Farewell to literary magazines

Translation, 2005.02

Two literary magazines bid goodbye this year. Eslite Reader (诚品好读), published by Taiwan's Eslite Bookstore, published its final issue in April before what it calls a temporary hiatus, And Translation (译文), published by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, will call it quits at the end of the year.

Neither magazine has been around long enough to become an institution. Eslite Reader launched in April 2000 (its previous incarnation, Eslite Book Review, lasted from 1992 to 1996), while Translation started in 2001. But their deaths, even if temporary, have brought about yet another round of hand-wringing over the decline of literary culture.

Eslite had the good manners to inform its readers in a notice from the editorial department that hinted at future plans

The rise of the Internet and Web 2.0 have quickly replaced unidirectional communication of information. As a print media entity that has run for a number of years, Eslite Reader is carefully considering new media possibilities. To make preparations and to plan as early as possible, we choose to put the magazine on hiatus with this issue and to say "goodbye" to readers.

Translation's shut down, on the other hand, had been rumored for weeks before the Jiefang Daily finally verified the news in a 29 April report, writing, "The subscription and editorial departments finally confirmed: Translation will cease publication at the end of the year. This news has not yet been publically announced, but it is basically fixed."

The paper speculated that the price of paper had something to do with the decision to shut down the magazine:

Opinions diverged on the notion that economic concerns had caused Translation's shutdown. Some said that literary magazines' pure drive for profit was a shame, while many other netizens expressed understanding: "You can't look toward a small group or collective to sacrifice their own interests for the betterment of society."

An informed individual said that this is the year for literary magazines to close down. First there was Eslite Reader at the beginning of the year, and now Translation is coming to the end of a sentence.

At the beginning of 2008, the news that the price of paper had gone up permeated through the publishing world, with periodicals reacting several months later than the book market. The price of paper for an ordinary 320-page, 16mo book would rise 1.8 yuan, and when a magazine like Translation is no thinner than the average book, that means that the contracting marketplace for pure literature comes under even more pressure. An employee of Xinhua Bookstores said that that the rising price of paper won't have very much effect on the book market: "If someone really likes a book, a mere two yuan won't be enough to dissuade them from buying it." But for a periodical, a price adjustment is a long-term measure that has implications for general planning and market positioning.

Of the purely literary magazines run under the auspices of Shanghai Translation Publishing House, Window on the World (世界之窗) ended a few years ago, and with this shut down of Translation, it is left with just the parent magazine, Foreign Arts (外国文艺).

But the newspaper also reported that Translation was not easy for readers to obtain:

In the conversation on STPH's online BBS, readers reacted calmly to the news of Translation's shut-down. Many people said that the magazine was as difficult to buy at the newsstand as the similarly-positioned World Literature (世界文学). If you wanted to read it, you could either subscribe or use the online e-magazine version. One netizen said, "I went to two provincial capitals but couldn't find it."

Translation had run the annual Casio Translation Contest for four years. The event was intended to bring up a new generation of literary translators, but no grand prize was ever awarded.

Eslite Reader, 2008.04

Writing for Beijing's China Times, Nanshan Li paints a rather depressing picture of literary review magazines, comparing the fate of Eslite Reader to the death and resurrection of Read magazine a few years ago:

The Eslite Reader hiatus can't help but bring to mind the closure and restart of Read.

In 2001, Read came out under an urban, middle-class banner, as China's New Yorker, extolling the beauty of writing and ideas. Reading each issue was, for people of my generation, a beautiful reminiscence. City columns by Du Li and Jie Chen, nostalgic articles by Bei Dao, avant-garde original fiction, and its natural, elegant prose and relaxed tone all made this a magazine worth rereading. But four years later, Read shut down for want of funds. At the urging of the readership and the intellectual community, it resumed publication half a year later. The new publication [now known in English as Book Town] proclaimed, "Sketching out what we envision as good writing: it would be knowledgeable but not shallow, interesting but not forced, opinionated but not vulgar; and knowledge knows no east or west, interest covers both home and abroad, and opinions are neither left nor right." The ubiquitous Yu Qiuyu became editor-in-chief. Even if old readers had criticisms of the new magazine, for a publication possessing an independent voice unfettered by advertisers to return from the death and continue living was good fortune that all book-lovers could cheer. So we should not be too demanding; all that we ask is for it to continue to improve, that as it provides items of interest, it also continues to keep the spark of ideas aflame.

Though we may be separated by a vast distance, the hearts of all readers are as one: we sincerely hope that Eslite Reader can return as early as possible. Even if it returns like Read, that is still cause for rejoicing. Apart from increasing prices and advertising problems, book industry insiders believe that the decline of Taiwan's book industry is one major reason for the end of Eslite.

The downward slide of the industry directly leads to a drop in sales and a decline in book buyers. In this climate, a magazine like Eslite Reader, based on book reading, will naturally find it hard to buck this trend. And actually, it's not just Taiwan: the mainland's book industry is in swift decline, too. There are fewer and fewer good books, and book magazines don't have a bright future.

Daisaku Ikeda once said, "Without reading books, people will not only become superficial but they will be left behind by the forward march of society." It seems that thin sheets of paper actually bear the weight of human civilization. Reading is not just for the acquisition of knowledge; even more, it is conditioning for the soul. Humanity's limited energy determines the following reality: we can try our whole lives, but there is no guarantee that we'll be able to read all the good books in the world by ourselves. So let us leave the work of selecting and introducing good books to magazines like Book Town and Eslite Reader. For if books are the ladder to human progress, then literary review magazines are like the finely-crafted handrail on that ladder, giving us unexpected pleasures as we climb. For the sake of those pleasures, let us preserve and protect that handrail.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Farewell to literary magazines.

Comments on Farewell to literary magazines

I am not surprised at the demise of any of these three publications (including "Read), tho' I have been a longtime if occasional reader.

Some, perhaps many, would put their lack of commercial success down to a public that reads less and less. In fact, I find it hard to find a place to sit or stand at the bigger bookstores in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai. There are people everywhere, particularly sitting on the ground, and they ARE reading.

My view of "Read," "Eslite Reader" and "Translation" is that they were products which were not commercially viable because of their content, not because readers aren't reading or are no longer interested in book reviews or intellectually stimulating writing about books.

To wit:

--- "Read" was a snobby literary magazine written by and for Shanghainese. I often bought the magazine, intrigued by the titles of several of the articles, only to find the editing and the writing to be faux intellectual. No meat. And why should people in other cities which don't have Shanghai's colonial history get off on such fluff? People in Guangzhou don't read much of the patriotic rubbish that passes for social commentary in Beijing, either.

--- "Eslite Reader" was once a truly satisfying read for those of who like to read books, particularly history and fiction, but will settle for a tightly penned book review when there just isn't enough time to read the book in question. I marveled a few years ago at how intelligent the magazine seemed, and have never seen anything that enlightening here on the mainland. But I read two issues over the last few months, and it read more like the trendy Guangzhou-based 城市 magazine than a magazine about books, reading and the like. There was just so much rubbish about items like what kids in Harajuku were buying to wear and which portable personal electronics one simply must purchase. This is, to me, a magazine that lost focus by trying to be too hip, too cool.

--- "Translation" is the only one of the three that may have lost out to books per se. The editors never seem to have the guts or the foresight to focus on one or two main themes in a single edition, e.g., Japanese detective stories or French authors writing about lesbian romance, etc. Month after month it seemed just a hodgepodge of whatever they wanted to translate, and the level of translated writing was often pretty poor. I'll bet a lot of their readers nowadays just go to a bookstore and buy a translated novel which has been recommended to them.

Enjoy your coverage of the literary and publishing scene, Joel. Keep at it for all of us!

Bruce Humes

Thanks for the commentary, Bruce. Yeah, people are reading, but not everyone agrees that they're reading quality stuff: witness the uproar over the New York Times calling Guo Jingming "China's most successful author." He is, financially-speaking, but people don't think he deserves the title.

I always liked Read's covers, and once in a while an article would be interesting. But that's a problem with lots of magazines today, not just literary reviews. I buy Phoenix Weekly every issue, but the reporting rarely lives up to the cover design. Here on the mainland I never had the good fortune to read Eslite.

The mainland market for translations seems to work much in the same way you describe Translation's editing: a lot of it is random publication of whatever they have on hand.

These days, I keep tabs on lots of blogs that do reviews, many of which I've found through Douban, and that's all well and good, as far as it goes. but it's rare that I'll come across a truly satisfying piece of criticism. Be sure to let me know if you have any good leads.

I usually visit 译言.

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