Of love and economics

Is this the best of times for South African literature?

South Africans are buying more South African books. There are high-profile literary awards (leave aside, for now, the weak representation of poetry), successful local literature promotions, popular magazines commissioning new work by writers and a robust literary festival circuit. In the books themselves, local literature is being remade to include the sexuality, madness, ambiguities and tenderness that lie among well-trodden outlines of the political past.

So it seems safe to say yes: this is the best of times.

Critic Pumla Gqola points to the “brilliant writing in the last few years, from Kagiso Lesego Molope’s novels to K Sello Duiker, and the amazing first novel by Mtutuzeli Nyoka”. Among writers, the view is equally positive. Poet and playwright Malika Ndlovu, 15 years after her first manuscript, finds the publishing industry more expansive and welcoming. Nadia Davids, author of At Her Feet, says that publishers such as Oshun and Kwela not only support new work but “create a desire for it”. Rose Mokhosi of Young Basadzi Projects thought self-publishing was the most promising path for new writers, but her relationship with University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, which will publish Basadzi Voices, has vastly improved her perception of publishers.

Among the 26 writers, critics, avid readers, editors and publishers I canvass, everyone agrees: something intangible has changed, something that might be called energy or confidence, or cool.

But ironically, the positive developments could be derailed by what looks like success.

According to everyone, from self-published poets to award-winning authors published by the major university presses, the single greatest problem facing South African literature is distribution.

The problem starts with the fact that the majority of South Africans are not within easy reach of a bookshop. If books continue to be sold mostly in bookstores located in glossy malls in the affluent areas of cities, South Africa’s readership will continue to be circumscribed. 

Writers can teach the publishing industry a thing or two about attracting new readers. Zubeida Jaffer sold 300 copies of her book Our Generation at her launch by organising it like a community event and afterward “created my own alternative networks such as shops and supermarkets run by the local community”.

Economics is the hidden current pulling at all the positive figures. The cost of books is “the main reason we don’t read as much as we could”, says Ntone Edjabe of Chimurenga magazine.

When it comes to specific genres, Kelwyn Sole, whose Land Dreaming is just out, finds that “the large chains are reluctant to take on poetry — or at most, take three copies of any poet’s book — because there is a stereotype that it doesn’t sell. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if books aren’t available and advertised, they won’t sell.”

Generating public interest in books remains a challenge. We need intimacy with authors’ words. More column inches devoted to South African literature are a paltry gain if they focus on authors rather than books. Edjabe, whose magazine regularly publishes new poetry and fiction, notes that “many of the papers who published an obituary for Phaswane Mpe hadn’t even reviewed his work”.

Aside from some notable English-language exceptions (the Mail & Guardian among them), the Afrikaans press is much more attentive to literature. Author Fiona Zerbst mourns this lack of a “vigorous reviewing culture” in South Africa.

Publishers complain that money for advertising mostly does not exist. And because of small local print runs, they have to work harder for smaller returns.

But still many writers struggle to get their work into the right hands. The absence of literary agents, which publishers see as a chance to deal more directly with writers, is seen by many writers as inhibiting access to a limited pool of opportunities. Broadening access to find excellent new writing, particularly of varied black voices, remains a challenge to publishers.

What is the way forward?

Literary prizes bring brilliant bursts of attention, but awards are an episodic form of support. Robert Greig, author of Rules of Cadence, asserts that “we need fellowships, not prizes” to enable writers to go beyond a first book.

Julia Landau of Footprints calls on “independent publishers to get together and pool resources in respect of distribution”. Annari van der Merwe at Umuzi encourages the state “to develop an education system that values and encourages reading for leisure and pleasure; expand public libraries, promote popular book programmes on radio and television, and encourage the publication of children’s books in indigenous languages”.

I’d love to see newspapers publish a fat weekly section devoted to reviews, place a poem on the editorial pages and, on radio, hear a poem read at 7am.

Let’s come back to love. We need writing beyond function, writing that touches something not yet articulated, the way fairytales once did for me, and K Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star may for future young girls. Or Mr Chameleon, by Tatamkhulu Afrika, which tracks how to remake oneself in a world where skin colour determines everything.

This is the work of writing. Not function, not making the world better, but making the world.

To learn to love books. That would be success.

Gabeba Baderoon is the author of The Dream in the Next Body and A Hundred Silences

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