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REVIEW: Books That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

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41BVsmOHteLBooks That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

Marie Philip

David Philip Publishers,

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

As I see it, in publishing there is a significant difference between accidental and nurtured bestsellers. Nowadays, the market is dominated by the former. But every now and then you get a publisher who will understand the value of the latter.

Reading Marie Philip’s memoir about the famous publishing house she and her husband established in South Africa during the dark years of apartheid, I was reminded of how precious such an approach is in the book world. It is even more precious and definitely rarer when it is combined with a moral and social conscience which Marie and David Philip and their team exemplified.

It is difficult to imagine the South African literary scene without David Philip Publishers (DPP). Over the years, they have launched or assisted the careers of such writers as Richard Rive, Nadine Gordimer, Mandla Langa, Stephen Watson, Alan Paton, Sindiwe Magona, Ivan Vladislavić and Lyndall Gordon. The list of their titles, which Marie Philip includes at the end of her incisive book, is astounding, to say the least. Just to give you a sample, among their seminal publications are: Don Foster’s Detention and Torture in South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, Michael Fraser’s A Fynbos Year, The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, Ellen Kuzwayo’s Sit Down and Listen, and Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa (compiled by Robin Malan). Because of their
independence the Philips “had the freedom to take risks and be bold, and even eccentric”, as well as to tune into their “own publishing instincts”. While it was important to survive, money was not their “main concern”. The combination of these factors turned out to be a recipe for great success in all respects.

And it all began with a penguin in the early 1970s. Once they had founded their publishing house and had their logo, Marie Philip wrote the story of a “resourceful penguin” surviving the oil spills of tankers diverted around the Cape because of the closure of the Suez Canal at the time. Published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans, the thin hardback with a dust jacket, Gregory, Jackass Penguin (Gregory, Kaapse Pikkewyn), was a hit in its English edition. It also taught DDP a first valuable lesson about the nature of publishing in Afrikaans in a highly charged socio-political environment.

Soon after the penguin story, manuscripts began to arrive. They decided to accept “any good book that came along”, including the perceived ‘unsaleables’: poetry, essays,
and short stories. As Russell Martin notes, “David’s choices were guided by a feeling for what made a good book and his belief that good books would sell (unlike today’s belief that if a book sells, it is good).” DDP understood and lived by T.S. Eliot’s dictum: “A nation that doesn’t value its poets is in danger of losing its soul.”

With the books came responsibilities way beyond the call of duty in present-day publishing. The Philips joined a group of oppositional publishers and eventually founded the Independent Publishers Association of South Africa (IPASA). They continued producing books which they believed in, even if they were banned and confiscated. Books That Matter documents the courage it took to confront censorship and harassment from the security police under the apartheid regime. Despite hardship, sales and awards followed, and within a relatively short period of time, David Philip Publishers was a firmly established company, not only locally but also on the international publishing stage.

The Philips were publishers who cultivated strong personal ties with their authors to whom their doors were always open. A glass of wine was always ready to welcome visitors. Arderne Cottage, where the publishing venture was initially based, was often a safe house for activists. Lifelong friendships developed. One comes across authors all the time who reminisce about these close-knit relationships which sustained them through all kinds of difficulties, whether of political, literary or personal nature. In 2009, Nadine Gordimer wrote: “David Philip was the kind of publisher every writer would like to have. His dedication was to the Word as literature, not on the calculated Best Seller but as an art in illumination of the mystery of human existence.”

Marie Philip recalls her husband quoting the publisher Faber during a trip to the UK: “Books don’t make money”. To which an Ethiopian librarian who overheard the statement responded: “No, but they make a difference.” DPP’s legacy testifies to the fact.

In his commemorative lecture of 2010, “Let it be known: The heritage of David Philip and the needs of the nation”, Stanley G.M. Ridge stated: “David Philip’s deep conviction made the publisher a vital agent in the process of building the nation and nurturing it to health. Without such publishing, there is a gulf between the promising intellectual growing points in the society and those who need to engage with them. It is by building relationships with writers that those growing points can be discovered and nurtured, and it is often by taking significant risks that the works see the light of day.” To comprehend this role is as crucial today as it was before 1994, but few are up to the challenge. In the same lecture, Ridge said: “In a multicultural society, particularly one in an accelerated process of finding itself, it is vital that people across social boundaries come to see beyond the caricatures and enter imaginatively into other people’s lives.” What better vehicle for such imaginative leaps than the stories we can share through literature? May those who refuse to reach out across those boundaries take heed.

Richly illustrated, beautifully told, Books That Matter is a gem of local literary history. If there ever was a book that mattered, this is certainly one.