Our literature needs incisive criticism, yes, but on exactly whose values will it be based?

In a wide-ranging critique of black South African literature over a quarter of a century ago, Njabulo Ndebele criticised some Black Consciousness writers of the time for indulging in ‘anti-intellectualism” because they rejected critical evaluation of their works in favour of the response of the ‘man in the street”.

This episode illustrates a recurring urge among South African writers that stretches back decades: to dismiss the judgments of literary critics.

Thus the recent response to criticism by writers and performers from two very different sectors of literature (spoken-word poetry and genre fiction) is nothing new. But in light of such a recurrence it is perhaps worthwhile to consider why this is a theme of our literary history. Why do our writers continually feel so deeply suspicious of critics?

I would want to begin answering this through discussion of a particular segment of our literature.

For years my continuing interest has been in struggles around canonicity and, therefore, those local writers who have worked and experimented at the margins of public and critical acceptability.

Ignored and marginalised
What Darryl Accone says in his original piece about Kafka and Italo Svevo (Mail & Guardian February 4) is important for us as well; in our local literature there are examples of writers and performers who have been ignored or marginalised because of their supposed lesser ability and value but who, on closer examination, have been short-changed by critics.

In my field alone—black South African literature after 1965—many instances over the years spring to mind: the early rejection of Black Consciousness poets (some of whom now have a global reputation) by local journals; curt dismissals or disproportionate criticism aimed at specific books by reviewers (such as Donald Parenzee’s Driven to Work and, 20 years on, Kgebetli Moele’s first novel); and the characterisation, by one well-published commentator, of the craft of a number of contemporary poets (including Seitlhamo Motsapi and Lesego Rampolokeng) as a conglomeration of
‘throwaway lines”.

One could continue, but there is a point here beyond name-calling or the giving of examples. Although the specific viewpoints I have cited are those of academics, it is also true that, with notable exceptions, newspaper reviewers have not always conducted themselves with glory either. Inept reviews usually demonstrate the narrow terms of reference and, indeed, the relative ignorance (there is no nicer word for it) of the person making them. In such a scenario, authors have some reason to be wary.

Unreflective certainty
Academics and, similarly, editors and reviewers partake in the creation of values. Even before they give opinions they select certain works as worthy of scrutiny; they discard others; they set out frames through which students are required to view particular authors or pieces of literature. This tendency can be extremely helpful but can as easily lead to an unreflective certainty among readers and would-be authors that understanding—and creative success—will be the result of mastery and application of a set number of generic rules and conventions. In the hands of less adept teachers creative writing courses and workshops only add to this problem.

So: a more vigorous criticism, by all means. But I am already starting to get a feeling of déjà vu as I think back to the immediately pre-Black Consciousness period when (mainly white) critics tended to assume that their notions about literary value were universal and obvious.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear they used criteria that were too limited.

This issue of finding the most appropriate criteria for evaluation is a problem we still face. Work by ‘postcolonial” and, more recently, ‘transnational” critics elsewhere has shown that the metropole is reassessing its terms of literary reference and understanding in this regard. In his recent A Transnational Poetics, Jahan Ramazani asks what would happen to English literary studies if the discipline reflected intercultural energies and mobilities as primary (rather than incidental) to methodologies of assessment and evaluation.

Web of influence
Too much prior criticism in South Africa has begged this question, despite the fact that debates over the topography of our ‘national culture” have been forthcoming for a century. But still, South Africa is a country in which there is no guarantee that a generally accepted set of values about art and culture exists, and in which different expectations of genre, form and content coexist.

I am making much more than a racial or a cultural point here. The web of influence and counter-influence between writers in South Africa can no longer be described or comprehended in simple binary terms, because there are some South African writers who seem to be working at the intersection of a bevy of generic models, stylistic assumptions and modes of expression far past the confines of cultural identity. How contemporary critics respond to the challenge of such production is a crucial issue.

Already I worry at the seemingly obvious and neutral, but actually value-laden, terms that have begun to appear in the current debate. It is not enough to suggest that the reviewers should be ‘honest” or ‘serious” and concentrate on works that are not ‘boring”. All these terms are in fact tautological and require assessment themselves. They explain little, yet profoundly form the judgments a critic will make.

If we are to take the issue forward fruitfully, the present conventions of literature’s ‘square dance” (Jane Rosenthal) must themselves become part of the investigation. So, too, the limitations of current literary education in schools and universities.

Any wider-ranging scrutiny of our literature needs also to find ways to deal with both (in Chris Thurman’s words) ‘serious-minded, erudite readers” and books that appeal’to the public eye”.

As everyone knows, the imperatives of the market have ended the phenomenon of the subsidised ‘alternative” publishers of the 1970s and 1980s, who based the selection of titles on a belief that there was an untapped readership eager for politically minded books. It remains sobering to realise how seismic the shift has been since liberation. In the existing climate one can conjecture that at least some of the most admired older icons of our literature, if they started writing now, would probably not see publication at all.

To be fair, characterising the concerns of contemporary South African publishers as strictly commercial does belie their publication of a great deal of non-fiction on topics of social concern. Moreover, one can hazard a guess that there is an assumption among some of them that the rapid publication and consumption of new authors somehow will assist in creating a wider and more democratic post-apartheid culture in which more voices are given space to ‘tell their stories”.

In cases where it has been applied indiscriminately, I believe this well-meaning urge has had the opposite effect to that intended and, in part, has facilitated the self-congratulatory, chummy ambience that prevails in literary circles at present, as well as the accompanying celebration of whatever is published. This has been as damaging, albeit in a different way, as the spectacle of literary-debate-as-gladiatorial-combat that occurred during the last two decades of apartheid.

Calls for a more incisive criticism are now imperative. However, I would suggest that the terms in which this criticism is conceptualised and couched need more deliberation.

Kelwyn Sole is a Professor in the English Department at UCT. He has published widely on the subject of South African and postcolonial literature and culture, and is also the author of five collections of poetry

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