You are what you read

‘So many writers, so little writing,” wrote Darryl Accone, the Mail & Guardian‘s books editor, in his piece examining the state of writing in South Africa. That seems a good point to pick up the baton and continue.

I have lost count of how many people I meet who identify themselves primarily as writers. Most of the time they are journalists, DJs, students, people who have at one point or the other sat down to post a blog, tweet, write down a rhyme —

Poets and writers — it’s difficult to think of a more abused pair of nouns. We revere them but with sainthood comes desecration. No doubt, the rise of the “writerly” phenomenon has to do with the scores of people spawned by South Africa’s publishing boom, scores who have instantly become authors and have attained the celebrity status that goes with it.

In a society in which sushi eating and owning fast cars are favourite pastimes, the elevation of the writer figure is encouraging. But what is disturbing is the unwillingness to carry the “writerly” burden — to read and think, to engage ideas and other people robustly. This may have something to do with the little reading that goes on.

I will illustrate this point by way of three anecdotes. Years ago I had to interview a poet, “the spoken word” variety. In the course of the interview I remember asking who her favourite writers were. Chinua Achebe, she piped up. After further probing, if I remember correctly, it turned out she hadn’t read any of Achebe’s books.


A year or so ago I was in a second-hand bookshop about to buy a book of poetry by Austrian poet Georg Trakl. In the bookshop was a PhD literature candidate, an acquaintance of mine, who asked why I was buying Trakl. I like his poetry, I said. No, he said, it’s probably because you have an Austrian girlfriend.

A few months ago a friend organised a poetry workshop with about six Wits University students. A few poems had been circulated, including WH Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats. One of the students present at the workshop dismissed it as a lousy poem. It turned out he hadn’t taken the trouble to read it.

You are what you read
That gastronomic cliché, you are what you eat, applies equally to the writing profession. You are what you read. If you read old wives’ and madhalas’ tales, that will be reflected in your writing.

“If you want to get at the root of murder look for the blacksmith who made the machete,” Achebe writes in Anthills of the Savannah. He then adds that this information isn’t helpful to a detective investigating an actual crime but is a saying meant to expand our horizons.

It’s easy to blame all of this on Bantu education — it’s a human impulse to shift responsibility as far away as possible from the self. Some of the illiteracy — how else to describe it — is a direct result of the apartheid schooling system.

That’s a comforting thought until you realise that a disproportionate number of the young writers are going through a post-apartheid schooling system at some of the country’s better schools. So where does the problem lie?

It’s easy, again, to blame publishers for not rigorously editing some of the works being published. Kopano Matlwa’s Spilt Milk (Jacana) is an example. Her new novel is no improvement on her debut, Coconut. A few years ago there was a literary storm when a scholar queried the sloppy editing of Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207 (Kwela). Angela Makholwa’s work, Red Ink (Picador Africa), had so many errors her publisher had to recall the book.

Some of the mistakes could and should have been spotted by a sufficiently alert editor. Michael Cawood Green’s For the Sake of Silence (Umuzi) was too longwinded and laboured. But, ultimately, the name on a novel is that of the author and the author has to take responsibility for what is published under his/her name.

A friend who published a work of non-fiction a few years ago told me that he would use his advance to hire an editor as he wasn’t happy about the sloppy editing of his first book.

‘Part of the problem’
I have enormous respect for Book SA, a website conceived and edited by that tireless bibliophile, Ben Williams. It has provided a platform that has nurtured a big community of writers and readers, both online and “real”.

It has, inevitably, also built firm friendships but, as Roberto Bolaño writes in The Savage Detectives, “friendship, though treasure it may be, destroys your critical sense”. There’s no doubt rigorous debate is hosted by the website but some of it occasionally feels like friendly banter — friends gently stroking the backs of friends.

The critics, every one of us, can’t walk away free from the murder scene — we are part of the problem. In our breasts we have a patriotic impulse not to trash the local — local is lekker, as the saying goes. I think governments call it constructive criticism.

The result is we suspend our critical faculties, hide our reluctance to tell someone to go to hell with obfuscation and double-speak. We give out sweets when we should be taking out huge sjamboks. Our literature, as a consequence, suffers. Let me practise what I preach.

I went to Real Men Talk, a poetry reading held on January 29. I had to leave midway after what felt like hours of listening to what, at times, sounded like the jottings of students who had just discovered Marx. Masoja Msiza’s approach to poetry relies too heavily on the Thesaurus. There were good poets to be sure — Peter Horn, Lesego Rampolokeng, Vonani Bila and others — but there was also a lot of dross.

At times I feel that the best writing that has come out of Africa is from the older generation — the people born in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, writers such as Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mongo Beti, Mariam Ba, Ferdinard Oyono, Dambudzo Marechera, Charles Mungoshi, Sembene Ousmane, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Ben Okri, Tsitsi Dangarembga—

This list is not meant to be definitive. Sometimes I feel that the generations of writers born in the 1970s and 1980s haven’t quite lived up to the legacy bequeathed by these eminent predecessors. It could be nostalgia for the literature I grew up on.

Are there many young writers working at the moment who are worthy of these forebears? I have to tread carefully now as some of these writers are my friends. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu, Hisham Matar, José Eduardo Agualusa and Sello K Duiker aside, can we think of writers who are worthy of the average reader’s attention? I don’t mean to dismiss a whole generation of writers because I know there is a small number of hungry, busy, beady-eyed romantics who are quietly working.

They sit at a computer without an internet connection, write until the small hours of the morning, stare at their manuscripts and, unsatisfied, start writing again.

Sadly, these are standing outside the spotlight — it is the attention- seekers, the spoken-word poets, writers and whatever mutant this genre has spawned who are tweeting their novels, poetry and their every second thought. So what we have is lots of writers and yet so little writing. It’s not too late to reverse the damage. It will mean my job as a critic is much easier.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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