I will ignore the politics of the day other than to say that the EFF manifesto launch was perhaps a sign that Zuma has got some of those roosting chickens on their way to Nkandla – just as well he had the foresight to prepare a chicken run for them at the tax payers expense, so they will be secure in comfort (one could go on).
Instead I have been thinking about the poorness of the South African literary scene. Of course this is not to say that there aren’t some good writers out there. There are – I would rather not name them though as one can get into trouble with lists. But the question for me is why are there not new good interesting writers being published in South Africa. One of the reasons for this is because we have adopted an American and British publishing sensibility.
This is hardly a step in the right direction because if you look at what they are publishing it is on the whole pretty insipid realism. I think this is largely because they are ‘inside the whale’ in Orwell’s sense. They lack lived experience but what is more publishers have no interest in taking risks and engaging with the literary form of the novel. Instead they are interested in what will sell to a middle class that is largely looking to literature that will compliment their taste in TV shows like ‘Strictly Come Dining’ (sic).
This cocktail will never produce interesting writing. Instead the only interesting literature being produced is in Europe and South America where writers are far more interested in the form of the novel than sales. That is why you get truly interesting novelist like Krasznahorkia, Bernhard, Vila-Matas, Marquez, Llosa, Bolano etc. There are quite simply very few like them in Britain and America. Of course there is a writer a little like them and that is our own JM Coetzee. Personally I prefer some of the others but one can’t deny Coetzee is a novelist of the top draw, far greater than most of what Britain and America has produced in the last 30 years. Although this is not to deny writers who I admire like Ishiguro, Tartt, Auster, David Foster Wallace etc but these are almost exceptions to what English and American publishers will let through their nets these days. Their survival stems from their early success rather than their writing. I have no doubt that if these authors cold called a literary agent today they would be rejected.
What is so disturbing about South African publishing is that they have taken the UK/USA mould rather than the European or South American one. And as a result what they now deem fit to publish is largely snappy hollywood stile realism that will appeal to what they believe is a ‘broad readership’. I, some years ago, attempted to review some of these works for various newspapers but quite frankly I had to stop because I was doing myself an injury. Most of the fiction published in South Africa today is not fit for landfill and I hope that if they are used as such the earth will reject them, vomiting them out so that the world will have to note them as the monuments of a corrupt and moronic middle-class.
We have a fine literary tradition and we on the whole do not live inside the whale (at least the majority of the country does not). Sadly in our attempts to sell books what publishers have done is taken the British and American system and tried to make it even more digestible to a readership they believe to be too unsophisticated to understand challenging fiction – and maybe they are right. But I would like to propose to these publishers an idea which they will no doubt reject because they know better than me. But personally I think if they did take risks, if they did hold out for works of literary merit and publish only those their chance of making money would be greater. Just look at somebody like Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His success far exceeds any South African writer of the past 20 years. Why not one Vasquez out of 20 attempts rather than 20 vapid pieces of realism, hipster dreams and badly disguised chick lit? Complaina Continua