A stunted af(fair)

It is crunch time for the Cape Town Book Fair. While this year drew 50 494 visitors, passing last year’s 49 000, figures tell only a small part of the story.

For the public the fair is a massive buying opportunity, with readings, discussions and author signings as bonuses. For booksellers it’s a retailing bonanza, akin to chumming great white sharks in False Bay: throw in free entry for some, discounts and bonus points for punters and the tills ring as if it were Christmas. Superficially, then, the fair works splendidly. Authors can hardly object to their sales increasing and nor can publishers.

Or can they? A single rights sale to a foreign publisher will result in considerable benefits for the South African author and publisher. But the trade side of the fair, much debated and lamented after last year’s event, remains stunted. Rather than a whole day set aside for trade, as was mooted, only an hour a day was allotted. And that hour was between 9am and 10am — at which time no self-respecting international publisher is out and about.

Local publishers morph uncomfortably into retailers and booksellers during the fair, squeezing in hurried negotiations with their overseas counterparts, while selling books over the counters of their stands. Nothing makes more visible the fish or fowl conundrum of the fair than multiple sightings of eminent publishers at till points.

Little of this is apparent to the visiting public. In its experience of the fair and in the press and PR material put out by the fair itself the event is unequivocally touted as a success because of increasing visitor numbers and the like. For example, there were three times the number of publishers exhibiting from the rest of Africa, but in reality that means fewer than 10.

If the fair is to mean something beyond an exercise in retailing and consumption, leavened by literary discussion and debate, it needs to seize opportunities to be unique. As it stands it is an attractive smorgasbord that mainly aggregates book experiences with which the visiting public is already familiar, though in less concentrated circumstances.

What happened to the idea of a pan-African book fair, celebrating the writing and publishing of this continent? That would gather writers, publishers and visitors from Africa, as well as international attendees, in ways not seen since the heyday of the Harare book fair. It would be a bigger magnet also for trade delegations (there were 31 this year).

Impossible? Hardly. As inspiration and template there is the film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — somewhat less accessible than Cape Town, but a constant drawcard for African and international filmmakers and film lovers.

There are other resources on which the Cape Town Book Fair could draw. Bridget Impey, publishing director of Jacana Media, suggested to me that South African embassies in African countries could support such a venture and also help finance participants — to begin one author and one publisher from each country.

Another useful example is the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, which has faced many of the questions as the fair around participation, access and rationale. Out of kilter with the hopes and opening address of Kader Asmal, the fair remains overwhelmingly white and middle class.

That is notwithstanding the impressions of fair director Vanessa Badroodien, who said: “This year we are picking up a trend of transformation in the demographics of those attending the fair. This year’s fair gives the feeling that it really is an inclusive one, that people have come to it because of a love of reading and that, because the talks are free, it is accessible, which is something that we have put high on the agenda.”

Grahamstown developed outreach programmes that run throughout the year, not just at festival time. The fair might do well to emulate that example, focusing on schoolchildren.

Talking of children, the fair PR machinery noted that: “The Children’s Zone was increased this year, allowing for more children to attend events, which proved popular. Many families with young children attended the fair, ‘it’s a wonderful way to introduce children to the world of books,’ said Badroodien.”

Nonetheless, the numerous large groups of schoolchildren that were drawn last year by the Spud phenomenon were conspicuous by their absence. Though, for the first time, the fair tallied child visitors, confirming that 7 194 children visited — almost 14% of the total number of fair goers.

On the exhibitors’ floor things were less crowded than before. Wider aisles meant easier navigation and the floor plan was more rational, with the literary forum in a corner rather than in the middle of things.

It was at the forum that the winner of the European Literary Award for this year, Megan Voysey-Braig, made her first appearance. Her manuscript, Till We Can Keep an Animal, won R25 000, publication by Jacana Media and a place on next year’s Homebru list.

Jury member Véronique Tadjo describes the work as “a courageous book. Its author confronts us with the ordinary violence of our daily life. The crime scene at the beginning of the novel is as gripping in its detailed cruelty. Yet, it is not gratuitous violence at all. No, it is there to wake us up from our slumber or rather to force us out of our illusionary normalcy.”

The M-Net Award for English fiction went to JM Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, while Etienne van Heerden won the Afrikaans counterpart for Asbesmiddag.

In NB Publishers’ internal awards, the Via Afrikas, Mark Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred took the Recht Malan prize for English or Afrikaans non-fiction or non-literary; Breyten Breytenbach won the WA Hofmeyr for Afrikaans literature across all genres for Die Windvanger; and Willem Anker received the Jan Rabie/Rapport for innovative Afrikaans literature for Siegfried. Each author took home R30 000.

The Herman Charles Bosman prize for English literary writing and autobiography was not awarded, though honourable mentions and R15 000 each went to Niq Mhlongo for his novel After Tears and Gail Dendy for her poetry collection, The Lady Missionary.

In all the Cape Town Book Fair and its parallel events resemble the old Russian adage that chess is a sea in which an elephant may drink and a gnat may bathe. At the fair behemoth publishers and authors mix and mingle on shelves and in forums with smaller publishers and new authors. Now if only that African element could be transmuted to something more than 3% for 2009.

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