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16 Aug 2009 06:00
I had hardly alighted from my motorbike in Soweto, where I was to teach English shortly after the 1976 uprising, than I was whispered an irrefutable truth for the first time by a fellow white worthy: black people do not read.
It was some sort of genetic abnormality that kicked in around puberty.
Five minutes later, beloved Shakespeare in hand, I entered a matric classroom.
Crammed into this space were more than 100 kids, most of whom were forced to sit on the floor or stand. Hamlet in the bin.
“It’s not that they don’t read,” I commented during break to the bearer of the truth, “but they don’t want to read the crap that’s forced on them as it has no bearing on their existence. They’re dying to read, but the spark will surely be extinguished without relevant material.”
Despite a look similar to what one would get for questioning the virgin birth at a Christian revivalist gathering, I began a quest to unravel this truth. But the problem with great myths is that they are entangled in reality. What is true is that levels of reading in South Africa are appalling, especially among young black adults. This has a devastating impact on all spheres of life as the ability to comprehend is directly related to reading. If this is not addressed our country will continue to lag, because though we might be able to teach such things as science and technology, the ability to think beyond what is taught will be severely compromised.
But this does not lead to a tidy conclusion that black people do not read or do not want to read. They are, after all, the descendants of the greatest storytellers of all time. In my naivety I thought it would be a simple task to show this, but it has been anything but as there are so many special interests tied into the myth that at times I have wanted to throw my hands up in surrender.
My journey to solve this problem began with a study of the dime novel and penny dreadful phenomena in the United States and United Kingdom because the situation in their heyday was remarkably similar to present-day South Africa. The industrial revolution and the opening up of the American West fundamentally changed the way people in Europe and the US lived at the beginning of the 19th century. With this came massive urbanisation and an increase in literacy. The only thing lagging was the publishing industry, which clung to the elitist view that the working classes had no interest in reading.
That began to change in 1827 when Nathaniel Willis brought out a story paper titled The Youth’s Companion. Those that followed were based on the idea of spinning brazen yarns about poor people striving to succeed against impossible odds. Aimed at a youthful audience, they were so compelling that many had a circulation in excess of 400 000 an issue.
This success provided the impetus for Erastus and Irwin Beadle to start selling novel-length stories for a dime each. The first dime novel, Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, published by Beadle and Adams in 1860, became an instant hit—establishing the viability of cheap fiction for the masses. Shortly after its release, a 19-year-old boy, Edward Ellis, walked into Beadle’s offices with the manuscript for Seth Jones, or Captive of the Frontier—which became the most successful Beadle novel of all time with sales in excess of 600 000 copies.
After this, dime novels and penny dreadfuls in the UK were churned out at such a rate that this industry became known as the fiction factory. Although many criticise their formulaic content, few dispute the immense stimulus they gave the culture of reading in Britain and the US—with some even postulating that they gave impetus to the Great American Dream. Furthermore, they paved the way for the modern publishing industry.
It is also interesting to note that sales of books in the US and the UK before the advent of dime novels and penny dreadfuls averaged 500 to 5 000 a title, which is the present situation here.
I began peddling the idea to publishers of a similar initiative for South Africa more than two decades ago.
I thought that the concept would be embraced, especially considering the industry was publicly wringing its hands about the need to get a wider audience reading. But every time I was shown the door with a patronising smile and a whisper in the ear: black people do not read.
At about the same time, accountants were beginning their infestation of the industry. Their strategy was simple: take no risks, focus even more intently on the existing niche by saturating it with new titles and take control of every step from the conception of a title to its purchase by a reader. Look only at the largest publisher in the country, which is in the same stable as the major book distribution channel and the dominant bookseller.
Their marketers have neatly twisted the imperative to get a wider reading audience by littering the debate with red herrings. Their favourite is the cost of books and affordability, continually harping on about the need for subsidies and VAT. Although VAT on books is an abomination, it is not the problem — it is the profiteering at each stage of the supply chain from writer to reader.
Books are not expensive to publish—about a sixth of the retail price. Now here is the rub. A dime novel or penny dreadful concept is not an opportunity, but a direct threat to the publishing industry as it is constituted. This is because the real bucks are in the supply chain, which is completely alien to the non-reader.
It was this realisation that convinced me to do it myself. But I still faced the problem of producing relevant material. Because of this I was involved in setting up Raspberry Prose, which allocates most of its income to mentoring young writers able to speak directly to the young adult market.
I also took the decision to avoid the formulaic nature of dime novels and penny dreadfuls and rather looked to the early rap and hip-hop models with their revolutionary messages for young adult listeners. The things we would focus on would be hard-hitting and in-your-face.
In the first writing group was a tall, wild English honours graduate from UCT, Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya, who lived on hip-hop and dreamed of taking reading to a wider audience. She wanted to tell a story of an emerging lesbian hip-hop performer, Tebogo, and her relationship with her all-male band members. It deals with the violence perpetrated by our society against those perceived to be different.
While she and the rest of the group were writing I was establishing Paper Bag Publishing. Its first title and her first novel, I Ain’t Yo Bitch, will be launched at the Wits Writing Centre on August 20. Published to the same quality as any other locally produced book, it will retail at R69.
It has already been previewed by members of the group that retains the current wisdom: blacks do not read. They cannot wait for the next book.
I Ain’t Yo Bitch is available at bookdealers or directly from www.paperbagpublishing.co.za
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