenty years later, not much has changed. The space for book reviews in mainstream media has shrunk even further and, along with The Book Review magazine, the bi-monthly Biblio has doggedly journeyed on as a platform for writers to indulge in serious literary criticism. “It’s been the classic, quintessential little magazine,” says literary critic Nilanjana S Roy. “It was struggling a bit financially then, it’s struggling now. But what it’s always represented is a kind of alternative network of people across India. It was very, very aware of the need to reach beyond Delhi.”

Surviving 20 years

Perhaps it is fitting that Biblio’s 20th birthday will be celebrated at the Chandigarh Literature Festival in November 2015, with the inaugural session devoted to discussing the magazine’s journey and the changing landscape of literary criticism in India with the magazine’s editorial team.

In its infancy, Biblio was nurtured by contributions from friends of the founding editorial team – writers or academics – because it wasn’t easy to find reviewers. “It wasn’t easy partly because nobody quite knew what the circulation was,” recalled Padgaonkar. “And partly because we couldn’t afford to pay reviewers the way certain newspapers at the time did pay.”

Yet, contributions kept coming in because Biblio was considered a “forum where they could write up to a 1,000 words or more to discuss a book, rather than 250 or 300 words”. Budget constraints meant that review copies of books had to be sent via friends rather than spending money on shipping or advertising. As a result, those who carried review copies for others unwittingly helped spread the word about the magazine’s existence – in India and abroad.

“Darryl and I knew people in Mumbai because we were based here,” added Padgaonkar. “Arvind knew people in Patna and, because he had studied in Holland, he could get people from there to contribute. Tabish Khair [a member of the editorial board] had gone to Denmark and had friends there who contributed. So it was a mix of our personal interests and a large pool of acquaintances and friends that we were able to get people to review books.”

After Das died in 2000 and Padgaonkar ceased to be editor, the task of running Biblio fell upon Brinda Datta, its soft-spoken publisher and managing editor. It’s because of her perseverance and her well-built network of writers, publishers and academics that Biblio has soldiered on for 20 years.

“Short of putting stamps on the envelopes, I do pretty much everything,” Datta said. She started off as a designer for the magazine, giving it the rectangular shape and minimalistic black-and-white editorial pages, interspersed with a few pages of advertisements in colour.

Like the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, the pages of Biblio too have witnessed spats between writers and reviewers. In 2007, Sanjay Kak wrote a scathing review of Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi which, Datta claims, “wasn’t a holistic review. He basically mentioned two points and ran with it.” Although Guha himself didn’t respond to it, Kak’s piece generated a flurry of responses from readers in the subsequent issue.

“Sanjay Kak's review of Ramachandra Guha's book is not just an unfair hatchet job, it is a travesty of a book review and certainly does not deserve space in your journal in the ‘reviews’ category,” wrote columnist Jaithirth “Jerry” Rao. “Because Kak does not approve of the Republic of India at all, anyone who takes a balanced "phiphty-phiphty" view of the Republic is subject to a merciless personal attack.” On the other hand, S Anand, publisher of Navayana Books, called Kak’s piece a “refreshingly critical” review of a “feel-good history”.

What of the next 20 years?

Although it has an assiduously built audience of writers, university students and academics, talk of Biblio’s future is coated with a sense of uncertainty. The magazine has so far survived on donations and advertising from publishers but, given that the publishing business itself is in turmoil, the need to find alternate sources of revenue is more urgent than it ever was.

However, that requires the energies more than one person – a difficult task considering Biblio’s perpetual funds crunch. “There’s a point beyond which you can’t expect readers of Biblio to put in all the work. It’s enough in a way that they’ve already kept it going,” said Roy. What’s required is a vast community-driven effort to ensure that Biblio’s life as an adult is less precarious than its adolescence. Till that happens, Datta will continue to do as much as her own energy allows her.

She wants to overhaul the website and give Biblio a livelier and robust digital avatar and keep the paper version as it is because it has a loyal following. Magazines like Biblio are like a batsman who is there at the crease, maybe not making showy strokes and doing much for a victory,” Roy added. “But they’re there, anchoring an entire innings.”

Aayush Soni is an independent journalist in New Delhi. Follow him on here on Twitter.

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