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Bibliophile for all seasons

If you get to the end of the bewildering classic, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by the Jewish-Serbian writer Danilo Kis, you will see a line in one of the short stories that goes: “To write one must have more than big balls.” It’s a sentence that is apt for summing up the duo of Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and ­Oliver Barstow, the team behind the art publishing company Fourthwall Books.

Law-Viljoen isn’t just a publisher and art critic. She is also working on a novel, is head of the creative writing course at the University of the Witwatersrand and recently opened a bookshop called Edition, which she describes as “a project of Fourthwall Books”.

But why that name for a bookshop? “We want to make reference to things that are made in limited editions; particular iterations of a thing,” she says.

As the cords of philistinism tighten around us, Law-Viljoen’s pursuits are the kind that only the bloody-minded and, shall we say, ballsy would engage in. The bookshop can be found at the shopping compound 44 Stanley Avenue, in Milpark, Johannesburg. (Coincidentally, at the time she opened Edition, two good bookshops shut down in Johannesburg.)

Fourthwall Books, which is in its second year, has published 10 books so far. Its most recent efforts have included the weighty catalogue to artist Terry Kurgan’s multimedia project, Hotel Yeoville, that examines the lives of immigrant Africans living there.

“We wanted the book not to replicate but represent the complexity of what had happened,” she says of the endeavour. “What we have always wanted to do is to create books that are beautiful objects; books that demonstrate a collaboration between publisher and artist.”

Law-Viljoen is something of a publishing veteran — she was a managing editor at David Krut Publishing and is the editor of the glossy quarterly magazine Art South Africa.  

“Isn’t it foolhardy opening a bookshop at this time?” I ask her.

“Publishing isn’t dying. What’s changing is the way we read books, the way we distribute books. If you are publishing fiction, there is no reason not to publish an e-book. There are art publishers who are publishing on iPads. We are exploring that. We know there are people who love the physical object.

“We’ll continue to produce beautiful books in smaller numbers, not thousands — things people want to own and collect. The way things are going, there is an opening for that.”

Indeed there is, especially if you see yourself as a curator on the trawl for “unusual books, not [tomes] that you can buy anywhere”, she says. “We intend stocking books around a theme and then have an event and invite people.”

Fiction factory
Apart from stocking beautiful book-objects, Edition also sells library ladders, special reading lamps and related biblioparaphernalia. The book bling is designed and made by The Library, a production and design company involved in a number of public art and related heritage works in the city of Johannesburg.

In the second part of our interview, we harp on about creative writing and her duties at Wits. I wade carefully into it: Law-Viljoen is a Rhodes- and New York University-educated scholar and she has been at the institution since mid-2011.

The late Chinua Achebe was dismissive about creative writing programmes. “The only thing I can say for it is that it provides work for writers,” he once said. “Don’t laugh! It’s very important. I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times.”

And then there is that other maxim: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” or, I might add, enrol at university to be taught how to do it. The result, some have said, is rote books, churned out from some fiction factory as if from a giant conveyor belt.

“Creative writing programmes generate a lot of debate and scepticism,” says Law-Viljoen. “Why should someone do a master of arts in writing? Why not just write a novel?

“What it does give you is structure. It’s very difficult now for people to do nothing else except read and write unless you are already an established writer. People have to survive, they have children, they have jobs. So what the programme does is give you a lot of feedback, discipline and focus.”

Fruit of a Poisoned Tree by Antony Altbeker is the celebrated result of Wits’s creative programme.

Law-Viljoen is aware of the criticism that creative writing programmes “are producing the same kind of writing”. “I am conscious of the dangers. We try to vary who comes into the programme, who teaches. We allow students to experiment as much as possible and not to write in the way I expect them to.”

As editor of Art South Africa, her creative writing and pedagogical impulses have found an outlet. “I have tried to bring in new writers and steer the writing [away] from an overly academic approach. This doesn’t mean we have gone for an easy kind of writing. I always say to my writers: ‘Do the research, do the thinking and all the hard work but, when you write, do it in an enjoyable way.’ I want them to write essays, not academic papers.”

I mention that, by most accounts, Eusebius McKaiser’s collection of essays, A Bantu in My Bedroom, has done well. Law-Viljoen says the essay form is “under-represented” in South Africa and that there isn’t a market for the genre. “I would like to see more people write essays; it’s a form that lends itself to experimentation.”

And she has been experimenting at Art South Africa. She is clear about the identity of the magazine as a visual art platform but was taken aback by the compartmentalised thinking shown by some of her readers.

“When I started publishing music pieces, some of the feedback I got was: ‘Why are you doing this in art magazine?’

“This is not just typical of visual artists: compartmentalisation is extant throughout the arts. The next statement is quite sweeping but, in my observation, novelists don’t seem to go to gallery openings, visual artists don’t go to the theatre, and ­theatre practitioners don’t frequent literary events.”

The mother of a three-year-old, Law-Viljoen has a robotic schedule in which she, daily and shortly after 5am, also walks her two dogs “come rain or shine”.  

Only the doggedly disciplined can maintain such a routine, but discipline and guts are two ingredients she will need if she is to make a success of her bookshop.

As things stand, Jo’burger’s are fortunate to have one more place at which to explore creative construction.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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