Popshot 18: The Light Issue

Popshot is a literary magazine that you can buy in WH Smiths, pretty much any WH Smiths as far as my limited investigation shows. Apart from Granta, it’s the only literary magazine I’ve seen in the wild, outside specialist bookshops. It’s an impressive achievement.

They’ve done it by making all the content accessible. There is very little formal experiment here and no wrestling with big or new ideas. Instead there’s honest and unshowy storytelling and poetry that deliberately eschews the esoteric. (The website cites Adrian Mitchell: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’.) But relying on craft is demanding. It can be easier to shock or baffle. And a couple of writers come unstuck, signposting twists, or constructing stories around central events that don’t make much sense or require bizarre motivations.

It’s a very visual magazine. Popshot is striking with its bold, saturated colours. Every piece carries an illustration in the colourful and graphic house style. It ‘pops’ on the shelf, and I’m sure this helped with the sell-in. Seventeen illustrators are featured. The quality varies but is generally high. The images complement the text without being too intrusive, and they welcome the reader to the stories – accessibility again – making them seem less threatening.

The theme of this issue 18 is ‘Light’, and Rhys Timson’s ‘Last Light’ is full of it: reflected in the jewels of an engagement ring, winking as the sun sets over distant mountains, gleaming judgementally from a phone screen. It’s a well-constructed story about a fraudster selling boxes which trap the light from special moments in people’s lives. I had some problem with the believability of being able to hoodwink many people with that. The resolution, a moment of self-understanding and decision, is obtained too easily, but it’s an engaging piece. The illustration by Nick Taylor is great.

‘New Land’ by James Hatton is a reimagining of the British Antarctic Expedition’s Northern Party in 1912. An unexpected and repressed passion wakes in the frozen wilderness. It’s meticulously researched. I loved the description of a sea turning ‘suddenly sluggish with ice.’ It feels as if Hatton is a bit hemmed in by real events, so there’s no dramatic scene where emotions are expunged, just a sort of very British getting on with it. Fittingly, the writing is reserved but confident. The ending is brought to a nice point, looking poignantly forwards and back at this defining episode in the men’s lives. There’s a terrific illustration by Bren Luke, the best in the issue.

‘A Common Message’ by Chồn Lười occupies a single page but manages to pivot twice. What seems like a moment of mass hysteria and irrationality, a parable of dependence on technology, turns in a moment and becomes deeply rational, urgent and very human.

‘In the Place of Our Parents’ by Ethan Chapman is a confusing and disturbing piece about anxiety and loss. It’s never quite clear what’s going on, except that the parents have disappeared and the children are left to fend for themselves. They drift in and out of activities, meet up with other parentless children, go to school. There’s no plot or resolution, but the oppressive and threatening mood is maintained throughout. (I actually found myself looking nervously around the room while I read. I felt that something horrible was about to happen just outside the frame of the story.)

AM Kennedy’s ‘Luminescent’ was the best of the poetry, full of wild imagery and ambiguities.

Popshot has no notes on contributors; instead there are writer’s endnotes that aren’t very enlightening. It would be nice to know who these writers are and where we could find more of their work.

There’s some nice writing in Popshot, but nothing spectacular. That’s the risk of accessibility and playing things straight. But it’s a solid magazine, well-edited and very well presented. Get yourself down to WH Smiths.


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