So many books, not enough care

‘Tell our stories” went the post-apartheid creative mantra in film and literature. A golden age beckoned, unfettered by censorship and government interference.

Predating literary liberation it was neither “sexy” nor seemingly sane to publish political books, or challenging fiction of the type to raise the ire and the fire of the state. A handful of publishers battled oppression, among them the late David Philip. Philip’s publishing was principled and powerful, and hardly bothered by pecuniary motives. Imagine unleashing, in the 1980s, Detention and Torture in South Africa by Don Foster, Dennis Davis and Diane Sandler.

Tell our stories we have certainly done in the past decade and a half. But it is clear that the writing and publishing revolutions were relatively easy after 1994. South African political biographies and current affairs tomes overwhelm us today.

In fiction, bespoke imprints from local publishing behemoths promote local literature. Our contemporary lubricating social and political conditions were absent when David and Marie Philip began in 1971. (For a glimpse of how things were for them, refer to Peter D McDonald’s brand-new The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences, published by Oxford University Press.)

Much though there is to celebrate in this current cornucopia, it is perhaps time to ask if there are too many books, and if we are rushing too much prose into print too quickly. Is the time come for quantitative easing of another kind, and for a qualitative audit?

First point to make is that this is by no means a local phenomenon. Part of the Zeitgeist has it that entropy and over-stimulation rule and that there is simply “too much stuff” around in every sphere of human endeavour.

Second point is that it is by no means a new condition. In a brutal but oddly sensitive essay, Writing, WH Auden proclaimed in 1932: “Since the underlying reason for writing is to bridge the gulf between one person and another, as the sense of loneliness increases, more and more books are written by more and more people, most of them with little or no talent. Forests are cut down, rivers of ink absorbed, but the lust to write is still unsatisfied —”.

Sakhela Bulungu, chair of the Alan Paton Award panel in 2008, was scathing about this rush to write and — often correspondingly — to publish. But as publishers sell books, not boxes of soap powder, what is to be done?

Reading across our fiction and non-fiction, it does seem generally that more editing, rewriting and the creative to-and-fro between author and editor would be a boon. Editors should not be hybridised into some strange species of super copy-editor and proofreader, though the time and money made available to them by publishers sometimes dictates that this is what they become. Editing is not merely rehoming misplaced commas and supplying therapy for abused semicolons. This state of affairs is scarcely the fault of editors, who are not well placed to decline jobs or make principled stands about remuneration and time afforded them. Nor can they afford to subsidise the process, and be altruistic about every manuscript that lands on their desk or screen.

Rewriting is not the shibboleth it ought to be. André Brink admitted at the Time of the Writer Festival in 2005 that he “hated the writing”, which took him a fortnight or so, but revelled in redrafting, with his manuscripts typically going through 13 or 14 reworkings. If only all our authors were so punctilious.

Those that are have reaped richly of late. Henrietta Rose-Innes took the Caine Prize and Alistair Morgan won the Plimpton from the Paris Review last year.

And, to judge by the shortlists for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlists for Africa, South Africans and Nigerians are writing the best prose on the continent. Ten of the 11 names on the shortlists for best book and best first book were from South Africa, and it was our Mandla Langa who took the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book: Africa.

Given this, surely it is time to invest in processes that ensure the quality of all — or at least more, if not most — books published here is better? Of course, more than the prose revolution rolls on in post-1994 South Africa. The Commonwealth and some other successes are a result also of the infrastructure, efficiency and affluence of the publishing industry here.

Nonetheless, the dominance and preponderance of South African authors raises questions within and beyond the confines of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

I was surprised at the absence of books from elsewhere in Africa that I had read and savoured. Possibly they were ineligible or maybe their “omission” makes an argument to subsidise entries from struggling African publishing houses. For instance, having to submit multiple copies of books entered for the Noma Award, the non-fiction prize for African literature, can cripple many publishers outside of South Africa.

Auden aside, the reality is that writers write and publishers publish. It would be a pleasure, however, if more of what readers read aspires to the realms of the classics memorised by the bibliophiles living in the woods in that supreme tale of the glories of literature, Fahrenheit 451.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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