Literary magazines have been quiet, stable homes for creative writing, sheltering fiction, poetry, essays from the bluster of the mainstream. So what happens when the world falls apart and everything becomes noise? How do the gentle stables of literature cope? As we wait anxiously for the first post-pandemic literary masterpiece, there is curiosity about the kind of submissions literary journals have been receiving; whether isolation, grief, fear, longing are spilling on to the page, and if they are, what form they are taking. If some reports are to be believed, more people are writing now than ever – there’s even a “poetry virus” going around. Just how contagious is it?
When all manner of publishing platforms are bumbling their way through “the new normal”, literary journals must also find ways to survive. And many have – despite hitting pause on print runs, despite disrupted distribution channels, despite running low on time and resources, all the while competing with escapist, clickbait-y material popping up at every turn.
Floating in a pool of doom and gloom as we all are, one could argue, is precisely why we need these little literary islands – to travel the length of a memorable short story, to savour the contours of a poem and, as Out of Print founder Indira Chandrasekhar puts it, to “also find escape from fear of a looming cloud of viral particles or the imagery of fellow citizens dropping dead as they embark on a journey home, the horrors of Indian matchmakers or low brow Scandinavian crime.”
Editors of literary journals from across the country talked to Scroll.in about the highs and lows of working through the uncertainty of the times, the new sense of intensity in the creative writing coming their way, and what the future holds for them.
Sampurna Chattarji, Poetry Editor, The Indian Quarterly
The first and immediate impact of the pandemic was on our April-June 2020 issue, which was about to go to press when Mumbai went into lockdown. For a magazine that is absolutely sumptuous in print that was a big blow. And while it is available on Magzter, I – as well as some of the poets featured – certainly missed the beautiful tactility that every issue of IQ brings to readers and contributors alike. (I’m sure more than one of us felt at that point that April, is indeed, the cruellest month!)
Another thing I miss is working with the team – Rahul Das, the Art Director, and Preksha Sharma, the Assistant Editor, who are both Mumbai-based; Nayantara Patel, our Managing Editor, and Madhu Jain, our Editor, who would both fly down from Delhi. Conference calls and emails, while efficient enough, simply cannot replace the joy of working together in the same space, with pure concentration and camaraderie before sending each issue to press.
As for submissions, there is an explosion of poetry about isolation, vulnerability and – inevitably – the virus. Poems about the longing for human contact, as expressed through the body. Poems about “the new untouchables” (the title of a poem Manohar Shetty sent me along with two others, in response to the Corona crisis). The issues, however, that poets grapple with pre-date the pandemic, and will outlive the crisis, as will the best poems that emerge through this phase.
It’s interesting, the extent to which the current situation has brought out “the poetry virus” online. I hope some of it will be converted into real gains for practising and struggling poets – in the form of book sales and magazine subscriptions, for example, and support that goes beyond the affirmation of floating hearts on poetry videos.
Going by what I see, readers are seeking – through tiny windows of time and technology – connection, consolation and comfort, pretty much what they’ve always looked for. Reading has always been a form of travel and escape, and with so much of the external world at bay, these capsules of online engagement have acquired a new intensity. Poetry is particularly suited to this encapsulated intensity, especially online.
At IQ, adaptability has had to do with periodicity – the July-Sept 2020 issue will be double issue, out in October – virus willing – in all the glory of print. The process remains the same, with the same focus on fine writing, in English, and in translation from other Indian languages. As Rahul tells me, “We have never missed an issue!”
I’m delighted to say that I have a very strong poetry selection in place for October and for January (already!)—so clearly, despite all the pressures, it’s a rich and fruitful time for poets and poetry editors.
As far as financial concerns go, IQ’s managing editor Nayantara Patel says,“IQ is not a commercial magazine and has been supported by its publisher, Anuradha Mahindra. She feels strongly about the need to continue to do so in these financially straitened times (she has extended similar support to IQ’s sister magazine, Verve). Salaries have not been docked, employees have not been laid off, nor contributor payments reduced. So we are fortunately placed, given the disquieting situation at virtually every other media and publishing group.”
Tanuj Solanki, fiction editor, The Bombay Literary Magazine
The pandemic hasn’t changed anything in monetary terms for The Bombay Literary Magazine, which is published online. TBLM neither earns nor pays any money. The amount required to run the magazine – about Rs 8,000 per year – is something that the two editors, myself and Arjun Rajendran, can manage.
In terms of the writing that has come our way since the pandemic became such a force in everyone’s life, we haven’t seen any epoch-defining changes, so to speak. Of course, the badly-written pandemic poem, one that deals with the overt effects plainly, has on occasion found its way into our inbox.
Also – even though we’re not a publisher of non-fiction – some people always try their luck with articles about the latest news items, and so we’ve observed the expected inflow with regards to pandemic-related articles. Interestingly, I can’t quite recall reading fiction concerned, or inspired by, or referring to, the pandemic yet; that is probably because fiction takes longer to write and finesse.
The major challenge with running TBLM now is time. I work in an insurance company. I have been working from home for the last five months now, and these have been intense months, their intensity deriving from the fact that every employee’s mind space is somewhat laced with the vague fear of landing up on the bad side of a recession – which is to say, losing this job and finding it impossible to find the next one. As a consequence, everyone wants to put in more effort, and so workdays shoot over 12 hours; and when that happens, there isn’t much energy left to continue sitting on the same seat and read submissions for my tiny literary magazine. I guess what I’m saying is – the overlap in the workspaces of what-I-do-for-money and what-I-do-as-labour-of-love has had a detrimental effect on the latter, for it is only the latter that is negotiable.
Rachana Yadav, Managing Editor, Hans
The pandemic has impacted not just Hans but almost all magazine and book publishers. Hans has been around for the last 34 years. It has a very loyal reader base that is used to receiving it every month as a printed copy and reading it at their leisure. Since the magazine offers stories and articles and not quite daily breaking news, one is not really time-bound to read it.
With the pandemic breaking out, there was no possibility of printing hard copies. Though the presses became operational sometime by end of May, we decided against printing our latest issue as the distribution channels such as trains, postal services, hawkers were not fully functional.
But since Hans is one of the few magazines that holds a record for not missing a single issue since its inception, we resorted to online releases. So, starting in April 2020, we have been releasing the magazine online on the Hans website. Though it was exactly the same format and content as our print edition, our readership dropped drastically. Our readers just couldn’t make the transition to online reading.
In the first month, we had very few downloads. Although the number of downloads has gradually increased, it is not at the same level as our print sales. The absence of advertising support has also contributed to a huge dip in revenue. So sustainability is our top concern at the moment.
To overcome this we decided to collect stories from our archives and organize them in thematic anthologies, such as best stories by women or stories by writers from overseas. We have also been offering our readers inducements such as free PDFs for three months to the ones who are the first to download our issue on any given day.
The pandemic has struck our market very hard. I feel that even when things do return to normal, the whole readership landscape will have changed for good. For instance, readers who have got used to online reading (mainly the younger demographic) may want to continue doing this even when the print editions are readily available to them.
With hawkers and book agents abandoning the business for greener pastures, there will be a definite weakening of distribution channels, which may leave us with no option but to increasingly rely on the online medium. One encouraging trend is that even during this extended lockdown, there hasn’t been a significant dip in submissions. The other heartening aspect is the overwhelmingly positive response we have received for our heightened social media activities and initiatives. We hope this will help us to bounce back once the situation is normal again.
Indira Chandrasekhar, Founder and Principal Editor, Out of Print
Out of Print has been flooded with submissions, many of them strong and compelling. Not all of the stories emerge directly from the pandemic, many visit and record an earlier time, a time before the world stood still and fought for breath. Many were written before the pandemic. Yet all of our recent submissions are certainly products of this strange time.
Solitude, loneliness, the feeling of being trapped within four walls, either alone or within an intensified family dynamic, inform these stories. At Out of Print, I have been able to immerse myself in the editing of these works with a keen, enhanced attention.
We are a quarterly and have published two issues between March and August featuring works that veer between the jagged and the mesmeric. Even though I am a scientist, it is not the data I am looking at – the online traffic and so on – but, rather, the less tangible responses, like an ever-widening author pool that allows me to speculate that the magazine is being read.
We’ve received letters about the recent issues, including references to individual stories, that indicate that readers are responding to what we’re publishing. Yes, the tensions of the moment must drive people to escapism. I believe, however, that readers can open their minds with a thought-provoking short story and at the same time find escape from fear of a looming cloud of viral particles or the imagery of fellow citizens dropping dead as they embark on a journey home across the stretch of the country, the horrors of Indian matchmakers, or lowbrow Scandinavian crime. The mind needs stimulation even while it indulges itself in mindlessness.
We have been lucky: our primary sponsors are also readers of the magazine, our outlay is not over-demanding, and Out of Print continues to be supported. If things change, I suppose, we will have to adapt.
Anupama Krishnakumar and Vani Viswanathan, Editors, Spark
After publishing an issue every month for a decade-and-a-half, we decided to take a break once we put out our 125th issue in May 2020, two months into the pandemic. This was for two reasons: the first, as a self-care measure for the editors. Editing a lit-mag month on month is not easy, and with just the two of us running the show, we were juggling multiple responsibilities to ensure a new issue was published on the fifth of every month.
We are very particular about the quality of the content we put out, and that meant an enormous amount of reviewing and editing, besides fulfilling our personal and professional commitments. All of these got even bigger with the lockdown, so we decided to take a break, and are now catching up on reading and spending some time writing ourselves! Secondly, we wanted to get some perspective on where we want to go with Spark from here. To do this, we needed mind space freed from the constant editing and publishing cycle.
For our April 2020 and May 2020 issues, despite our monthly themes, we saw a huge increase in submissions about the pandemic: the associated gloom, people’s experiences, the plight of migrant labourers, doctors, volunteers, lessons and reflections on the current and the post-pandemic world. We understood that in these trying times, people were looking for platforms to share their experiences – but the issue was that the quality of submissions was often poor, and for a lit mag, that matters. We got a good mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry submissions, but saw an upsurge in “guest post” requests and unrelated queries ––like seeking advice for publishing poems, or submissions in Hindi, which we don’t feature.
Interestingly, even though we have announced that we are on a break, we get regular enquiries on how to send submissions, or when we will open for submissions again. So people are looking at lit mags to share their experiences. In terms of what people are looking to read in a lit mag, we would think it would be the experiences of others coping with life under the pandemic, stories of hope, and a good dose of humour. But we would say our fundamental expectations from authors remain the same: good literary writing
As for our next steps, we are thinking deeply about the kind of content we want to publish. Things are significantly different today compared to when we started publishing in January 2010 – attention spans have come down, social media has altered the publishing game, and audiovisual content has gained prominence. So as a lit mag based purely on the written word, what’s the best role we can play?
We also want to shift to a more manageable publishing cycle, standardise our submission process, and ensure we receive high-quality submissions from writers who are clear about what they want to write and write it well. We want to think all of this through and restart when we feel ready to get “back to business”. We spent ten years nurturing Spark out of sheer passion for the written word, so we want to make our next steps count to the best of our ability.
Arun Kale, Editor, Helter Skelter
Helter Skelter exists both online and in print. The online magazine features nonfiction writing about India, and we publish a roughly annual anthology of original short fiction and poetry from India in print. We celebrated 10 years of Helter Skelter in June, launched a brand new website for the magazine a month or so ago, which has been very well received, and announced the writers who have been selected for our upcoming anthology – volume 7 of the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing, the theme for which is “identity” – about a month into the nationwide lockdown.
While it’s exciting to be working on this new volume, the pandemic has resulted in a significant amount of uncertainty in terms of what the schedule for producing the book should be, and the best ways to distribute it. We’re also considering releasing Kindle versions of our past anthologies (volumes 1-4).
Volumes 5 (After Hours) and 6 (Dissent) of our anthology have been selling steadily during the lockdown. Readers have written in saying they have found the stories, poems, and illustrations in our books a refreshing and much-needed escape from the toxicity and noise that has constantly surrounded us of late.
There seems to have been an uptick in essays being pitched/submitted to the magazine that deal with reflections on the authors’ childhood experiences or stories from more hopeful times. Other writing being submitted includes slice-of-life stories, which again involve reminiscing to some degree. There are also essays revolving around introspection and an exploration of the self and the various aspects of it (gender, sexuality, race, etc)
Helter Skelter is an entirely self-funded initiative. I put in money from my paid work into the magazine, and since I’m not rich or well-off by any means, any investment (time / money / energy) has to be carefully considered. Still, I have been running the magazine for a little over ten years now, and I plan on doing so for as long as I can. I’m taking it a day at a time, trying to find new ways to keep things moving, and doing my best to be hopeful.
Jeeva Karikalan, Editor, Yaavarum
Things looked quite promising at the beginning of 2020. However, many journals began to sense the threat of closure looming over their activities by the middle of March. Throughout April, no literary magazine was sent to press. A few journals resumed publication when the lockdown was lifted. During a period when running a literary journal in Tamil Nadu was already a severe challenge, a few journals announced temporary suspension of publication. Others circulated their issues to readers in electronic file format, mostly free of cost.
The steep rise in the price of paper and losses incurred during the lockdown have made the future of many intermediate magazines highly uncertain. Even leading publishers have closed their branch offices. Since printing presses in Chennai remained closed, magazines were printed and published from different cities across the state. Because of the constraints imposed on trade with China, the price of ink and toner for digital printers went up, making even the survival of literary journals that benefited from digital printing more precarious.
The lockdown has exacerbated factors such as salaries, office rent, and the drying up of even the meagre advertisement revenue that there was. Even so, since literary journals have never been focused on profits, post-June they have prepared themselves to function as before, even in the absence of commercial prospects.
The resumption of publication of Kalkuthirai and Nadukal are examples. At the same time, one must note the way literary journals have redesigned themselves to suit the online format. There has been a notable increase in the number of works published and shared by readers and conversations online. A large number of journals, such as Uyirmmai, Vallinam, Yaavarum, Kanalli, Vasagasalai and Padhakai functioned effectively during this period.
In an essentially non-profit domain, websites that do not result in huge losses are a boon for literary journals. It is true that they cannot compensate for the bonds that readers build with print magazines. It is only the government that can, through library orders, help redeem the future of literary journals.
(As told to N Kalyan Raman)
K Vigneswaran, Editor, Kanali
In the early part of the lockdown, there was an increase in the number of contributions because writers had more time at their disposal. However, with increasing stress due to the pandemic, their enthusiasm has waned, which shows in the number and quality of submissions.
Even readers are weighed down by all the news about the pandemic. Their engagement with content seems to have been reduced considerably, as revealed in private conversations. They simply don’t have the mental energy to spend on reading literary material.
Since the journal is run as a voluntary effort through private contributions, it has been possible to bring it out every month. However, there are practical difficulties, such as not being able to get our printer serviced, or buy other supplies readily. We also make available articles, stories and essays printed in old books and magazines in the digital format for a new generation of readers. Since libraries are closed and receiving books through courier service is risky, we have not been able to do much on this front.
(As told to N Kalyan Raman)
Neha Bhatt is an independent journalist. She writes on culture, development and books.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.