/ 17 September 2010

Our pen is as blunt as our sword

South African fiction writing is brimming with health, but the state of reading is so dire as to be virtually on a hospital respirator.

That’s the verdict of Craig MacKenzie, professor of English at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), who chaired the opening panel discussion, “Word count — the state of South African fiction”, at last week’s Mail & Guardian Literary Festival.

According to MacKenzie, 100 new works of South African fiction are published every year. To get through them all, you would have to read one book every three days. But that’s exactly where the problem lies: writers are writing, but they aren’t being read. It’s a depressing vortex of nothingness, in which many new works of South African fiction simply disappear without even so much as a literary review, let alone any tremor on the sales seismograph.

Leon de Kock, professor of English at the University of Stellenbosch, called it “the big black hole”.

“Writing is a conversation. It’s tough speaking into a black hole,” De Kock said.

UJ English lecturer Thabo Tsehloane agreed with De Kock. “We need to establish a community of readers,” he said.

But another way of understanding the title “word count” is the connotation of “counting” as an assessment or a reckoning. And this is where the panellists differed.

Where does South African fiction stand qualitatively in 2010?

Jane Rosenthal, the M&G‘s chief fiction reviewer, set the cat among the pigeons by saying: “We have not yet produced a great South African novel, a book that will make it into the next century.”

Publishers should take some responsibility for publishing only what is light and accessible, Rosenthal said, but writers should “take themselves seriously enough to be comfortable within themselves, and write truly great books”.

She was challenged by De Kock, who said that greatness depended too much on “the vagaries of taste and the opinion of the individual” to be a useful criterion. “Rather, we should be looking at the textures, dynamics and inner workings of the novel — those are far more important.”

De Kock and Rosenthal did, however, agree that the book that comes closest to being a great South African novel (in Rosenthal’s estimation) and an exemplar of texture and inner dynamics (in De Kock’s) is Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat, a work that is “vastly comprehensive in all manner of detail”, said De Kock.

In particular, Agaat‘s “compendium of voices and styles” presents a model for circumventing what Tsehloane bemoaned as “the inability of our literature to be representative and speak on behalf of the collective”. He argued that the tangible collective of blackness during the 1970s and 1980s had dissolved into a plurality of experience based on material status, making it difficult for black writers to write for their readers.

But Tsehloane’s point is also a broader one, said De Kock, because works that contain a “panharmonicon” of voices, to borrow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, will render South African fiction more accessible to diverse local audiences.

A fourth panellist, David Medalie, a professor of English at Pretoria University, compared the current state of South African fiction to an awkward teenager: “Talented, sometimes insightful, sometimes gauche, digressive, fond of monotonous rhythms and often in a dishevelled state.”

This last point — the poor quality of South African editing — vexed Medalie and Rosenthal in particular.

“There’s a lot more establishing for the teenager to do,” Medalie concluded.

An hour later three precocious “teenagers” of South African fiction took to the podium to discuss the line between fiction and creative non­fiction.

Thando Mgqolozana, whose debut novel, A Man Who is Not a Man, rocked conservative Xhosa traditional culture last year, was joined by sassy black chick-lit author Zukiswa Wanner and the self-described “post-politically correct” Afrikaans author, Deon Maas.

Writer-poet Chris van Wyk completed the panel. Though Van Wyk belongs to an older generation of writers, his wry humour contributed to a wide-ranging and frequently hilarious panel discussion.

De Kock assumed the chair, explaining that non­fiction outsold fiction in South Africa because books about our history, politics and sport do not have to compete with international non-fiction titles.

But the popularity of non-fiction is also indicative of “a hunger for truth” among the reading public, De Kock said, a legacy of South Africans “having been bullshitted about so much by so many people over so many centuries”.

Despite the seeming dualism of the real and the non-real, each panellist explained how their everyday, “true-life” experiences informed their fiction. For instance, Maas explained his experiments with “participatory fiction”, which he compared with shooting reality TV.

“First, the action happens and only then do you write the script for it,” he said, pointing out that “fiction is about re-cutting the real”.

A third panel, convened to discuss South African crime writing, grappled with the pervasiveness of the political in local fiction.

Antony Altbeker, who penned Fruit of a Poisoned Tree about the murder of Stellenbosch university student Inge Lotz, said the South African crime novel is necessarily political. “It’s hard to imagine anything that is not inspired by true events. That’s the burden of writing in a politicised society,” he said, but warned of “the danger and temptation of discussing our problems in abstractions”.

Margie Orford, the author of the Clare Hart crime series, explained that the genre “represents what is happening around us”. Having returned to South Africa from Namibia in 2001, Orford said she had been “overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of sexual violence” and the lack of fiction writing “about how South Africa ‘is'”.

A discussion ensued about the ambivalent representation of the police in South African crime novels — they are neither paragons of virtue, nor irredeemably crooked. Andrew Brown, whose Street Blues recounts his experiences as a police reservist, said that the ambivalence once again reflects reality: “We know we have an imperfect police force, but by and large, they still get the job done.”

Altbeker referred to the police as “armed social workers” who “don’t have time to sit and philosophise about the Rainbow Nation. For them, the reality is getting through the long night on lots of cheap coffee.”

And then it hit me.

South African writers are somewhat like Altbeker’s description of its cops: an imperfect force of social workers who, armed with their pens, confront the stark realities of society with little more than the cheap coffee of a lukewarm reading public to keep them going.

The inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing went to Ellen Banda-Aaku and Pius Adesanmi. Banda-Aaku, born in Zambia, won the fiction category for her manuscript Patchwork. Nigerian-born Pius Adesanmi took the non-fiction award for You’re Not a Country, Africa!

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