April 01, 2020
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To Look At The World, And Be Looked At

What does it take to retain a magazine’s identity, sustain reader interest? A lot more than platitudes. An 18-point call to action

To Look At The World, And Be Looked At
Anjolie Ela Menon
To Look At The World, And Be Looked At

Outlook turns 18 in an environment of great uncertainty. The world is full of stories that need telling; it’s full of mysteries that need unpacking. A country like India, in the midst of a great transition, needs its chroniclers, analysts and witnesses. That there is intellectual space for a great magazine is beyond doubt. But whether such magazines can survive the twin pressures of democratisation of knowledge and the challenging nature of business models is another question. Arguably, the uncertainty around the magazine form is so great that it is hard to interpret what 18 means. Is 18 a sign of old age, the beginning of the end? Or is it merely infancy or perhaps adolescence? It would be foolish for someone who has no sense of business to even begin to answer this question. Good readers hope that if you build it, they will come; that if the content of the magazine is compelling, some way will be found to pay for it. But alas this is a profession where self-belief is easily belied by commercial reality. It is also presumptuous for any outsider to suggest a manifesto for a magazine. After all, the successful ones usually have a distinct identity that is a product of a happy match between owners, editors, professionals. And a manifesto makes sense only in the context of that identity. But insofar as any publication of this sort, particularly in a democratic society, is a mediator of a public conversation, a manifesto can be structured around the context the magazine faces as a voice in a democratic conversation. Eighteen points for an institution that is 18:

Window into Outlook The team at work. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)

  • There are a lot of people trying to change the world. There are too few who can interpret it well. This inversion of a line from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach is not an exciting call to arms. But it is the only one that captures the essence of the vocation of writing. The more self-importance you accord to yourself as an agent of change, the more likely you are to mask a will to power. The more transformative your ambition, the more likely it is that you will stop bearing witness. The more you believe that understanding the world is easy, changing it is hard, the more you will abridge reality, falsify it and truncate it. Some people ought to be changing the world. But that is not the primary ambition or comparative advantage of a magazine at 18. The illusion that you are in the business of changing the world can be even more corrupting than money. Change often comes indirectly.
  • You have to believe that the truth is interesting. So many publications in India complain of the trade-off between being interesting and being true, as it were. There is, on this view, a disjunction between what it takes to draw the reader in and what it takes to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So a little licence here, a little embellishment there, a little tearing out of context here and there is necessary. Indian journalists are blessed with a country whose capacity to excite is legendary. Truth itself can be interesting, in a manner of speaking.
  • Credibility is difficult to attain, but easy to lose, and once lost, harder to recover. The single biggest challenge for those who produce truth is maintaining credibility. In a culture where people are more adept at reading subtexts than texts, in a commercial environment mired with conflicts of interest, attaining credibility is hard.
  • Capture the diversity of human experience, its unexpected twists and turns. A magazine is like a world with a place for everything: the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the privileged, the good and the evil, the logical and the absurd, the old and the young, the possibility of a future and the weight of the past. Nothing is more off-putting than a magazine with only one shade of human existence, or history in one note.
  • Writing, writing, writing. The only mantra a magazine has to recite and keep reciting over and over. But how this mantra works is, of course, a more complicated question.
  • Thou shalt not condescend to readers. There is no reason to overly romanticise readers; a democracy has souls of all hues. But the world of letters, more often than not, underestimates the intelligence of its audience.
  • The number of words a story requires depends on what a well-told story can bear. Story-writing is not a numbercrunching exercise.
  • Edit to preserve the individuality of a voice, not to homogenise it. There are two types of editors. One, those who edit to make writers better at what they do; the process of editing allows writers to present a better version of who they are. Two, there are those who follow editing protocols that make all writers sound as if they were following a single template. The magazine is meant to facilitate writing, not swallow it.
  • Depth is not a function of length. A phrase may reveal more than a tome. Depth is the quality of mind a writer brings to his work.

    Multiple partialities is not the same thing as objectivity. In a democracy or in any story, it is usually a good idea to make sure all issues and points of view have been considered. But a mere presentation of different points of view is not objectiv­ity. In an age where everyone’s opinion is a little too read­ily available, it is not clear that reproducing multiple opinions makes the magazine interesting. The Indian media seems to think its commitment to objectivity is over simply because it got opposing sides to air their views. Credible mediation requires the ability to sift through opinion.

  • Do not give an answer to a question before the question has been asked. In India so many publications take about half minute to read because you can predict in advance what they will say, no matter what the subject, what the facts, what the context. There is fide­lity to prejudgement, to unexamined assumptions, to comfortable conclusions, that creates a virtual world of its own. This preconceived world is trotted out as if truth is a matter of rehearsing one’s own truisms.
  • The magazine is one element in a chain of public reason. This may seem like a banal truism, but it does have implications for the ethics of argumentation and story-telling. It does require the fairest possible reconstruction of all arguments, not the caricatured knocking down of straw men. William James once complained of Henry Sidgwick, “No one has a right to be this fair to opponents.” Even in sheltered academic environments, this is hard. Being fair in a politically charged culture is even harder. But someone has to do that hard labour.
  • The partisanship towards values should not be mistaken for partisanship towards parties and people. Any magazine will not just embody certain values. In a democratic society, it will try and uphold those values: perhaps secularism, toleration, human rights. But it is a big mistake to think that the friends and enemies of these values neatly map onto particular parties and individuals. A defence of a democratic value does not automatically imply the defence of a particular party.
  • A magazine can grow only if the surrounding liberal ecosystem flourishes. But a liberal ecosystem has more components than simply freedom of expression. You cannot have a liberal culture in society where values are largely instrumental. It is one of the paradoxes of the Indian public sphere that, as that society has grown richer, it seems, on the surface, it has even less space for all the values that elevate us. Indian poets write without critical contexts, books are noticed more than reviewed, art is more an occasion for bad writers to put out their opinions than an occasion for serious engagement, and there is little serious science writing in India. A liberal culture cannot flourish without a liberal critical context. Politics and economics will reflect the coarseness of power if no accessible space for higher engagement remains.
  • Sometimes it is about the numbers. Public discussion would be much enriched, stories would have more bite if they took on board the idea that numeracy is not the enemy of narrative. To what extent is a story representative? What is the evolution of the story over time? Is something an average tendency or an exception? A magazine is in the business of representing reality, and sometimes numbers are crucial to that representation. Of course, numbers have to be handled carefully. Very few in Indian journalism do. The crisis of two cultures in our public sphere is between those who think numbers matter and those who don’t.
  • Depth is not a function of length. Too many Indian publications complain that the reason there is often less depth in the stories is paucity of space. This argument has the point backwards. A phrase, a sentence, a paragraph can have more depth and reveal more than a tome. Depth is the quality of mind and writing you bring to a subject.
  • The hardest quality to cultivate is judgement. Public journalism is full of clever and articulate people; it also has great detectives and researchers. But the ability to consistently display good judgement about what is important and how to convey it is more difficult. The art of “all things considered” judgements is rarely achieved.
  • The measure of success is if a story lingers and provokes thought. If a story does not tell you something you do not know, if it does not make you think, it has at one level failed. A good magazine should not confuse outrage with thinking, mere facts with stories, taking positions with analysis.
  • Never forget to party. If nothing else, an 18-year-old certainly deserves the birthday cake!

(Mehta is a political commentator.)

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