/ 27 August 2010

A ‘shameful’ state of affairs

A 'shameful' State Of Affairs

The state of books and reading in South Africa is “outrageous”, says Stephen Johnson, managing director of Random House Struik, one of the country’s biggest publishing houses. “Books and reading are simply not on the national agenda at all. It’s shameful.”

He says: “The state has a fundamental responsibility to build and create and inject significantly into the development of libraries in different areas, suburbs and townships all across the land. Ease of access to books is crucial. Library culture has been so eroded in the past 15 to 20 years, but it’s an essential starting point for the culture of book-buying and reading.”

This lack of reading culture has not helped the country’s publishing industry, which was put under further pressure when the recession hit.

“The industry is beleaguered, frankly, in economic terms. The recession hit badly, and because there’s not a broad-based love of books and reading it was one of the first to be hit. People aren’t buying books.”

But, Johnson says, the state of writing in the country is “great”.

“Since democracy, and especially in the past eight to 10 years, there’s been a growth in the number of exciting, quality, worthwhile writers. The sad state of book-selling is a market problem, not a production problem. The creative edge is very prevalent in the country at the moment.”

Although he cannot attend the literary festival himself, Johnson says he is “thrilled” about the event.

“I’m thrilled that the literary festival has been resurrected. The Weekly Mail‘s literary festival always made an enormous contribution to literature.”

Some of Random House Struik’s writers who will be at the festival include Max du Preez, Andrew Brown and Imraan Coovadia. “I like what I see on the programme,” says Johnson. “I really hope the festival is able to sustain itself. I think there is a place for this sort of intellectual rigour that the Mail & Guardian provides.”