An irrational history of failure
Sean O’Toole

Is it too early for Adjective to be self-reflexive? Probably. Does this mean it shouldn’t be? Hell no. Here, at the outset of its indeterminate journey, self-awareness is crucial. It helps distinguish this little magazine about art from its peers, all those other little magazines out there negotiating our collective post-paper future. Self-awareness, far from implying a kind of grandiosity then, is an expression of modesty.

Anyway, now that I’ve cleared my proverbial throat and lost the readers I don’t want, to the business at hand: Nadine Gordimer. I know, I know. But for those who don’t know, here, in lieu of a hyperlink, a brief introduction to the superstar from Springs. In a nutshell: short, irritable, a prolific writer of staccato sentences, a kind of guide dog to New Yorker readers wanting a telescopic view of South Africa, an art lover, married to William Kentridge’s first dealer, Reinhold Cassirer.

In 1980, roundabout the time another Springs’ original, musician James Phillips, was freaking out the mense with his band Corporal Punishment, Gordimer wrote an obituary to paper. Bound, typeset paper used to deliver mostly poetry. I say obituary partly because of what’s happened since – you know, the internet – but really what Gordimer produced was a homage to the little magazine.

It’s worth quoting her words, published in the little magazine Contrast, at length. While they speak about a long ago past, they kind of anticipate and sort of encompass Adjective, its ambitions to be something, something meaningful.

“Little magazines – as literary magazines are patronizingly or endearingly called – are where most of us are published for the first time. I don’t know how writers would ever get started without them,” begins Gordimer. No news in this. What distinguishes Gordimer’s homage to little magazines like Izwi, Ophir, Wurm, The Bloody Horse and Staffrider is what she says later on.

But first an expanded introduction to Gordimer, that partisan chronicler of late bourgeois manners in the white republic. “My little magazines – in which my early writings were published – were South African Opinion, Trek, Vandag and Commonsense.” The latter little magazine, Commonsense, was edited by, among others, poet Charles Eglington. In 1960, with the support of Walter Battiss, Eglington co-founded and co-edited the art magazine Fontein. This little magazine, with its shameless focus on art, lasted just two issues. Which, if we’re counting, is one more than Ivor Powell’s Art Ventilator, the first little art magazine of the post-1994 enlightenment.

So many dead magazines. A realist might wander, “What’s the point? Why bother?” Gordimer’s little essay about littleness is all about countering this pessimism. Little magazines, she writes, are known for their “individual ephemerality”. They are, you could say, hardwired for failure. Ropey economics and unpaid overtime is not, as the history of little magazines has proven, a viable business model. But beyond the cool clarity of logic resides a foggy principle, call it refusal in the face of the obvious: failure and oblivion.

I wrote that Gordimer was crotchety. She was. Her voice rang sharp and precise through a melee of people at the Joburg Art Fair: “Get out the way!” She wanted to see a wood sculpture by Stefanus Rademeyer (remember him?) I was parked in front of. A year or three later she stonewalled me at a Goodman Gallery talk I was asked to chair with her and David Goldblatt. To be fair my questions lingered on the finer details of 1970s union politics at Durban harbour. Her response was to quote from the liberation songbook. You know its lyrics: “Sophiatown, Huddleston, Themba … blah, blah, blah.”

But we all have our public masks to hide our private faces. Sitting, I presume, thinking about her early days as a writer, about the long-dead magazines on which she had built her career, Gordimer in 1980 elegantly reframed what failure means in the bantamweight division of publishing. “Each little magazine supersedes another,” writes Gordimer, “and it is the strength of the species, not the weakness”. But it is this sentence that really pops like a Matty Roodt sunset for me: “little magazines, known for their individual ephemerality, are an unkillable rabbit-family of effort and optimism.”

In these convulsive times, when tradition is being re-examined, rewritten and redefined, summoning the ghost of long dead little magazines staffed by whities high on adjectives and the avant-garde might seem like really super-retrograde. What posh folks in the embattled academy call revanchism. Yes, there’s always that risk. But even novelty – shutting down a university, writing jive-ass commentary about art for a start-up magazine – has a tradition. It might be a weak tradition, prone to failure, recrimination and, in the case of little magazines, bad grammar, but it is eternally optimistic and fundamentally “unkillable”.

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