Going after the real thing

Leon de Kock walks the line between the real and the “real” in South African writing

If it is true that nonfiction and memoir outsell fiction in South Africa, as publishers and booksellers report, then writers of “creative nonfiction” have an edge over novelists, short-story writers and poets (unless you regard poets as memoirists, which in a sense they are).

But is it true that local readers prefer fact to fabrication, or is it rather a quite different quality in so-called “nonfiction” to which they are attracted — attitude?

Can it be that what readers are really buying is not “truth” or “reality” but rather the entertaining antics of narrative voice in a livelier mode than fiction allows, kakpraat as a form of jester-truth, and “reality” reversal via collective memory-reshaping, strong position-taking or alternative reportage?

For that matter, how fictional is fiction in South Africa? Historically, the complaint against this country’s fiction has been its dreary social realism, its recourse to predictably ugly realities, and its lack of imaginative transcendence.

That is, it’s lack of real “fiction”, and an over-emphasis on the “real”. To what extent has this changed in the past 15 years or so? Has fiction become less “real”, speaking to a hunger for outright escapism, or are the new genre of crime/thriller and chicklit writing a kind of escapist version of the hardcore South Africa “real”?

Traditionally, in the dark years of pre-democracy in South Africa, works of “nonfiction” — whether in the form of academic studies or popular narratives of “real life” — were loaded with prejudice, narrative closure, monocultural myopia and political pomposity.

That is, until several watershed texts — Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, Dennis Brutus’s Letters to Martha, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart and Antje Krog’s Country of My Skull, among others — changed the landscape of South African writing forever, mixing the generic literary categories in a way that makes our literature a key case study for the poetics of confessional narrative by means of literary language.

Such “witness” or “confessional” literature does not easily conform to the fiction/nonfiction publishers” categories, and it is possibly one of the unique features of what has come to be known as “South African writing”.

Leon de Kock will chair Session 3: Reality Hunger, or Escapist Pudding? The Lines Between Fiction and Creative Nonfiction on Saturday September 4 from 11.30 am to1 pm. Panellists will be Deon Maas, Thando Mgqolozana, Chris van Wyk and Zukiswa Wanner

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