/ 24 June 2008

A paltry shortlist

The announcement of the shortlist for the annual Sunday Times Alan Paton Award always generates a great deal of interest among book lovers, authors, publishers, booksellers and book editors of newspapers and magazines. The first questions that often get asked are which books are shortlisted, which authors and titles were left out and why. This year the debate is likely to get more animated because, instead of the customary shortlist of five, only three books were chosen.

The criteria for selection of the shortlist and ultimately the winning book, are common knowledge to those who follow the award. But let me preface the reasons for having fewer titles in this year’s shortlist by stating what the award is not about. The award is not in any way a comment on the standing of any of the authors, nor is it intended to judge the subject matter or the intellectual concerns that a book addresses.

Indeed, this year’s long list comprised titles that addressed the most pertinent social and economic issues of our time — from drugs to rape, violent crime, the environment, corruption, race reconciliation and so on. In a similar way the authors ranged from young and relatively unknown to some of the most respected and vastly experienced writers in this country.

But why did such a vast array of authors and titles, 40 in all, yield such a paltry shortlist? This is a question that the panel grappled with too as they went about the shortlisting process. The judging panel was disappointed that a vast number of the submissions fell short of the criteria for a variety of reasons, including the following. Novelty or relevance of subject on its own does not make a good book.

Books that addressed fascinating and new topics often fell short of expectations because they were poorly structured and lacked focus. Structure and focus here refer not only to the organisation of the material into sections and chapters, but also to a tendency among some to want to address too many themes and thus end up losing focus.

An additional problem was that many books contained editorial and factual errors that could and should have been eliminated in the redrafting and editing process. As many readers know, these errors are at best irritating and, worse, they can be fatal for a book.

South Africa remains a rich laboratory for non-fiction writers as there are so many topics and themes that call for interpretation, analysis and critique. But that contains its own dangers for writing because it is not worth telling a story that has already been told unless it is being told better and with new information and with a new or different angle.

The stories that authors present to us every year in the form of non-fiction compete with stories that have been told before, as well as stories told every day by the mass media.

The research that went into the production of the titles in the long list was extremely uneven. Some were based on rigorous research using several sources over an extended period of time. But, sadly, there were those titles based on ”quickie” research and which therefore tended to overlook key sources and insights that could have benefited their writing.

A genre of writing that is exciting and disappointing at the same time is autobiographical writing. It is exciting because it brings out the diversity of social experiences of the various social milieu from which South Africans come and shows how connected these are despite the lengthy history of division the country has gone through. But this form of writing is also disappointing in that it tends to be done quickly and suffers the most from some of the shortcomings identified earlier.

The panel felt that a huge responsibility lies with the publishers to ensure the books that are churned out every year have more depth and literary integrity. This might mean commercial considerations may have to be weighed against the content and quality of writing. In deciding on a shortlist of three, the Alan Paton Award panel of judges hopes to underline the importance of maintaining this balance in non-fiction writing in South Africa.

Sakhela Buhlungu is chair of the Alan Paton judges