Franschhoek Literary Festival, 17-19 May 2013, Franschhoek. ‘Mampoer Shorts’: Anton Harber in conversation with Fred de Vries, Osiame Molefe and Justin Fox.
I am sure that when my gracious editors dispatched me to Franschhoek, they could not anticipate having signed me up for this: an investor’s meeting sans investment. Mampoer Shorts is an online longform journalism platform, aiming to host non-fiction which cannot be accommodated within the formats of available media – newspapers, at the one side of the spectrum, can at best host around 1,500 words, while the exhaustive length of books can be more consuming for the writer. Anton Harber, co-creator and editor, speaks of how he finds 5,000 – 12, 000 words “a very attractive length to tackle”; his co-presenter Justin Fox speaks of this as a “comfortable length”, his “natural length”. I won’t lurk around this comic proximity of “tackle” and “natural length”, so the prevailing idea is that this allows for a fuller exposition, not limiting itself to the mere provocation of an opinion column. “This country is full of great stories,” says Harber, and marks the rise of “e-publishing” and a general shift to “electronic media” as having made possible his platform for these stories. He says that “it is impossible to create or sustain a magazine”, it being “financially impossible in this relatively small market”. To promote a viable “space” – a word that is enjoying the same luxury of overuse as “privilege” (verbal form) and “intersection” a few years ago – to get writers undertaking these assignments, he designed Mampoer Shorts.
So far, so explanatory. With all credit to Harber, the seminar fails hereafter to offer anything in the way of analysis, and never rises above the technical, administrative and bureaucratic. It resembles, in almost all respects, a sixty-minute infomercial, at which its audience has paid sixty clams each to watch the advert and then participate in customer feedback, free of charge. To those of us who came to Franschhoek in the hope of literary discussion, all anticipations are abandoned. The usual economic jargon starts to eclipse intelligent conversation – questions about a “business model” and a “subscription model”, and “crowd-funding”… As it stands, Mampoer charges $2.99 per story, which one potential customer informs us “is the same price as a cappuccino” (I wonder if Mampoer will use this as a tag-line?). But the audience is then motivated to start asking about the “absorption of start-up costs” and suggests marketing strategies. This is all a little perplexing – why are people so eager to have surrendered quid just to tell Mampoer how they could be improving their penetration and PR? I was waiting for someone to ask about a “long-term fiscal policy” or whether it was possible to buy licensing rights.
In the infomercial section of the talk, Harber introduces three writers at Mampoer to give an example of the kinds of commentary they are producing. Osiame Molefe has written a piece called “Black Anger, White Obliviousness”. The article takes as its centerpiece the question of the “The Spear”, and has as its organising conversations analyses of black sexuality and its representations, critiques of the TRC (“the process was necessarily narrow”), and the “broader complicity among white folk” in continuing structural oppression in the country. I enjoy the anecdote he tells in which his father was called a “kaffir” – and Molefe does not censor the word – if only because he addresses a dominantly white audience (one or two blacks around – what’s new?), and it’s always fun to register the spinal chill that runs through the room as that one-word incantation draws us back into the spectral past, with its violence and implication. Fred de Vries says that his piece explores “what happened to Afrikaners post-1994”. He asks, “How do they cope with Apartheid and the legacy of the past?” This question takes him to the immigrant Perth on an intergenerational project that explores the symbols and mythology of Afrikanerdom, and the dynamic site of masculinity and identity among the pullulating auto-exiles of South Africa.
It’s a shame then, that with this rich complement of stories, this seminar doesn’t actually have anything useful to tell us: except for what Mampoer charge, what their affinity is with the Kindle Singles series, why they think it is appropriate to charge per story (“Paywalls are starting to go up,” says Harber. “If we want good stuff on the internet we have to pay for it – for the curation, editing, quality, writing, time”). There are the predictable remarks about “democratisation of the media”, and traditional “print journalism” as a “monologue”, or how the shorter form of newspaper reportage denies a complexity to its subject, but nothing which journeys beyond the ordinary. That’s because this wasn’t a literary seminar – it was a live advert, undertaken in the spirit of a constructive ambition, but basically, a chance for Mampoer to experiment with their customers. If we’re being honest, everyone who attended this talk should be refunded, and the audience contributors should get a “special thanks to” mention on the website.