/ 25 March 2011

Looking for shapes in the clouds

In his masterly (and amusing) contribution to the debate about ‘literary standards” in these pages, Leon de Kock evoked a highway metaphor for literary production. My mind’s eye saw many lanes going either way, with great SUVs cruising here, nervy Mini Coopers dodging minibus taxis there, helicopters circling overhead —

Perhaps because the metaphor is so evocative of a South African reality, I wanted to add to it — cops lurking lazily at a roadblock, VIP convoys flashing past, destitutes living under the grafittied overpasses — (And, by the way, why am I seeing one highway, and not the usual bewilderment of onramps, offramps, flyovers and roadworks?)

It felt like a war zone, and I soon lost track of who was who in this highway scenario. Is André Brink an SUV? Does Nadine Gordimer have a police escort? Is that Fiona Snyckers in the Mini? Is that Leon de Kock in the helicopter? And I’m trying not to look at the carnage at the side of the road — that writer there was surely wiped out by the enormous truck now ramped up the verge and leaking glossy imports with titles like The Power of Now.

I certainly got De Kock’s striking idea of the review as a crash on the literary highway. A bad review can make you feel like that — bad as in badly done, and bad as in negatively critical. But writers putting their work into the marketplace of public discourse should be prepared for such dangers. As Elvis Costello says, accidents will happen.

Hovering cloud
Still I can’t help feeling that we may be able to come up with better, more hopeful, metaphors for literary production. Just as the favoured metaphor of the ‘information superhighway” is now giving way to the softer, more amorphous notion of the ‘information cloud”, perhaps we can see literary production in similar fashion.

You can imagine discourse, in the broadest sense, as a kind of hovering cloud, or a shifting strata of clouds, ones within which all sorts of complicated chemical reactions are going on. You could see literature as various bacteria in a Petri dish, mingling and bonding or not, creating strange new life forms or ingesting each other and spitting out the indigestible parts. And I’m not even considering the inevitable publisher’s metaphor of the marketplace — which is, after all, the dominant or fundamental metaphor of the society we live in. Apart from competing discourses, we’ve got competing metaphors.

But let’s leave metaphors aside for now and be practical. I was literary editor of this newspaper for 15 years and I have seen the multitude of difficulties to do with writing, publishing, reviewing and marketing. I include marketing because publishers’ (and, very occasionally, booksellers’) ads pay for books pages in a paper, so that’s also part of the dynamic.

Sometimes there’s simply no space to review even important locally produced books — and it was part of my agenda when I started as books editor to cover as many local titles as possible.

Lucky to get reviewed at all

The space available to a books editor is a fluctuating and thus troublesome element in trying to grapple with the floods of books that arrive on one’s desk. Luckily many can be discarded at once. (I used to have all sorts of categories of exclusion: no self-published books, fewer hardcore-academic works, very little popular fiction, et cetera.)

I would tell authors or publishers unhappy about a bad review that they were lucky to get reviewed at all. Even with today’s proportions of review space to books published, and given that some reviews are undoubtedly too long, I think that’s still the case.

A good review — as in competently done, whether positive or negative — is a contribution to the wider discourse about books, life, writing in general, the world. It should be more than an exercise in consumer advice (buy this, don’t buy that). As a reviewer, you’ve also got to be true to your response to a work: too many mealy-mouthed half-compliments and respectful genuflections make for very boring reviews, and then no one reads the books pages.

But it can be hard for a reviewer, partly because our literary scene is small and partly because many reviewers are also book-writers, so there is a natural sympathy for the potential accident victim. But there is also the difficulty of dealing with sub-par works by well-known names, and I’m guilty of keeping my claws in: many years ago, reviewing a book by an important South African literary figure, I couldn’t bring myself to say what I thought in so many words, so I concealed my conclusion in the first letter of each of the six paragraphs, which spelled out the word ‘Boring”.

My own feeling is that we have to be hard-headed reviewers. Often we’ve read more widely than the author of the book under review, and if it feels like old hat we should say so. The ‘boom” in South African literature has been largely to do with a recourse to genre; we have plenty of crime novels, bits of chicklit, and so on, whereas before we usually had only serious works dealing with a harsh reality.

Making a silk purse out of a manuscript
It’s good that our options are broadening, and some genre works stand up as important literary productions, but we do need to produce more than genre works with a South African flavour.

And, certainly, we have to draw attention to the places where a publisher is short-changing its authors.

Imprints such as Kwela, whose Nelleke de Jager defended herself in these pages, in fact do a pretty good job of editing and so forth, even if it can’t always make a silk purse of a manuscript. At the other extreme, Jacana is a publisher that takes risks, often has brilliant ideas, usually packages its publications excitingly, but then won’t spend the money or doesn’t have the time to edit or proofread a book properly. This is not in the interest of the reader, the publisher or the author, and it must be pointed out.

Authors also need to be more self-critical. The Romantic belief in self-expression is doubtless motivating to writers, and everyone has at least some small right to self-expression. But that doesn’t mean the work that emerges is necessarily any good, or even that it should have been a book as opposed to, say, a blog — and authors have to be prepared for reviewers who say that.

Publishers do put out a fair amount of crap, probably in the hope it will make money. And they do then try to make themselves (and reviewers, hence the buyer) believe that such work is decent, but reviewers have to counteract this kind of hype. It does no one any good — except perhaps the booksellers who have invested so heavily in quick-sell popular fiction and trends such as self-help mumbo-jumbo. If they argue that such flimflam ultimately subvents the production and sale of better, serious literature, they are crossing their fingers behind their backs: what little serious literature is on their shelves is being edged out by the pap, and there’s no depth of stock if you want a title older than a few years.

Our bookselling and publishing models, drawn from the First World, may not be the best thing for South Africa. Such models turn books into luxury items, and an American-style publicity machinery can delude authors into thinking their every utterance is golden.

Certainly, we need more discourse rather than less, but we also need quality and not just quantity. We should be using the electronic media, and different publishing and sales models, to diversify the market and complicate the ‘cloud” of literary production. After all, publishing a book means trees have to die. Please, let them not die for nothing.