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10 years of Caja Negra, independent publishers from Argentina

Nayma Gonzalez By Nayma Gonzalez Published on April 17, 2016
This article was updated on July 11, 2017

After Spain, Argentina is the biggest market for literature in Spanish. With a rich tradition of mainstream and independent publishers, a demanding readership and various fares, like the Buenos Aires annual international book fair (Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires), the field of literature in this country remains in good condition despite its frequently convulsed economy.

With so much competition, it’s hard to find a specific audience and begin building a catalog. Caja Negra has been doing so for the last ten years. Just like the case of Mexican Sexto Piso, Caja Negra was set up by two friends with no particular plans to get a formal job, and instead a dreamed occupation based on personal interests and taste was the basis for this publishing house. No marketing and no business plan: just the intuition that if you publish what you love reading, others will want to read it too. They were right.

Raised in the 1980s, Diego Esteras and Ezequiel Fanego’s cultural baggage is composed in equal parts by Latin American literature, universal classics, philosophy and pop culture. They’re far from the high brow/low brow distinction that’s still prevalent in the field of literature. Inspired by a Ballard quote, they’re following their obsessions and what they know. They’re publishing what they want to read. The result? A diverse catalog where British postpunk and Baruch Spinoza, among others, compose an exchange of ideas no one else believed possible before the editors. In their words, Caja Negra is “an invitation to compose heterodox traditions”.

Just like in pop music it was immediately recognizable anything signed by labels such as the British 4AD or Creation (hence the phrase “a 4AD sound”), Esteras and Fanego want their published products to have a signature, to be a discourse, something that distinguishes them but mostly, something that makes their readers maintain their trust in their judgment. A literary “selecta” of sorts, Caja Negra bases its accomplishments in something intangible and hard to pin down, just like a rare night when you find a DJ with the right vinyls.

It’s easier to compare the publishers to DJs or music label directors than to other literary publishers because it’s precisely music the most distinguishable topic in their catalog, specifically music criticism, a discourse that has plenty of readership in English, but it’s marginalized to newspapers, magazines or websites in Spanish. Their best seller remains “After Rock” by Simon Reynolds, the English music journalist, following an editorial line that proves to be a very demanded one, not only in terms of what can be translated, but what can be published by local music critics and read by an avid audience searching for quality criticism.

According to the publishers, in the current era of digital and traditional publishing, it’s the taste and the signature of an editorial house what can set it apart from competitors, and not the format. In Esteras and Fanego’s case, it’s also a sense of boredom what will tell them it’s time to move on to another project and not develop and rely on a tried formula. However, the format of their books is carefully chosen. A Caja Negra collector will probably take care of the books as of they were small pieces of art, with independence of their content.

This poses a problem, though: expensive and rare books sooner or later are only read by those who can afford/find them. This is a problem especially in the Latin American market, where art or rare books are expensive and public libraries will rarely have them in their catalogs.

Yet a sense of elitism has surrounded this editorial house since its founding. Its carefully selected subjects have been translated to attract a specific audience in mind. Back to Simon Reynolds, a sort of godfather of Caja Negra, has now three translated books (“Postpunk”, “Retromanía”, “Después del Rock”), but just as rare is Vilém Flusser’s “El universo de las imágenes técnicas”, the Czech journalist’s compiled academic writings from his 30 years of activity as a teacher in Sao Paulo.

The world of cinema is well represented with the works of other Latin American authors dismissed by big publishing houses, such as Brazilian Glauber Rocha, the man whose films and theoretical writings composed a revolutionary political and aesthetic manifesto known as Cinema Novo (“new cinema”). Caja Negra’s “La revolución es una EZTETIKA” compiles the early thinking of Rocha, as well as interviews and other articles written during his lifetime.

Rocha was radically opposed to the “aesthetic colonization” of Hollywood, just as much as “realism” in cinema, which he thought was nothing but a manifestation of the bourgeois. With his texts and his images, he wanted to confront the spectator with images of misery, pain and hunger. A must for scholars and fans of cinema in general, is his seminal text of the 1970s “La estética del hambre” (“the aesthetics of hunger”), as well as “La revolución del Cinema Novo” and “El siglo del cine”, two other important articles that have been dispersed until now.

Other film figures appear in Caja Negra’s catalog, such as a collection of Ed Wood’s articles for various magazines, from Science Fiction to sex fantasies. Wood belongs to the cult “Z genre” of film, characterized by low budget production and mediocre scripts that have gained validation by their viewers. If anything, Ed Wood’s texts are an extension of the cinematic interests and abilities of the late American director.

Two really interesting books that will capture the attention of scholars and a larger audience are the recently deceased German filmmaker and theoretician Harun Farocki’s “Desconfiar de las imágenes” (roughly, “To mistrust images”), whose work has had a re-emergence in various exhibitions and publications. Another German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, has in “Los pixels de Cezanne” a collection of essays about his early relation to painting and other filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni. Wenders, in writing about his early loves and influences, perhaps delivers the best type of autobiography there can be.

I'm interested in popular culture and audiovisual narratives.

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