/ 25 March 2011

South African literature’s perfect storm

The job of a books editor is curatorial, political and considered. It rests on knowledge of cultural and political networks and who knows who.

Discussion has been raging over the past few weeks in the Afrikaans press and on Litnet about Media24 newspapers’ decision to discard the books editors of their national dailies, Beeld (northern provinces including Gauteng distribution), Die Burger (Cape-based) and ­Volksblad (Free State) and to contract a super editor for books who would create an identical book page for the three newspapers.

Not only does this move concentrate too much power in one person, it also means that fewer perspectives and opinions will be expressed about fewer books.

A lively, growing and discoursing literary scene depends on a variety of voices and perspectives. It promotes vibrant intellectual debate and informs critical perspective on politics and the cultural life of the nation.
Some aspects of this decision:

  • Regional differences in perspective are disregarded when there is only one books editor for such a large geographical area. These are the differences that inform reviews and enrich literature.

  • The job of a books editor is curatorial, political and considered. Most of all, it rests on knowledge of cultural and political networks and the nuances involved in who is who and who knows who. A single books editor for three newspapers will inevitably mean a slant towards those he or she knows. A specific view will unavoidably dominate.

  • A widespread and diverse literary reviewing base ensures that thinking and writing about books and literature not only happens among a chosen few, but supports broader literary and intellectual discussion countrywide and helps sustain the livelihood of many more ­word-crafters.

  • Most surprising is that this discussion has not been taken up in South African English literature vehicles, such as bookSA and its bloggers, or the Mail & Guardian. Much more is at stake than just the shrinking of the Afrikaans literary discourse. What English-speaking readers and writers in South Africa may have missed (maybe as a result of a monolingual perspective) is that the Afrikaans press has, for years, carried quality reviews of books, not only from Afrikaans literature but also from world and South African literature. A narrowing in the scope of the book pages means an impoverishment and loss to a wide literary readership of all literatures in South Africa.

  • It has to be said that the book pages of many newspapers in South Africa, not only those of Media24, have shrunk dramatically in the past few years and in many cases, have lost their importance as sources of a range of (quality) reviews.

  • Reacting to the super-editor plan, poet Breyten Breytenbach has called for a boycott of Afrikaans dailies. But many readers who would care about good book pages have already been alienated from national dailies because of their increasingly tabloid reporting.

  • Does this disinvestment in a broad literary culture by one of the most powerful media houses in the country — built on Afrikaans culture and Afrikaans readership — not indicate a disregard for this constituency?

    Given publishers struggling to survive, bookshops closing down, the economic downturn and now this disinvestment in a lively literary culture, South African literature may just be experiencing the perfect storm.

    Corina van der Spoel runs Boekehuis bookshop in Johannesburg. This article is a distillation of a blog from the new website of the Stellenbosch Literary Project (slipnet.co.za)