EDITOR’S NOTE BY HARI KUNZRU
Ah yes, the “long delayed triumph of poetry, love, and revolution.” Just one more effort, comrades, if you would be Republicans! The thing with revolution (and the triumph of poetry) is that it involves a lot of meetings. Endless, protracted meetings. If you’re lucky, what starts in your airless office space gets carried on in the pub, because if you’re involved in a small magazine, particularly a small literary magazine devoted to some splinter or refraction of the avant-garde, then much of the pleasure of your undertaking consists in talking to your comrades, being with them, arguing with them, disagreeing passionately and agreeing even more passionately. Decisions about what goes in, what gets dropped, what is worthwhile, and what is trash are the lifeblood of a “little magazine.” Sifting material, taking positions and formulating opinions can become the main business, with any actual publication being epiphenomenal.
I know of one such project that has miraculously survived for twenty years, mutating from newspaper to perfect bound journal to website, its editorial collective running up absurd credit card bills, pitching to funders, failing to sell advertising. They have survived schisms and conflicts and ill-advised drunken hook-ups. They have conducted arguments in which the personal and the political have taken on a sort of möbius-strip complexity. They have had expulsions, attractions, fadings away: the editor who turned out to be a reactionary bohemian, whose interest in French theory didn’t prevent him from ordering another member of the collective to fetch him a sandwich; the other editor who turned out to be a sort of serial entrepreneurial fantasist, suckering people into devoting time and energy (more meetings, more pitch documents) into side projects that turned out to be purest vaporware; the two founders, a long-established couple who continued working at adjacent desks through their difficult, protracted break-up. “I don’t know if we hypnotized each other,” writes Aira. That’s exactly the feeling, the deep group dive into the abyss, the folie à collective. In “Athena Magazine,” it becomes a kind of mathematical giddiness, an endlessly-deferred consummation of special double issues. The waste of energy and time that turns out to be the most important work of all.
Author of The Impressionist
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
by César Aira, recommended by Hari Kunzru
When we were twenty, Arturito and I launched a literary magazine called Athena. With youthful enthusiasm and a fervent sense of mission, we devoted ourselves body and soul to the work of writing, layout, printing and distribution… or at least the diligent planning of those activities, the scheduling and budgeting. We knew nothing about the publishing business. We thought we knew all about literature, but were happy to confess our almost total ignorance of the concrete mechanisms that convey literature to its readers. We’d never set foot in a printing works, and didn’t have the vaguest idea of what had to happen before and after printing. But we asked and we learned. Many people gave us helpful advice, warnings, and guidance. Poets with a long experience of self-publishing, editors with ten short-lived magazines to their credit, booksellers and publishers, they all made time to tell us how it worked. I guess we seemed so young to them, just a pair of kids, so keen to learn and make it happen, they must have been moved by a fatherly concern, or by the hope that our naivety would alchemically transmute their own failures, and bring about the long-delayed triumph of poetry, love, and revolution.
Of course, once we gathered all the necessary information and began to do the sums, we saw that it wouldn’t be so easy. The obstacle was economic. The rest we could manage, one way or another; we didn’t lack self-confidence. But we had to have the money. And no one was going to give it to us just like that, as we realized when our first timid appeals came up against an impenetrable barrier. In those days, there weren’t any funding bodies that you could apply to for publishing grants. Luckily, our families were well off and generous (up to a point). We had another advantage too: intrepid youth, without burdens or responsibilities, taking no thought for the far-off tomorrow. We were prepared to stake everything we had, without hesitation; that’s what we were doing all the time, in fact, because we were living from day to day.
We managed to scrape up enough money to pay for the first issue. Or we anticipated that we would have the sum when the moment came to pick up the copies from the printer. Reassured on that account, we set about gathering, organizing and evaluating the material. Since our ideas and tastes coincided, there were no arguments. We let our imaginations run wild, invented new provocations, discovered new authors, laid claim to the forgotten, translated our favorite poets, composed our manifestos.
But although we were deeply absorbed in the intellectual aspect of the enterprise, we didn’t forget about the money. Not for a moment. We couldn’t have, because everything depended on it, not just the existence of the magazine, but also its physical appearance, the number of pages, the illustrations we could include (in those days, anything other than type required the use of costly metal plates); especially the number of pages, which was essential for any calculation. At the printing works they’d given us a provisional “cost schedule” for various page sizes and numbers of pages, in different combinations. The quality of the paper, it turned out, made very little difference. There could be 32 pages, or 64, or… The printers worked with numbers of “sheets,” which was something we never fully understood. Mercifully, they simplified the choices for us. We took it on ourselves to complicate them.
We thought long and hard about the frequency of publication: monthly, biannual, triannual? Had it been simply up to us, dependent only on our zeal, we would have made it fortnightly or weekly… There was no shortage of material or enthusiasm on our part. But it all depended on the money. In the end we adopted the view of Sigfrido Radaelli, one of our obliging advisors: literary magazines came out when they could. Everyone accepted that; it was the way things were. When we accepted it ourselves, we realized that irregularity would not oblige us to give up our idea of selling subscriptions. All we had to do was change the formula from a period of time (“yearly subscription”) to a number of issues (“subscription for six issues”).
Recounting all these details now, they seem absurdly puerile, but they were part of a learning process, and maybe a new generation is repeating those lessons today, mutatis mutandis, as the love of poetry and knowledge is eternally reborn. The prospect of having subscribers and, more generally speaking, the desire to do a good job led us into an area of greater complexity. The general perspective was important: we felt that whether or not our readers were subscribers they were entitled to a product that would continue over time. The subscribers would be more entitled, of course, because they would have paid in advance. Continuity mattered to us too. We were depressed by the mere thought that our magazine might decline or dwindle with successive issues. But we had no way to insure against it. In fact there was no guarantee that we’d even be able to get enough money to print a second issue. With admirable realism, we left sales out of our calculations. Even more realistically, we anticipated a diminution of the energy that we’d be able to devote to bothering our families and friends for money… Basically, the question was: Would we be able to bring out a second issue of Athena? And a third? And all the following issues, so as to build up a history? The answer was affirmative. If we could get the first issue out, we could get the others out as well.
I don’t know if we hypnotized each other, or were led to believe what we wanted to believe by our fervent commitment to literature, but we ended up convincing ourselves. Once we were sure our venture would continue, we felt we could indulge in some fine-tuning. Our guiding principle was a kind of symmetry. All the numbers of the magazine had to be equivalent to the others, in number of pages, amount of material, and “specific gravity.” How could we ensure that? The solution that occurred to us was curious in the extreme.
We’d noticed that literary magazines often brought out “double issues,” for example, after number 5, they’d bring out 6–7, with twice as many pages. They usually did this when they got behind, which wouldn’t be the case for us, because we’d already opted for irregularity. But it gave us an idea. Why not do it the other way around? That is, begin with a double issue, 1–2, not with double the pages, though, just the 36 we’d already decided on. That way, we’d be covered: if we had to make the second issue slimmer, it could be a single issue: 3. If, on the other hand, we maintained the same level, we’d do another double issue, 3–4, and we’d be able to go on like that as long as the magazine prospered, with the reassuring possibility of reducing the number of pages at any time, without losing face.
It must have occurred to one of us that “double” was not an upper limit; it could be “triple” too (1–2–3), “quadruple” (1–2–3–4), or any other multiple we liked. There were known cases of triple issues: rare, admittedly, but they existed. We hadn’t heard of anything beyond triple. But there was no reason for us to be deterred by a lack of precedents. The whole aim of our project was, on the contrary, to innovate radically, in the spirit of the times, producing the unusual and unheard-of. There were practical reasons, too, why the double-issue solution didn’t merit our immediate adhesion. From a strictly logical point of view, if we had to cut back, who was to say that we would have to cut back by exactly half? It would have been very strange if we did. Our publishing capacity could have been reduced by lack of funds, inflation, fatigue or any number of accidents, all unforeseeable in their magnitude as well as their occurrence, so we might well have had to cut back to less than half… or more. That’s why starting with a triple issue (1–2–3) gave us more flexibility: we could cut back by a third, or by two thirds, so the second issue could be double (4–5) or single (4). But if, as we hoped, we managed to sustain the momentum, the second issue would be triple again (4–5–6). There was something about this speculation, so lucid and irrefutable (given the premises), that excited us and carried us away, as much as the rushes of literary creation itself, or even more.
We wanted to do a good job. We weren’t as crazy as it might seem. After all, editing a literary magazine, the way we were doing it, is a gratuitous activity, rather like art with its unpredictable flights of inspiration, or play, and for us it served as a bridge between future and the childhood we’d just left behind. Though we hadn’t left it behind entirely, to judge from our abstract perfectionism, so typical of children’s games. To give you an idea…
The triple issue ruled out the possibility of cutting back by exactly half. That possibility, with its strict symmetry, was, we had already decided, very unlikely to correspond to reality, but we were sad to be deprived of it, even so. Especially since there was no reason to deprive ourselves of anything: all we had to do was start with a Quadruple Issue (1–2–3–4), that way we’d still have the possibility of cutting back by half (the following issue would be double: 5–6), or if our means were not so far reduced, we could cut back by just a quarter (and follow the inaugural quadruple issue with a triple: 5–6–7), or if our laziness or lack of foresight or circumstances beyond our control obliged us to do some serious belt-tightening, the second issue would be a single: 5. If, however, providence was kind, we would bring out another normal, that is, quadruple issue: 5–6–7–8.
It’s not that we thought, even for a moment, of producing a first issue three or four times thicker than the one we had at first envisaged. Those initial plans remained intact, and they were very reasonable and modest. We never thought of making it any bigger; our first issue, as we had designed it, with its 36 pages, seemed perfect to us. The texts were almost ready, neatly typed out; there were just a few unresolved questions concerning the order (should the poems and the essays be grouped separately or should they alternate?), and whether or not to include a particular short story, whether to add or remove a poem… Trifling problems, which would resolve themselves, we were sure. If not, it wouldn’t matter much: we wanted Athena to have a slightly untidy, spontaneous feel, like an underground magazine. And since there was no one breathing down our necks, we took our time and went on calculating for the future.
All this was notional, which gave us free rein to speculate boldly. It was like discovering an unsuspected freedom. Maybe that’s what freedom always is: a discovery, or an invention. What, indeed, was to stop us from going beyond the Quadruple Issue to make it Quintuple, or Sextuple… ? Beyond that we didn’t know the words (if they existed), but that in itself was proof that we were entering territory untouched by literature, which was the ultimate aim of our project. We were embarking on the great avant-garde adventure.
If we presented the first issue of Athena as a “decuple” issue, that is, numbers 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10, we would, at one stroke, secure a marvelous flexibility with regard to the size of future issues. We’d be covered against all contingencies, able to cut back in accordance with our straitened circumstances, without having to resign ourselves to gross approximations. If the cost of the first issue was a thousand pesos (an imaginary sum, solely for the purposes of the demonstration), and it was a Decuple Issue, and if we ran short for the second and could only muster 700 pesos, we’d make it a “septuple issue” (11–12–13–14–15–16–17). If 500 pesos was all we could get, it would be a quintuple issue (11–12–13–14–15); but if we raised a thousand pesos again, it would be another decuple (11–12–13–14–15–16–17–18–19–20). And if our utter idleness prevented us from collecting more than 100 pesos, we’d make the next issue a single: no. 11. The “single” issue, containing a single number, would be as low as we could go. Whatever the first issue was would be “normal.”
We found these fantasies exhilarating, as I said, and it’s true. Even today, so many years later, writing these pages, I can still feel some of that exhilaration, and I still understand it as we did back then: this was the world turned upside down, and we were venturing into it with the exuberance that the young bring to everything that happens in their lives. Wasn’t that the definition of literature: the world turned upside down? At least, of literature as we imagined it and wanted it to be: avant-garde, utopian, revolutionary. We delighted in the idea of swimming against the current: dreams are usually dreams of grandeur, but ours were of smallness, and they were dreams of a new kind: dreams of precision and calculation, poetry adopting the unprecedented format of real equations. We thought of our project as the first literary version of Picabia’s mechanical paintings, which we adored.
We continued on this route, spurring ourselves on. Why should we be limited by the number ten? There was, perhaps, a practical, concrete reason. It determined a minimum number of pages if we had to economize drastically: three. A magazine less than three pages long (the length it would have if, at some point, compelling economic considerations forced us to bring out a single issue) would not be a magazine. A practical, concrete limit wasn’t going to hold us back, but we complied with it provisionally, and put it to the test. We found two holes in the reasoning that I have set out schematically here. First, there could be a magazine of less than three pages. It could consist of a single page. And more importantly, a tenth of our Decuple Issue wouldn’t be three pages, but 3.6, since the inaugural (decuple) issue of Athena would conform to the printers’ standard format that we had adopted as our norm: thirty-six pages.
So, predictably, we began to consider a first issue that would be thirty-six-fold, so to speak. An issue made up of numbers 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10–11–12–13–14–15–16–17–18–19–20–21–22–23–24–25–26–27–28–29–30–31–32–33–34–35–36. That would allow for an almost total flexibility. Why hadn’t we thought of it before? Why had we wasted our time with “triples” and “quadruples” and “decuples” when there was such an obvious solution right under our noses? The printer’s “sheet” should have shown us the way right from the start, from the moment we discovered its existence, the famous “sheet” that was unfolding now before our eyes, like a rose in time.
The problem was how to fit those numbers on the cover. Would there be enough room for them all, and the hyphens, between the title and the date? Wouldn’t it be a bit ridiculous? There was the option of replacing them with an austere “Nos. 1–36,” but for some reason we found that unsatisfactory. Defiantly, we decided to go the opposite way: filling the cover with numbers, big ones, in nine rows of four. Without any explanation, of course: we’d never have dreamed of explaining our contingency plan to the readers.
This confronted us with a serious objection: whether or not we provided explanations, people would look for them anyway — that’s just how the human mind is made. And a thirty-six-fold issue would suggest an obvious explanation, which everyone would find convincing: that the numbers on the cover had something to do with the number of pages. As they did, in fact, but not in what would seem to be the obvious way. This connection completely spoiled the fun of the idea, which we abandoned immediately. At that point I think we felt that we’d never really been satisfied with thirty-six.
Freeing ourselves of that bad idea freed us completely. We leaped to really big numbers, first a thousand, then ten thousand, which had a special prestige because of its Chinese associations. China, with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, was much in vogue at the time.
Any more moderate number would have seemed insufficient. Ten thousand. But no more than ten thousand. We could have gone wild and continued up into the millions, or the billions; but we were engaged in a very concrete and practical task — producing a magazine — not in wild speculation. We weren’t intending to abandon realism, though a mediocre, storekeeper’s realism had never been a part of our intellectual outlook. Ten thousand guaranteed total originality, without tipping over into unworkable folly. We made sure of this with pencil and paper, setting it all out in black and white.
Making an issue composed of ten thousand numbers meant that the “single” issue would be 0.0036 of a page. We weren’t math wizards. We had to do the calculations step by step, visualizing it all. This made the process infinitely more interesting; it became an adventure among strange and novel images. How did we arrive at 0.0036? Like this: if we reduced the magazine by a factor of ten, it would have 3.6 pages; if we reduced it by a factor of 100, it would have 0.36 pages, that is, a bit more than a third of a page or three tenths of a page; if the factor was a thousand, the magazine would be 0.036 pages long, that is, a bit more than three hundredths of a page; and if we increased the factor to ten thousand, thus reducing the magazine to a “single” issue, that issue would consist of 0.0036 of a page, in other words a little more than three and a half thousandths of page. We had to visualize this too, to get a clear idea of what it meant. Referring to the budget prepared for us by the printers, we saw that the page size we had chosen for the first issue, in accordance with our means, was 8 by 6 inches. So the area of each page would be 48 square inches. Divided by 10,000, that gave 0.0048 square inches, which had to be multiplied by 3.6 (that is, by the number of ten thousandths produced by the previous calculation). The result was 0.01728 square inches… Should we round up? No, exactitude was the key, or one of the keys, to the enchantment that transported us. And unless we were mistaken (we covered a lot of paper with our calculations), 0.01728 square inches was the area of a rectangle 0.1516 inches high and 0.1140 inches wide. That wasn’t so easy to visualize. It was futile trying to use the imagination as a microscope to see that molecule, that speck suspended in a moment of sunlight (it didn’t seem heavy enough to settle). We had leaped beyond the sensory and the intuitive, into the realm of pure science, and yet — this was the supreme paradox — it was there that we found the true, the real Athena, in the form of a “single” issue, springing from our heads just as the goddess whose name we had borrowed had sprung from the head of her father.