Do Magazines Culture?
All growth is a result of freedom. A culture grows or is restricted depending largely on how hospitable it is to ideas from outside, or how freely it delves into itself, renovating traditional insights into a contemporary diction.
A culture is also a state of constant and often unrelated activity: dynamism and culture are two words often paired together and are a measure of the health and growth of a culture. Another way of looking at culture is to see how susceptible it is to prejudice, in any form— how resistant it is too uncritical acceptance of “accepted ideas,” or, on the other hand, how easily it succumbs to any idea which is negatively propounded, i.e. one that is accompanied by fanaticism or dogmatism in its believers.
A very good measure of a culture is indeed in its ability to take apart or neutralize a negative dogmatism. To illustrate this further, one could perhaps divide cultures into two categories: do-cultures and don’t-cultures.
Do-cultures are permissive, experimental, vigorous, and challenging. They attract attention and other experimenters. They absorb a great deal of technique from outside their orbits and use it for their own ends, They are new and yet they operate with a base of traditional certitude in human relations. They are not in a state of anarchy. Quite a lot of “new” cultures exhibit all the qualities just listed but do not qualify as real cultures because their source of activity consists in the generation of anarchy and disorder, which is covered with a sheen of government radicalness (say, in economic policies) and is mistaken by outsiders as indicative of dynamism when, in fact, it is nothing but a blanketed confusion. Pseudo-do-cultures like this exist today in many countries. Anyone familiar with what is happening with the arts and letters in, say, Indonesia today will see this point. I can quote other examples nearer home, on this continent. So, to make this point clear: do-cultures are those that operate from a feeling of confidence, not insecurity or inferiority.
Don’t-cultures are simpler to define. They are censorious, opinionated, smug, complacent, and intent on preserving the “tradition,” i.e. themselves. A don’t-culture is usually indicative of a dying out phase in a particular culture, a culture at its last gasp – where a breath of fresh air will crumble the finery. There are several examples of such cultures today: India, say five years ago, although there are signs that something is at last stirring. Britain is another example: it has kept out of pace in practically every field of activity- technological, cultural, or what-have-you- with what is happening on the European continent today. There are other examples. A don’t-culture is not a permanent state of affairs but one indicating that the last term of reference has been exhausted: a new vocabulary has to be invented, and the boundaries of definitions extended.
There is a second type of don’t-culture. This is one in a very new country where the don’ts are spelled out in large capitals and where a government or a society is vigorously insistent on the things that cannot or must not be done. Such societies may have carefully planned policies in every field of activity, and much precision is exhibited in the policies being carried out. But in any country where planning is synonymous with progress, and the word “planning” takes on a mystical inevitability, it naturally becomes extended to cover the fields of the arts and culture. The stakes here are too great to allow for a “planned state of disorder”, where healthy infusions of money and facilities are offered to the practitioners and they are left to go and create. The artists and creators must, it will be felt, be given directions and shown how they should mobilize their activity to social good, or the country’s good, or what is usually more often the case, the Party’s good. When this happens you naturally also have a long list of unwritten don’ts. There are a number of things you cannot do or glorify, or only at the risk of official disapproval or withdrawal of the facilities. A don’t– culture in this context is, then, indicative of puritanism – of a puritan culture.
Where does the literary magazine enter into this activity? At its simplest, there is one elementary guide to the role of such a magazine: does it reflect, through its pages, what is really happening or not happening (this latter is sometimes more important) in a country or continent?
True cultural activity is a subterranean process, with the main activity below the visible surface.
A literary magazine in this sense must plumb those depths, cast its net deep and wide, and then exhibit the net with its writhing catch to the world outside. Once exhibited, the fish is cast back into the waters to grow until the next time. So the magazine, like a good fisherman, must know where to cast its net, know the strength and size of its net, and be wise in knowing which fish to return to the sea so that the catch may be bigger the next time. But all this is only one function of a magazine – as an exhibitor. There are many more important ones.
Magazines are also like cultures: they are do– or don’t-magazines; they are progressive, conservative, radical, puritanical, slow moving, or vigorous. At their most aware, they reflect the qualities or weaknesses of their societies; at their blindest, they are showcases for the imbecilities of their editors.
One cannot ever remove the personal factor when discussing magazines. They are physically and finally the products of their editors. There are very few other activities (excluding filmmaking) that involve the collaboration of so many diverse talents, but in which the success or failure of the end product can be laid at one door: the editor’s. Given this vulnerability from which magazines must suffer – the “human weakness” factor – what guidelines can we chart for their safe and useful journey?
Administration and Metaphysics
First, in what way should editorial neutrality assert itself? One function of the magazine is to be a mirror to its society; it is important that there are no distortions on the reflecting surface. On the other hand, nothing could be worse than a passive editorial policy that printed whatever came by because it is a true reflection of a state of affairs, usually the writer’s inability to write.For some time the Uganda Argus adopted the practice of printing letters without changing grammatical errors or faulty construction of sentences. This policy might, I suppose, be justified by the point I have just made. The letters are regarded as “amusing” and although they often make good sense despite the fractured English, I am suspicious of the motivations behind this kind of non-editing.
Taken to an extreme, editorial passiveness of this kind would mean that the editor would only print material that was sent to him because this was more “natural” than going out and forcing people to write. Editorial neutrality is perhaps best expressed as aggressive non-prejudice on the part of the editor: a willingness to see all factions of an argument and a disciplined permissiveness that allows proponents to reach the limits of their arguments or points of view. When the first issue of Transition was being prepared for the press we very deliberately included the usual sentence (almost a cliche in journal publishing): “Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the magazine.” What we hoped was that if some racist wanted intelligently to state his point of view he would be free to do so, and no false “liberal frown” on our editorial faces would deter him.
This is important: and I am not suggesting the British way-of-life “fairness” either.
An editor should be neutral but not a neuter. His acceptance of repugnant views must be determined by his ability to reply to them, and not because someone said, “always look at both sides of the story.”An amusing example of editorial sloppiness of this kind was in the Central African Examiner some years ago. Prefacing a controversial article by a non-supporter of African political aspirations, the editor wrote: “This is as good a time as any to remined our readers that opinions expressed by authors are not necessarily those of the Examiner.” An unnecessary qualification, I should have thought, and one that betrayed editorial insecurity.
Unless writers and readers sense this atmosphere of “aggressive non-prejudice” they will not be tempted to be provocative or even just plain naughty, and the kind of humor that accompanies such exaggerations of sensibilities will be markedly missing. More importantly, what might creep into the magazine’s columns is a tone of genteelness, sinister and syrupy, where everyone is quietly patting everyone else on the back. When this happens (witness Indian literary magazines), the editor might as well shut up shop and go. And if it is not specifically the editor’s fault for this state of affairs, it is indicative that the culture of that particular society is now disabled, a clutch of cripples supporting one another.
Neutrality of the kind just described also implies independence. The literary magazine is the one place where politicians need not be neurotic about their public images, and can feel free to discuss soberly and with honesty their beliefs, doctrines, and motivations. The great advantage of such a magazine is that it is never “public” in the newspaper sense, that it is essentially aimed at thinking people, and that it is uninvolved in the commercial processes and tensions that go to make newspaper headlines. This is an area where the editor must be prepared to initiate (and sometimes defend) unpopular views or views that run contrary to the public (or govermnental) feeling at the time, if he believes those views to be of major importance. An example of this is in the way different explanations are given by interested parties of the phrase “the African personality”. The politician, the writer, the trade unionist, the non-African, the critic, and the painter all have their own idea of what the African personality is. It may be all those definitions, or it may be just a cultural twitch, but it is important that such slogans be accompanied by a quiet investigation into the motivations behind the interpreters. The same can be said about African socialism.
This is one of the most important functions the magazine can play in our growing societies in Africa today. If the editor, on the other hand, feels insecure whenever the words “intellectual” or “culture” are thrown carelessly around by politicians, if he is defensive about his function and forever apologizing for his role, then of course it follows that his efforts will be practically worthless and he will soon find himself in the role of a government hack – something that every government has plenty of in its own information ministries, and needs no outside assistance in securing. This is very definitely an area where the worthiness of a magazine will be defined by its do or don’t quotient. It is also where the willingness of a government to listen to informed criticism, and to be bitten by what it feeds (if it provides assistance or subsidies), can be measured. Governments being just as human as we are, the tendencies are, of course, predictable.
From Neutrality to Continuity
How does a magazine continue from one issue to another? Does it start all afresh with a new issue or carry strands from arguments raised in previous ones? Both. One of the functions of an alert editor is to have the ability to catch the tail of side-ideas and develop them. Side-ideas are ideas dropped inadvertently from the body of another, major pursuit, which sometimes have enough germs in them to be developed and built up into something quite new and independent of their host. A writer about to embark on an article sets himself limitations, and deliberately needs to blind himself to the trailing issues that his main argument leaves. His blindness has the useful function of sometimes being to new ideas what blood is to parasites. Side-ideas are “just-born” in a fit of thoughtlessness, and the editor should here function like the obstetrician, if he thinks it is going to be a worthwhile gamble.
Ideally, therefore, a well-edited magazine should, like sour milk, be capable of perpetuating itself. One issue should have enough germs to be capable of generating another.
From Continuity to Permanence
Literary magazines in Africa are faced with burdens and responsibilities that their counterparts in other countries do not have to shoulder. On the one hand, they are meant to be alive, alert, gay, and (we hope) sometimes frivolous, casually and uninhibitedly recording the lyricisms and laments of their times. On the other hand, like the eldest son of a family where the father has suddenly died, they have to show maturity and responsibility. This responsibility is in the area of publishing which might be loosely termed “documentation”. The literary magazine in Africa has a responsibility to record what has previously gone unnoticed. It has to print what was previously only spoken. Obvious examples would be the transcription of folk songs and myths. It has therefore the dual role of conserver as well as initiator in the cultural context of the country in which it is operating.
When a literary magazine begins to become predictable in its views or the selection of writers – when, in fact, it becomes a house organ for a stable of chosen writers to the exclusion of others – it has reached its middle age and will cease to attract the vitalities of youthful writers and creators. They will begin to look elsewhere, or start magazines of their own which will reflect their tempo and mores more accurately.
Finally, a word about the audience. In many ways Africa is perhaps one of the most fortunate continents in this respect. It depends on and demands the many-faceted talents of its young administrators, professionals, and creators. There are no strict categories into which people are categorized or conditioned. The cultural elite of Africa should be – and often is – made up of men who can approach with equanimity the demands made by an intricate piece of poetry and the subtleties of unknotting the threads of political factionalism. A magazine that is not petty or miserly in this sense will have the largest interest-value for these readers, and will demonstrate implicitly that it does not underestimate either the intelligence or the range of an intelligent person’s interests. If it only performs the one function of catering fully to the intellectual needs of Africa’s new men, it will have justified its role in existing at this time, in this century, in what is almost certainly an era of a cultural and spiritual renaissance.
In discussing specifically what a literary magazine should be, I have taken a roundabout route of showing how and where it plays its role in developing a culture.
If, as we stated at the beginning, the main cultural movements of a society are submerged and not visible from the surface, then it follows that both observers of and participants in that culture are also unable to see the full nature and range of that activity. A good literary magazine is like a blind man’s stick. It helps you feel the way.
It can do this best if it is a do-magazine in a do-society; it can do it less well, but perhaps more significantly, if it is a do-magazine in a don’t-society. But the ultimate purpose of a literary magazine will always be to herald change, to forecast what new turn its culture and the society it represents are about to take. It will do this by sometimes allowing prejudice and temporary obsessions to be aired, by being permissive to radical innovations, and by raising these curtains at the right cue, to demonstrate the uniqueness and universality of a true culture.
|1.||↑||For some time the Uganda Argus adopted the practice of printing letters without changing grammatical errors or faulty construction of sentences. This policy might, I suppose, be justified by the point I have just made. The letters are regarded as “amusing” and although they often make good sense despite the fractured English, I am suspicious of the motivations behind this kind of non-editing.|
|2.||↑||An amusing example of editorial sloppiness of this kind was in the Central African Examiner some years ago. Prefacing a controversial article by a non-supporter of African political aspirations, the editor wrote: “This is as good a time as any to remined our readers that opinions expressed by authors are not necessarily those of the Examiner.” An unnecessary qualification, I should have thought, and one that betrayed editorial insecurity.|