Notes from the underground: A fresh breed of literary magazines

Mixing DIY ethics, rock'n'roll and searing new writing, a fresh breed of literary magazines is breathing life into the publishing industry, says Rob Sharp

Monday 05 July 2010 00:00 BST

There's an empty slot on the bookshelf between your pristine copies of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and Granta.

You'd be forgiven for believing, what with all the nay-saying surrounding the publishing industry, that the best use for the space is as a cubby hole for your shiny new iPad. Think again. Stemming from the edgiest enclaves of the book-loving universe, a glut of new literary magazines is giving a home to freshman writing and established prose. From the cool, rock'n'roll aesthetic of Pen Pusher, to the DIY origins of Litro and the fizzing poetry-illustration formula of Popshot, bookworms are corkscrewing into virgin habitats everywhere.

"There has been a great resurgence in magazines looking at the same literary areas," says Craig Taylor, author and editor of Five Dials, launched by Hamish Hamilton in June 2008 to showcase short fiction, essays, letters, poetry and reportage. While the magazine is distributed via email, its founders intend it to be flexibly consumed – either printed out or viewed electronically. "As conventional magazines are dying out, or chasing celebrity, there's an excellent little gap in the market," continues Taylor. "I went to NatWest the other day and their in-house magazine had the same celebrities on the cover as all of the weekend colour supplements. I remember standing there and thinking, 'thank God I don't have to be the same as everyone else, schmooze the PRs, play the game'. It's a great time to be doing something different."

These publications spawn from creative hubs, like Soho members' clubs (as in the The Drawbridge) or publishing houses, as with Five Dials, or the minds of former publishing nine-to-fivers, like Anna Goodall, the editor of Pen Pusher. This handsome magazine was founded in January 2006 by Goodall, a former Phaidon Press employee and her ex-colleagues Felicity Cloake and Hape Mueller. The first issue was launched three months later, and they have since showcased up-and-coming writers and poets like John Osborne (not that one), Joe Dunthorne and Luke Kennard.

"A lot of people who work in publishing are dissatisfied," says Goodall. "Many of us got into it thinking it would be creative, but it actually isn't, and it's frustrating because you come into close contact with a lot of people who are doing creative jobs, and that can be quite annoying. So some friends and I had an idea to give people an outlet. The first issue was mostly our friends. It was saddle-stitched; it wasn't photocopied but it had that kind of look." Goodall convinced Ricky Wilson, lead singer of Kaiser Chiefs and, lesser known, a talented graphic designer, to design Pen Pusher's distinctive monochrome nib logo. Such connections help the magazine target a younger audience. "It's a niche market, definitely," she continues. "It appeals to young people with an interest in literature looking to get published. People starting out aren't going to get something into The Paris Review." That said, at least two of its former contributors – Pia Chatterjee and Nikesh Shukla – have gone on to secure agents and publishing deals directly as a result of appearing in Pen Pusher.

Indeed, the editors of these fledgling organs claim that low budgets spur inventiveness. While Five Dials' inaugural issue contained an 1852 letter from Flaubert to Louise Colet, the first in a series of "exemplar letters", in more recent times it has juxtaposed articles on gangster rap with more high-brow fare. "It's good to try to challenge the more established magazines," says Taylor. "They don't always deserve to be there. You need newer titles with new ideas; there needs to be movement in that world. We are trying to show you can still have Susan Sontag alongside NWA, a huge mix of writers and topics. At worst, people aren't reading literary magazines because they don't think they're fun. We have to hustle and the stakes aren't as high. A lot of the more traditional magazines are wedded to a certain aesthetic and it's fun not having to pay attention."

Litro is similarly democratic. Its inaugural editor, south London resident Mike Fell, launched the magazine in 2005 as a folded sheet of photocopied paper with a single story that he distributed on Friday mornings outside Tube stations. It is now owned by the publishing house Ocean Media, after Fell met the company's publisher, Eric Akoto, at a London book fair. The free magazine is now distributed monthly in print and online, containing four or five short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Recent contributors have included writers, novelists and playwrights such as Etgar Keret, Benjamin Zephaniah, Glyn Maxwell and Yiyun Li. "It's about the shape of a brochure and has a few ads every time; that's how we survive," says editor Sophie Lewis. "It's not over-slick, but is attractive and it has hidden depths."

Inventiveness comes in the selection of words and design, as well as the marriage between them. This is especially true of Popshot, founded in October 2008 by 22-year-old Jacob Denno, which has full-page illustrations and modern typography. Published twice a year, it mixes illustration, design and contemporary poetry. The latest edition contains the work of poets Jack Stannard (Vogue thinks he's someone to watch this year) and Inua Ellams, fresh from a one-man-show at the National Theatre, as well as Helen Mort (five-times Foyle Young Poets of the Year winner).

"When we first had the idea of creating Popshot, we wanted to reach an audience that many of the poetry magazines weren't reaching," says Denno. "Personally, I have a strong interest in poetry and I still find it hard to stomach those poetry magazines that continue to print pages upon pages of poetry in Times New Roman on book paper stock. Design plays a gigantic part in packaging up something as more desirable. The process of breaking up a text with photographs, illustrations or even just well-placed paragraph breaks, can make it so much easier to digest. We are more likely to pay attention to a publication, a product or even a person, if they are packaged well. This is even more applicable when it comes to poetry or literature, which in the past have largely overlooked design. In order to engage with younger audiences, poetry and literature has to think about how to present itself. In my opinion the old phrase 'don't judge a book by its cover' is absolute nonsense. Always judge a book by its cover."

Whatever their eventual success, all of these magazines embrace, rather than eschew, new technologies – something some of the old guard within the literary world are keen to avoid. Most of them have well-designed websites wholeheartedly vaunting their connections to social networking in order to aid subscriptions and spoken-word events – at music festivals and at one-offs – which help to boost their readership. "The flexibility is pretty cool," concludes Taylor. "I read some things on an iPhone and it's fine but it's not like I'm only going to read things on there. There's a false divide in people's minds between electronic and paper and it's just not the case. People read in different ways at different times. You read on the Tube in one way; in bed another. There is a better way of not preaching to people that the revolution is going to leave them behind." The same could be said for the fiction itself. If it's unpretentious, flexible, accessible and young – is there anything not to like?

New Word Order: The Hot Lit List


Each issue is organised around an appropriate theme, like "community" or "travel". Founding editor Melanie Venables set up the magazine last year on a small budget with a spoken-word launch event. A biannual publication, the first issue came out in December, the latest is available now from independent bookshops for a suggested donation of £2. It features poetry, reportage, fiction and illustration. The next issue contains pieces on wild-flower erotica, translations of the diaries of a Hungarian writer living in Paris in the 1930s, and an article on Voyager Syndrome, or mental disorders related to travel.


A Scottish new-writing magazine, founded in August 2009 by its current co-editors Adrian Searle and Colin Begg, both graduates of the University of Glasgow's Masters in creative writing. 'Gutter' is £5.99 per issue and is published twice a year. It contains new fiction – short stories, novel extracts – poetry and irreverent cartoons from writers and illustrators either born or living in Scotland. It just enjoyed a sell-out showcase at Glasgow literary festival Aye Write!, while in April Alan Bissett, author of 'Death of a Ladies' Man' and multi-tasking performer, hosted an evening at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The Drawbridge

Set up in 2006 by a group of friends who regularly socialise at the Soho literary drinking den Blacks. The magazine is £2.90, and is quarterly. It showcases short stories, essays, photographs and drawings dedicated to a different theme – recent choices have been "ego", "horror", "silence" and "first love". It takes the format of a full-colour newspaper (though doesn't have any news or reviews). Recently, contributor Etgar Keret interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer as part of Jewish Book Week.


'Ambit', while not new, still wields influence over younger agenda-setting magazines. Founded in 1959 by Dr Martin Bax, it once held a competition to find the best story or poem written under the influence of drugs and had its funding revoked as a result (in the end, the winning piece was penned by a woman on the contraceptive pill). Published quarterly, each issue of 'Ambit' costs £7 for 96 pages, roughly a third poetry, prose and illustrations each.

Alumni range from William Burroughs to Jonathan Lethem; poetry has been contributed by Fleur Adcock, Peter Porter and Judy Brown. J G Ballard's late 1960s condensed novels first appeared in 'Ambit'; Carol Ann Duffy also edited the poetry pages while Eduardo Paolozzi and David Hockney have had their art published on its pages.

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