Thursday, February 21, 2013

African books aren't holy cows and neither are their writers

I came across a post this morning by Jeremy Weate who is quite bleak faced the crisis in African publishing. I appreciated someone finally calling African writers out for focussing their work on events and circumstances that played out 20 to 50 to 150 years ago. Where are the stories of hope from the BlackBerry beauties of Lagos? Where are the tales of misadventure from the Congos most reckless taxi drivers? It seems that writers are having to dig deeper and deeper to find old stories of pain and loss to stay relevant:

The writer will live for a year or two on borrowed time; words rented from experiences fast receding. A novel, or perhaps two, will emerge. Each will detail times from an Africa that is sinking beneath the horizon. The work will be feted, but less so each time. The African writer will be little irked by how much publicity his Western publisher asks him to do: set up a Facebook account, regularly ping twitter followers with updates, visit out of the way places on cold days for an audience of 10. The third book, if he gets that far, will likely be pure anachronism. The African writer will sense that times have changed back home, but will by now be helpless to address the contemporary.

Meanwhile, his western readership, looking for the next African star, will be wondering what happened. Even being thousands of kilometres away from the action, he will sense something no longer of the present. In rooms with cityscapes for views, or across the tables of chichi restaurants, executives will be leafing through someone else’s manuscript. A new tale of African horror (or sometimes, African ‘lushness’ and ‘vibrancy’) will be required in time for the run up to Christmas.

This is the part where my opinions started to diverge. Isn't setting up a FB and Twtter account and going on book tours and speaking to the five people who read and love your book kind of part of the deal? It's a business first and foremost but it's also an industry that's changing. Producers faced with global competition have to find ways to reach geographical dispersed consumers. Social media helps, so does travel. How else are you going to sell the book? A little blurb in Publishers Weekly ain't gonna cut it.

And authors - like their books - aren't holy cows. What's the big deal of having to do a Google+ hangout every so often? Is it so bad doing a blog tour? And so what if African authors want to live in the US, publish in the US, work as academics and have a better standard of life for themselves and their families? Let's not glamourise this idea of starving artists or writers so elite and noble that they can overlook the practical banality of having to earn a living and maybe put your kids through grad school in favour of some rose-tinted, PEP sunglasses. They want to make money - who with gainful employment doesn't want to?

In part I agree that "the African writer who links migration to success (and to expectations of material well-being) is part of an ageing post-colonial condition" but I also recognise that this is a global business now. Putting the ideology aside, to find your audience, whether here or in Europe or the US, is di-ffi-cult and to get that audience to buy your books en masse is even harder.

I'm completely on board with the idea that African publishers have a role to play in changing the reality of writing on this continent in ways that Weate and I can agree on:

African publishers also need to become more than what they are now. We need to collaborate, across our differences. We need to rave about our authors, and introduce them directly into each other’s markets, without recourse to a European detour. We need to help build a publishing infrastructure, which innovates and adapts to the opportunities continent provides. African publishers also need to spell out the reality of working on the continent and what is at stake.

But, perhaps because I am coming from a South African perspective, I think that local publishers publish fine work of quality, variety and substance. Yes, I would like to see more book by people younger than 30. Yes, I am interested in indigenous language writing and why publishers aren't innovating and experimenting with guerilla marketing and direct sales and taxi-rank bookstores to reach the market that I still believe exists. However, I acknowledge that South Africans own their own stories, where-ever they are published first, and not all of them are about pain, suffering, war, rape and blood diamonds. Maybe that makes us unique on the African continent but I for one don't buy that the Shining Girls is going to be a better book than say Zoo City because it has an overseas publisher. It'll probably be a better selling book but ultimately, it will only be a better book because it's author is now better.

Read the complete Situation is Critical! article

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