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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Vampire vs Tokoloshe: the battle for the hearts and minds of young South African readers

(A version of this paper was presented to the ISASA Librarians Conference in Grahamstown on 6 July 2011)

As fiction for teens becomes one of the most profitable areas in publishing, it has also become a hotly contested terrain among those who seek to manipulate or control it.

This impulse to control what young people read is not a new one. In 1797, the Monthly Mirror published an article entitled Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity. The author of this cry from the heart argues that the habit of reading novels during her formative years will render a woman unfit to be a wife and mother when she reaches adulthood. The problem with novels was that they glorified romantic love and the individual’s right to choose her own romantic partners. This was regarded as dangerously seditious at a time when marriage was regarded more as a commercial transaction between families than as a route to personal fulfillment.

The sort of novels that would have troubled the Monthly Mirror author include Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolfo. These highly lurid gothic romances boasted plots feverish enough to challenge today’s most bosom-heaving vampire novels.

The 20th Century might have brought a cloak of respectability to the novel, but it didn’t put a stop to the adult desire to meddle in what children were reading. Today’s parents are more inclined to jump for joy than to shake their heads if their children start reading Enid Blyton, because books like The Magic Faraway Tree, and the Famous Five are now regarded as classics of children’s literature. They might be surprised to learn that the BBC effectively banned Enid Blyton from radio and television for thirty years. The BBC recently released archived correspondence between its officials which show that a conscious decision was taken to exclude all Enid Blyton stories from its children’s programmes, on the basis that they had no literary value and “too many pixies”. Blyton was described as a second-rater and it was decided not to give her airtime at the expense of “really good children’s writers”.

Later on in the 20th Century Blyton’s stories came under fire from parents who didn’t want their children exposed to the golliwogs and greasy foreigners who make up the villains in her fictional world. Today, the golliwogs have been replaced by goblins but the greasy foreigners remain, yet most parents count themselves lucky if their children go through an Enid Blyton phase.

It’s when they graduate to Harry Potter that the trouble starts again. For every parent who steers their child towards J K Rowlings’ series, there is another who forbids it on the grounds that it is satanic and full of witchcraft. This is despite the Archbishop of Canterbury famously stating that he would encourage children to read the series because it presents the struggle between good and evil in such an accessible light. The Vatican has equally famously flip-flopped on the issue – warning against the books in 2003 on the basis that they “undermine the soul of Christianity”, only to change its position in 2009 by praising the series for “drawing a clear line of demarcation between good and evil and for promoting the values of friendship, altruism and loyalty”.

It’s when children outgrow Harry Potter and move on to the likes of Twilight and the Vampire Diaries that the controversy really hots up.

It’s tempting to look back and laugh at the anti-novel brigade of the 19th Century, and the anti-Blyton brigade of the 1930s, but Young Adult writers are facing just as much blind prejudice today.

The debate got a new injection of controversy in June of this year when an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was entitled Darkness Too Visible and asked why contemporary fiction for teens is so “rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity”. Gurdon bewails the prevalence of such themes as suicide, self-mutilation, and incest in young adult literature, as well as the relentless creep of profanity into books for children. It’s hard not to feel some measure of sympathy for her. Yes, young adult writers have pushed the envelope way beyond what could even have been conceivable thirty years ago. Yes, a lot of young adult fiction is extremely dark and grueling to read. And yes, one can understand the squeamish reluctance of a parent to expose their child to such ugly unpleasantness.

But it is worth remembering that every attempt by adults throughout history to control or limit what young people are reading has turned out to be entirely misguided. That alone should sound a warning bell that it is a mistake to try to rein in Young Adult fiction.

Gurdon’s article spawned a backlash of unprecedented ferocity among young adult writers. A flurry of articles followed, as well as a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #YAsaves. The anti-Gurdon camp has argued passionately and convincingly that uncomfortable content exists throughout literature, from the classics on up and that this is no justification for censorship. They have argued that issues like self-injury, eating disorders, and bullying don’t go away if you ignore them, but can be rendered more manageable when the silence around them is broken and open debate is allowed.

As the South African Young Adult author Edyth Bulbring said at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, fiction creates a safe space within which children can explore the consequences of their actions. Reading about drug abuse or underage sex won’t have children rushing out to copy those behaviours, but will allow them to experience the consequences at a safe remove and hopefully take away a lesson from that experience.

The debate rages on with new articles and tweets appearing on an almost daily basis, but we have to ask what relevance this has to us in South Africa where the daily lived reality of many children is far worse than anything a Young Adult writer could dream up. These aren’t pampered, middle-class children who need to be protected from the ugliness of the big bad world, but children who need an escape from the ugliness of their daily lives. There are children in South Africa whose lives are so challenging that it would be a minor miracle if they picked up and read a book – any book. Quibbling over the content of that book seems entirely superfluous.

But South Africa is such a diverse society that there is room for discussion about all issues. There are your avid readers who will almost certainly come across content that makes their teachers and parents uncomfortable. Then there are those who will never learn to read at a level that makes fiction accessible to them. They will have been catastrophically failed by a deeply flawed education system and leaders who lack the political will to rectify the situation. And then there are those who can read at a functional level and who may or may not become readers depending on whether they are exposed to the right kind of fiction at the right time. These are the children that we as South African writers need to woo and seduce as a matter of urgency. We compete for their attention with the rival claims of TV, film and electronic media. And if they ever do pick up a book for enjoyment it’s more likely to be the latest overseas blockbuster than a South African novel.

I would love to see South African writers drawing on local mythologies in their writing, rather than relying on imported European legends. This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s surely only a matter of time before tokoloshes and kaaimans go head to head with zombies and vampires on the bookshelves of the Young Adult section.

Teen fiction in South Africa got off to a slow start after 1994, but is rapidly gaining momentum with authors like S A Partridge, Edyth Bulbring, Lily Herne, and Adeline Radloff producing books in a great, glorious rush in the last two or three years.

But it’s not enough just to create great content. Innovative ways of delivering that content are needed too. The Yoza Mobi project by the Shuttleworth Foundation attempted to harness the power of MXit to deliver serialised fiction to South African teenagers. What my involvement in the Yoza Mobi project taught me is that South African teens will read just as avidly as any other teenagers if the content is delivered to them in an accessible way. It also taught me that they are attracted to issue-driven fiction and escapist fiction in approximately equal measure. The stories that seized and transported them, while also dealing with relevant issues in their own lives, were the ones they enjoyed the most.

I’ve also been involved in the new wave of affordable romantic fiction spearheaded by Nollybooks and the Sapphire Press imprint of Kwela Books. These two publishers are attempting to bring short, affordable romances to South African girls and women. This was an eye-opening experience for me as I discovered how much less tolerant South African women are of the predictability of the romance genre than their overseas counterparts, and how receptive they are to stories set in a recognizably local setting with familiar characters, rather than Greek playboy billionaires.

South African young adult fiction is in good hands with its current crop of writers. We just need to remind ourselves to resist the temptation to meddle in what our young people are reading, and continue to seek new and innovative ways of delivering great fiction to teenagers who might otherwise resist it.

Click here for some girl-on-girl action

It’s been a good week for Jennifer Egan. She found out on Monday that her latest novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” has won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal featured an interview with her, and she has hardly been out of the book pages since.

What might possibly have taken the gilt off the gingerbread for her has been the positively tsunami-like backlash against certain comments she made in that self-same WSJ interview. This has taken the form of high-profile criticism by some of her more influential and outspoken colleagues; several scathing blogs; and numerous erstwhile Jennifer Egan fans swearing they will never buy another book of hers or recommend her work to anyone at all. Ever.

So what exactly did she say to provoke such widespread ire? It’s all there in the WSJ interview, although if you blink you might miss it. But however brief her comments were, they were pointed and they cut deep.

The interview starts off innocuously enough with Egan playing the charmingly flustered Pulitzer Prize recipient: “It’s absolutely nutty to win something like this. I feel weird. I wish I had something more articulate to say. It seems so fantastical, like I’ve exited from real life. I found out 20 minutes ago.” She then goes on to talk about previous Pulitzer winners and to discuss her narrative style, which she and the interviewer between them choose to call post-post-modernity or verisimilitude. (There’s a chapter that’s written entirely as a powerpoint presentation, if that whets your appeitite at all.)

So far so extremely par for the course. Egan only really starts to go off script when the interviewer asks her about, “the debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press”. She starts off by urging women writers to shoot high and achieve a lot – a sentiment most of us would endorse wholeheartedly. She then applauds young, ambitious women writers and invites us to look at “The Tiger’s Wife” as a shining example. (Cliff Notes crib: The Tiger’s Wife by 24-year-old Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht is a folk-taley quest novel that the New York Observer described as bearing an unfortunate whiff of Yore.)

Then – as though afflicted by a sudden bout of literary Tourettes Syndrome – Egan makes the following astounding statement: “There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?”

This is one of those squabbles that needs a lot of context filled in before you can hope to understand it. The Harvard student was one Kaavya Viswanathan, a young Indian-American woman, who wrote a book called “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life”. The book was energetically climbing the bestseller charts when it was found to contain substantial passages that had clearly been plagiarised from Young Adult author Megan McCafferty, and veteran leaders of the chick-lit genre, Sophie Kinsella and Meg Cabot. Viswanathan claimed repeatedly to have “unconsciously internalised” the relevant passages, and blamed her “photographic memory” for the similarities. Within a very short space of time, all copies of the book were withdrawn and destroyed by the publisher and Viswanathan’s contract for a second novel summarily cancelled. You can read all about the scandal here.

The really interesting part of Jennifer Egan’s denunciation of Viswanathan is that she does not condemn her for plagiarism, but merely for choosing poor role models: “she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?”

So just to be absolutely clear here, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan takes time out of her Wall Street Journal victory lap to call three of her most distinguished, best-selling female colleagues derivative and banal. Classy, Jennifer. Very classy.

And speaking of distinguished colleagues, another writer whose work was clearly shown to have been plagiarised by Viswanathan was Salman Rushdie. I wonder if Egan intended to include him in the “derivative and banal” camp? I suspect not, although if he had been a fellow woman writer he might not have got off so lightly.

One can’t help wondering what was going through Egan’s head at this point. It would be possible to dismiss her statement as a throwaway, meaningless remark if she hadn’t contributed a chapter of “A Visit from the Goon-Squad” to that notorious collection of short stories “This is Not Chick-Lit”, edited by Elizabeth Merrick. Merrick is most notable for her response to criticism of her choice of title with those tired anti-feminist words, “meow” and “the claws came out”. Because as we all know, male writers have debates, while female writers have cat-fights. Le yawn.

In short, as Jennifer Weiner says in her Twitter feed, Egan is clearly not a fan of the pink book cover. But still, what would provoke someone to employ a forum that should be all about her to trample on the reputations of her fellow women writers? Is it part of what Debby Edelstein calls PhD syndrome – Pull Her Down syndrome? This is a learned behaviour on the part of certain women to be unable to resist any opportunity to pull other women down. Is Egan, in short, guilty of a girl-on-girl crime?

Or is it the age-old jealousy of the literary fiction writer for the phenomenal sales of the commercial fiction writer? If so, it has backfired in a big way as many online commenters have vowed to boycott her books till the end of time. In South Africa, if you strike a woman you strike a rock, but in America if you strike Meg Cabot, you apparently piss off several million potential book buyers.

Perhaps Jennifer Egan simply has a sincere, principled objection to women’s commercial fiction – she thinks it’s absolute tripe and she’s not afraid to say so. I’m pretty sure this is not the case because Megan McCafferty – the writer most extensively plagiarised by Viswanathan, and therefore the one most targeted by Egan’s remarks – recently tweeted that she has received an apology. Unless you are particularly spineless, you don’t apologise for standing up for your principled beliefs. You apologise for something you sincerely regret and perceive in retrospect to have been wrong.

And if you are even halfway honourable, you make that apology public. I very much hope that, in due course, Egan will do so.

Hundreds of proofs that God does not exist

The good people over at recently came up with Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence – a fascinating and enlightening read. If one were a cynical and untrusting sort of person, one might almost suspect them of satire, but fortunately one is not.

The godless geeks have put a lot of time and effort into their list, so it clearly behoves one to return the favour with an equally thoughtful list of proofs that God does not exist. It’s only fair after all.

(1) Atheist: Look at my theorem based on Bayes’ theory of probability showing that God does not exist. *holds up theorem*
[Believer: Look at MY theorem based on Bayes' theory of probability showing that God DOES exist. *holds up conflicting theorem*]
(2) Atheist: Yeah? Well, my theorem is better than your theorem
[Believer: My theorem is kicking your theorem's butt around the room]
(3) Atheist: My theorem is headbutting your theorem and rabbit-punching it to the floor
[Believer: You just don't understanding simple maths]
(4) Atheist: YOU don’t understand simple maths OR science
(5) Therefore God does not exist

(1) Some Catholic priests have been shown to have molested children
(2) I disapprove of the molesting of children
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) My father was a rabbi/imam/priest/pandit/minister
(2) I am rebelling against my religious upbringing
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) It is very cruel and terrible that Muslim women are made to wear hijabs/burkhas/niqabs
(2)They are forced to wear these oppressive garments by religious-fanatic Muslim men
(3) Muslim women who claim to wear these garments by choice are clearly deluded
(4) They need me to save them from themselves and to guide them towards enlightened humanism
(5) Therefore God does not exist

(1) All wars throughout history have been caused by religion
(2) I don’t like war
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) Atheist: Atheists are cool, gentle people who believe in human rights
[Believer: You mean like Pol Pot and Stalin?]
(2) Atheist: Tsk! No. Duh. Not them. I mean like Christopher Hitchens.
[Believer: The guy who thought and still thinks that the invasion of Iraq was an awesome idea?]
(3) Atheist: Well, apart from that…
[Believer: And his rampant misogyny.]
(4) Atheist: … and his rampant misogyny, he’s a very cool guy
(5) Therefore God does not exist

(1) There is a tiny fringe of creationists who believe that the world was created in 7 days
(2) I have studied high school biology and know all about evolution
(3) Therefore God does not exist


(1) I am a scientist who knows that the universe is an immensely complex place of which we only understand the tiniest fraction
(2) Therefore God does not exist

(1) Atheist: If God were really all-powerful and benign he wouldn’t let bad stuff happen
[Believer: God did not create us as automatons. He gave us the gift of free will]
(2) Atheist: Yes, okay, but not free will to do really bad stuff. A good God would have drawn the line somewhere.
[Believer: Free will is meaningless unless it is truly and totally free]
(3) Atheist: A good God wouldn’t let adult men rape babies
(4) Atheist: Baby-rape happens, and lots of other bad stuff too
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) If God existed, he wouldn’t let children get cancer
(2) Children get cancer
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) If God existed, he wouldn’t let people be poor
(2) People are poor
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) If God existed, he wouldn’t let people die in car accidents
(2) People die in car accidents
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(And so on, and so forth for many hundreds of examples)

(1) Atheist: If God were all-powerful and benign, he wouldn’t let natural disasters occur.
[Believer: Just as God gave us free will, he gave us a challenging planet to inhabit]
(2) Atheist: Maybe a little bit challenging, but not, like, full-on, hectic tsunamis and stuff.
(3) Atheist: Tsunamis happen
(4) Therefore God does not exist.

(1) If God existed, he wouldn’t allow earthquakes.
(2) Earthquakes happen.
(3) Therefore God does not exist.

(1) If God existed, he wouldn’t allow floods.
(2) Floods happen.
(3) Therefore God does not exist.

(And so on, and so forth for many hundreds of examples)

(1) Some religious people are homophobic
(2) I hate homophobia
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) Atheist: Jesus condemned homosexuality
[Believer: No, actually He encouraged us by example to love those whom society condemned]
(2) Atheist: I’m sure it says so somewhere in the Bible. *pages through Bible*
(3) Atheist: Oh, okay then, it was Paul, not Jesus. Same difference.
(4) Therefore God does not exist.

(1) Any mention of God or religion makes me Very Cross Indeed
(2) I feel compelled to shout you down with long words and insults
(3) You disingenuous, unctuous, illogical, intolerant God-botherer
(4) Therefore God does not exist

(1) There is a tiny fringe of religious extremists who would rather murder a pregnant woman than allow her to have an abortion
(2) I think these people are horrible and loathesome
(3) Therefore God does not exist

(1) There are some far-right extremists who would be happy to destroy our entire planet to get at some oil
(2) Like Sarah Palin.
(3) And I really can’t stand her.
(4) Even though she is hot.
(5) Also, I am a tree-hugging vegetarian.
(6 Therefore God does not exist.

(1) Atheist: In order to believe in God you have to be an intolerant, right-wing bigot
[Believer: Er ... no, you don't]
(2) Atheist: Yes, you do.
(3) Atheist: I don’t want to be an intolerant, right-wing bigot.
(4) Therefore God does not exist.

You can take the writer out of the garret…

I have no hesitation in jumping into the middle of the debate currently running between Darryl Accone and Percy Zvomuya in the pages of the Mail & Guardian because it was spawned in the first place by a blog of mine in which I discuss the difficulties of being a writer who is occasionally asked to review the works of her fellow writers. Darryl Accone makes oblique reference to my blog – no names mentioned – in his opening piece Publish and be damned. It was left to Ben Williams to provide a link to the blog, as well as to the debate it inspired on Litnet.

Accone mentions that several South African writers have called for more robust criticism of their work and suggests that they should be careful what they wish for because he and Zvoyuma are about to provide it in spades. He goes on to add that, “We were beaten to the first salvo when the doyenne of books editors and literary critics in this country, Maureen Isaacson, obliged with just such a piece in the Sunday Independent.” It’s worth mentioning that Isaacson’s 2009 piece is in fact almost two years old and did not arise from the context of the present Book SA debate at all.

This new atmosphere of robust and fearless criticism may truly be said to apply to meta-criticism too. What’s sauce for the writer is sauce for the critic. Those who undertake to provide a “State of South African Literature” address must be prepared to have their conclusions analysed.

I will grapple with Accone’s piece first, although it’s like getting to grips with mist. The title, ‘Publish and be damned’, together with the Farenheit 451 reference, appears to be an exhortation to writers and publishers alike to ignore the cavillings of others and produce books fearlessly and often. This segues into a lament against over-publishing and the dismal process of bookstore fire sales, remainders and pulping.

“Do we,” Accone asks, “the reading, book-buying public — need or even deserve such opportunities for ceaseless consumption?” Too many books are being produced, in other words, and it’s largely capitalism’s fault. Readers have never had such a voluminous output of books to choose from – there is literally something to suit every palate.

Is that a “Hooray” I hear you utter? Mais non, mes amis, this is Not a Good Thing, however much it may sound like one. Why? Because Kafka was only published after his death and we all know what a good writer he was.

Having built a convincing argument for the parlous state of Too Many Books, Accone moves on to South African literature. He proposes a theory as to why South African literature is in the sad state it’s in: “So many writers, so little writing. Online chatter and conversation about being a writer, the ‘writerly life’, or a writer’s miserable existence in a sports-obsessed country with low literacy rates seems, at least to me, to be robbing writers of writing time.”

So South Africa, it seems, does not suffer from the Too Much Writing malaise that afflicts the rest of the world – we suffer instead from Too Little Writing. We have, apparently, a whole bunch of writers who are not writing enough. Instead they are sitting around day after day on their miserable backsides whingeing online about what a hard life they have. This surprisingly nannyish observation deserves further scrutiny.

When I think of the South African writers I know – and I know a goodly few – I think of people who are producing novels at the steady and respectable rate of one a year, or one every two years. This is clearly not enough for Accone. But wait – a few paragraphs earlier he was complaining about too many books and too much choice. It seems we can’t win.

His complaint ties in neatly with Percy Zvoyuma’s piece “You are what you read”. I find myself in complete agreement with approximately 85% percent of it, but the remaining 15% renders me almost speechless with dissent.

That 15% comes at the end of the piece in which Zvoyuma declares himself disappointed with the generation of South African writers born in the 1970s and 1980s. They are not as good, it seems, as those who came before them. But, he adds, in a spirit of fairness, “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.” We are getting to the gist of the problem here, and it is startlingly similar to Accone’s complaint. It’s the online writers who are the problem – and what a problem they are.

“Sadly, these [the good, offline writers] 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.”

Quite aside from the nonsensical nothing-saying of that phrase, “writers and whatever mutant this genre has spawned” (what mutant? what genre?) this passage is very revealing.

Both Accone and Zvoyuma clearly have a big problem with writers who have an online presence. There may be several reasons for this:

Reason One: they are irritated by all the tweeting, moaning, online chatter and general collegiality that exists among South African writers online. If this is the case, I have a very simple solution to propose. Don’t listen to us. Switch us off. Erase us from your lives. Don’t friend us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Don’t read our blogs or our rants on Book Chat. It’s very simple. No one is forcing you to eavesdrop on the conversation. By all means, opt out of it.

Reason Two: they genuinely believe that having an online presence makes us worse writers or makes us write less often. They have a sincere, if nannyish, concern for our welfare since we took the online plunge. One wonders whom they have in mind specifically? Lauren Beukes perhaps – one of the first South African writers to move over to Twitter, and the person Book SA justly named as its Writer of the Year for 2010? Surely not. If anyone is a truly excellent ambassador for SA lit both at home and abroad, it’s Lauren. Her online presence has clearly been an asset, not a hindrance, to her career.

Reason Three: they are threatened and unsettled by the extent to which writers have stampeded the online sphere. It must be comforting for critics to think of writers as safely occupying their candlelit garrets, working and reworking their manuscripts, grateful for the little crumbs of praise reviewers toss their way, and humbly responsive to criticism. How disconcerting it must be for reviewers to be instantly and publicly challenged by the writers they have criticised. Not to mention the fact that high-profile writers are doing them out of a job as reviewers. More and more books editors are approaching writers to interview and review other writers. It means they have two well known names as a drawcard, rather than just one.

Online writers, too, are less dependent on critics for reactions to their books as they have a hotline straight to their fans. And this goes for spoken word poets too, against whom Zvoyuma seems to have a particular peeve. Spoken word poets and online writers alike are an unruly lot. They are difficult to control and don’t know their place. They are apt to be outspoken and to answer you back.

The unfortunate truth is that any attempt to shove us back into our candlelit, offline garrets will not succeed. The genie is out of the bottle. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Today’s writer is a new and different animal. Love us, hate us, ignore us or engage with us, our days of silent acquiescence are over.

The Private Secret Diary of a Dysfunctional Writer (not for public viewing)

[With apologies to Finuala Dowling whom I admire very much and wish I could be more like. One of my greatest regrets about not living in Cape Town is that I cannot attend her writing workshops]


Jerk roughly into wakefulness thanks to strident tones of alarm clock. Experience many bitter regrets about 1am tweeting session and two glasses of wine. Resolve sternly to go to bed earlier from now on. Starting tonight. Definitely.


Jerk roughly into wakefulness again thanks to strident tones of second alarm clock. Stagger towards shower. Lurch around house like drunk person, chivvying children into school clothes and setting out breakfast.


Wave limp farewell to husband and children. Return to house and drink in wonderful, blissful, radiant sound of silence. Feel surge of energy and decide to Go For a Run. Running is very good for WRITERS. It energises the brain and wakes up the cells. This is well known. While assembling running clothes and takkies, quickly pick up BlackBerry to check Twitter.


Put down BlackBerry and acknowledge regretfully that it is now far too late to go for a run. The WRITING must come first. Realise that self is first and foremost a WRITER and must not do anything to compromise the WRITING process. Fitness will have to take second place.


Make own breakfast:

Oatso Easy (chocolate flavour)
Woolies banana muffin
Mug of tea large enough to house medium-sized goldfish.

Return to bed, dislodging three or four cats from occupation of “warm spot”. Realise importance of inspiration to creative process. Decide to spend five minutes reading chick-lit book in order to “switch gears” between current-affairs-oriented Twitter and fiction writing.


Put down chick-lit book. Realise that keeping up one’s social media profile is a vital part of being a WRITER in these jaded, modern, electronic times. Update Facebook status and check Twitter again. Reply to comments on Facebook status and start Twitter fight with prominent political columnist.


Spend five minutes berating self bitterly for wasting half the morning. Does self not realise that only two scant hours remain before self needs to fetch Junior Daughter? Realise that do not have right to call self WRITER at all. Plug in laptop and switch it on with firm, determined motions. Reach for chick-lit book for more inspiration … withdraw hand quickly. Reach for BlackBerry, which flashes enticingly … withdraw hand quickly.

Read over yesterday’s writing, peeping between fingertips and wincing at every third sentence. Resist urge to delete it all. Stare into space. Try to remember name of heroine’s best friend’s love interest. Scroll back through manuscript to look it up. Wonder what possessed self to create him as character at all. Stare at screen until head swivels on shoulders, Excorcist-style. Pray for words to come. Force self to start typing, even though no words have come.


Glance at watch. Jesus Christ on a Skateboard! Another twenty minutes have passed and self has written only one sentence. Force self to write another sentence. And another. And another.


Realise that word count (1226) is far, far below daily target of 2000 and resolve to finish tonight. Rush around like madwoman applying make up and putting on “going out in public” clothes.


Fetch Junior Daughter from school.


Fetch Son from school.


Fetch Senior Daughter from school.


Throw sandwiches, Woolies samoosas, and glasses of milk at passing children.


Take Son to cricket.


Take Senior Daughter to ballet.


Fetch Son from cricket.


Fetch Senior Daughter from ballet.


Supervise three sets of homework.


Make school lunches and supervise packing of three schoolbags.


Contemplate making nourishing meal for family, consisting of organic, grain-fed lamb, oven-roasted spring vegetables drizzled with olive oil and gratinated coriander, lightly crisped roast potatoes and fruits in season.


Bung Woolies “family” casserole in oven and rip open packet of ready-washed salad with teeth.


Bow head in shame as children rebuke self for ALWAYS serving such DISGUSTING meals, yuck, yuck, YUCK, why Mom why?! Console self with thought that organic lamb would’ve met with same reaction.


Physically wrestle bathed, fed and pyjamaed children into bed.


Physically wrestle bathed, fed and pyjamaed children into bed again. Realise voice is getting slightly hoarse from shouting. Wander through house picking up clothes, toys and general detritus of day.


Consume remains of casserole and salad with husband. Exchange desultory grunts with husband, and argue half-heartedly over who had most tiring day. Decide not to pour self glass of wine as WRITING requires clear head, and consuming wine is not conducive to clear head.


Pour self glass of wine. Retire to bed with laptop on knees and cats draped around room at random intervals. Switch on laptop. Instantly fall heavily asleep with head at acute angle, and drool emerging attractively from side of mouth.


Wake up with jump as cats perform steeple-chase across bed. Realise regretfully that it is too late to WRITE anymore tonight. Change into pyjamas, take off make-up, evict cats from bedroom. Realise self is now wide awake. Pour second glass of wine to induce drowsiness. Check Twitter.


Put down BlackBerry after cheery two hours of witty back-and-forth on Twitter. Note time with sinking sense of dismay. Resolve to do better tomorrow. Put out light. Fall into heavy slumber.

Next morning

Rinse and repeat.

Of Larceny, Pickpocketry and Wet Hens

I was madder than a wet hen this morning. I woke up to find that someone who follows me on Twitter had taken a series of my tweets and turned them into a column … WITHOUT ATTRIBUTION. Admittedly, he had added value to my original ideas and fleshed them out considerably, but still. How very dare he? When I moaned about this on Twitter, a clamour of voices invited me to name and shame the guilty columnist, which I declined to do. Now, several hours later, as I have subsided into being merely a somewhat damp hen, I still decline to do so.

I am not in the business of trashing reputations or throwing unsubstantiated accusations around. Because the problem with this kind of intellectual larceny is that it is virtually impossible to prove. You’ll notice I don’t use the word ‘plagiarism’. That’s because it’s not. Well, not quite. Plagiarism is a far more blatant lifting of original thought, (or indeed whole passages, right Darryl?) from an original source, without acknowledgement. This is a subtler process of pickpocketing someone else’s opinions and using them as the inspiration for your own writing. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course, PROVIDED you acknowledge the source of your ideas.

The problem is that the world of column-writing – especially online column-writing – has become so intensely competitive that columnists want to hog all the glory for themselves. They want to keep every scrap of the limelight on them, and pretend that the ideas they are spouting just popped sua sponte into their own brilliant minds.

Earlier today, during the worst of my sopping-wet-hen moments, I asked myself whether this is a male phenomenon. After all, when journalists have used my tweets in the past, WITH attribution, they have always been female. And the two occasions on which I’ve been turned upside down and shaken until all my intellectual small change fell out, the perpetrators have been male. Then I had a medicinal Gin-and-Tonic (I’m on holiday, okay?) and reminded myself that the most scrupulous tweet-borrower I know is in fact male. I’m talking about the revered editor of this very site, Ben Williams, who always attributes ideas and never ever fails to acknowledge a source. So let’s not tar all males with the same brush, ‘mkay?

When I expressed the intention of writing a blog about the attribution of sources in the electronic age, a tweeter by the name of Shelley Elk (See? Attribution!) sent me this link from Memeburn about what they’re teaching journalists at Harvard. Aside from the rather giggle-inducing notion of mid-career journalists solemnly attending ‘courses’ in Twitter and Facebook (hey, I use both without EVER having taken a course, and so does my aged auntie) the article also skims over the problems of teaching journalists to acknowledge their sources in the vast, amorphous world of electronic media. I remember that when the internet first really grew legs, many years ago, there was a panic among academics and school teachers about the apparently endless opportunities for plagiarism opening up for students. This panic subsided when it become apparent that teachers were quite as capable of conducting a simple Google search as their students.

But the advent of social media has opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms. Are tweets protected by copyright? What about Facebook status updates? What about tweets that have been retweeted so many times that the original source has been lost in the mists of time? And what about a Twitter discussion you followed, but did not take part in, and decided to recycle in column form for money? It seems these things are rather difficult to police.

I believe the only answer is for us all to start being more grown-up about this. Be MORE scrupulous about acknowledging your sources rather than less. Even if it was just some random FB status update you can’t quite track down at the moment, mention it and invite the author to jog your memory. It doesn’t make you less of a columnist to admit that you get your ideas from somewhere. It actually gives you an aura of integrity and honesty that money can’t buy – the kind of solid-gold rep that the editor of this site enjoys.

That’s worth a whole lot more than being considered a very clever boy indeed.

Oh, to be Anon now that Reviews are here

When I first joined the South African writing community two years ago, it was firmly on the side of the writers. Book reviewers were people who took your first-born child, stripped him naked, and mocked him cruelly for his imagined inadequacies.

I got off comparatively lightly with my first two books as no negative reviews came to light. But the merest hint of criticism was enough to send me into ultra-prickly defensive mode. Like the reviewer who, in the midst of glowing praise for ‘Trinity On Air’, commented that Trinity would probably not have worked day-shifts as a brand new reporter on a talk radio station. Whereupon I obsessively pointed out to everyone (with a pulse) who would listen that Trinity was working on the TRAFFIC desk and that TRAFFIC reporters don’t commonly work in the middle of the night.

The fact that I feel compelled to mention the story here is probably an indication that I’m not completely over it.

Not content with defending my own novels with all the zeal of a short-tempered tigress, I took it upon myself to
leap to the defense of other writers and poets who, I felt, had been unfairly treated by the critics.
And just for the sake of inconsistency, I was also known to moan publicly and at length about how uncritical the South African book reviewing community is. Words like ‘pusillanimous’ and ‘sycophantic’ dropped from my lips with polysyllabic abandon.

It did not escape my attention that there was a considerable overlap between the SA writing community and the SA reviewing community, especially on the more high-profile books pages. Like many of their overseas counterparts, South African editors like to feature writers interviewing and commenting on other writers. There’s an assumption that writers know writing best, and that two well-known names on a piece will draw more attention than one.

I also knew from first-hand experience that the South African writing community is small and collegial. Someone who is just a name to you one day may be sitting next to you on a panel the next, and chatting to you over a glass of wine that evening.`And the nature of the SA literary calendar is such that writers, reviewers, bloggers and editors run into each other at literary festivals, awards evenings, and book launches on an almost weekly basis.

It would clearly not be prudent to make enemies within this small and highly claustrophobic space. And furthermore, there are so many genuinely nice people in the industry that you would have to be quite spectacularly not-nice to want to sabotage their careers with gratuitously destructive criticism.

Most South African writers know that what is good for one of us is good for all of us. When someone like Paige Nick or Cynthia Jele sells a bunch of books, I celebrate their success because it creates a more receptive market for South African women’s fiction (and also because I happen to like them both). So determined were we as SA writers to promote our interests collectively that 74 of us got together to create Read SA – an organisation designed to promote a culture of reading in South Africa and to further the interests of local writers in general. This mutually supportive space leaves even less room for being harshly critical of another writer.

Until recently, I was aware of all these issues, but in a rather vague, nothing-to-do-with-me way. I remember taking part in a debate on Book Chat about the state of South African book reviewing, and silently congratulating myself on dwelling so firmly on the ‘writer’ side of the writer-reviewer divide. It was a divide I never imagined crossing.

Then the thin edge of the wedge moved into action. It all started with that favourite question of interviewers, “What are you reading now?” which morphed into, “What books would you recommend for someone wanting to get acquainted with South African fiction?” and “Which are your least favourite women’s fiction novels?”

I freely confess to helping the process along inadvertently with a blog in which I slagged off my elders and betters in the chick-lit world for writing lazy books. I followed this up with some musings about Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’.

Then Cosmopolitan magazine and Woman and Home magazine asked me to do a round-up of my favourite books of the year, and The Times asked me to interview Peter Godwin about his latest book ‘The Fear’, which I did. When the Cosmopolitan piece came out in the December issue, I saw myself described in print for the first time ever as an ‘author and book reviewer’. When did that happen? I wondered, with a slight sense of shock. Has the wedge really worked its way so far in that the writer-reviewer divide has cracked wide open?

All of which leaves me wondering how I or anyone else can possibly function as a critical, professional reviewer within the warm and fuzzy space that is the South African writing community. How can I possibly be objective about the work of someone who has become a close friend as well as a colleague?

There are a couple of options:

I could find only good things to say about every single book that crosses my path, and shower them with the kind of fulsome, uncritical praise that is such a feature of the South African book reviewing scene. My inner street-brawler has a serious problem with this.

I could decline to review any books that I don’t absolutely love, but that too seems a cowardly course. I could, I daresay, write reviews as ‘Anonymous’, but Anon is a singularly toothless creature, entirely lacking in bite. I could also throw caution to the winds and simply let my victims have it with both barrels. Yes, it would mean instant exile from the writing community that has become almost as dear to me as my own family, but who cares, right? Fuck ‘em.

Well – as a matter of fact – I care. Turning myself into an overnight Julie Burchill or Charlie Brooker is simply not an option. Infamy is not for me.

So what to do? I’ve thought long and hard about this and the only way forward seems to be a process that involves the author as well as the reviewer. When I interviewed Peter Godwin, there were certains issues and criticisms I was longing to put to him. I could have just slapped them down on paper without giving him the opportunity to respond, but the process of putting them to him generated much better material for my piece. Sometimes the problems that the reviewer perceives in a text dissipate in the face of an explanation from the writer (vide Trinity on the traffic desk, above).

So, if the editors of books-pages give me the leeway to do so, I will approach any future reviewing opportunities as a consultative process between writer and reviewer that will hopefully neutralise bad feeling while simultaneously retaining the scope for intelligent criticism. And now that I’ve thoroughly scared off anyone who may vaguely have been considering me as a reviewer, my work here is done.

Why I am Still a Militant, Ball-breaking, Jackbooted, Skinhead Lesbian Feminist

The blogosphere was rocked recently by a Thought Leader post by Beverley Merriman entitled “I’m not a Feminist”. To say that it left ructions in its wake would be to be guilty of pale and tepid understatement. It certainly provoked me to some fierce cogitation.

However, not wanting to be guilty of what Debby Edelstein calls PhD – or Pull Her Down – syndrome, and having an intense dislike for ad hominem attacks, I have decided not to engage with the post itself, but rather to use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion about post-Feminism. I think most of us are familiar with the argument that feminism is a movement that has had its day and served its purpose, and that it is now time for us all to move forward into a new era of harmonious gender relations. Indeed, the argument goes, we are already IN that era of glorious gender equality, and anyone who is still bleating on about women’s rights is living in the past.

There is a very simple way to test how real this gender-tastic Age of Aquarius actually is, and that is to look at whether women’s lives have actually improved in the last fifty years or so. Are there really couples out there where the guy does the dishes and changes the kid’s nappies, while simultaneously bringing home the bacon and making tender, sensitive, monogamous love to his wife all night, with lots of cunnilingus? The wife meanwhile does the cooking, takes the kid to Baby Einstein classes, runs a multinational corporation, and never EVER has a headache at bedtime?

Yes, there probably are. In New York City perhaps … somewhere in Greenwich Village possibly … in a brownstone walk-up that reeks of lentils and good intentions. And also, apparently, in a little corner of South Africa that is forever wealthy East Coast America.

For the rest of the world, however … meh … not so much.

The percentage of the world’s women who live a middle class life is tiny. And the percentage of that number who never have to battle unequal pay scales, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and plain old patronising attitudes is even tinier. For the rest of the planet, life as a woman is anything but pleasant. Just taking our own country as an example will expose you to rape and domestic violence statistics that will make you want to weep. In most places in South Africa, the phrase “single, working mother” can conveniently be shortened to “mother” because there is no other kind.

These are not women who go back to work in a quest for personal fulfilment or to “find themselves”. They go back to work so that they and their children will not starve to death in the streets. There’s no stay-at-home-mom versus working-mom angst for them. No wondering whether their children will still get into Yale or Princeton if they’re not there to cart them off to Kindermusik classes three times a week. They work to survive – it’s as simple as that.

The vast majority of South African women don’t have much in the way of daycare options either. These often take the form of leaving the four-year-old in charge of the two-year-old and asking a neighbour to check in on them every once in a while. For other South African women to agitate earnestly and repeatedly for better daycare facilities in informal settlements seems to me an activity well worthy of the label “feminism”. And to suggest that such activism is no longer necessary in our “post-feminist world” is frankly ludicrous.

There are innumerable other forms of activism that are made in the name of feminism. Campaigning against sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, and against the increasingly widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, against domestic violence, unequal payscales, genital mutilation, honour killings, and the condemnation of women as witches. There are too many to list, but they are all the serious day-to-day business of feminism. If you honestly believe that these things don’t happen, or are simply the product of “poverty” and “ignorance” you are guilty of a worldview that is quite breathtaking in its blinkered and bourgeois narrowness.

So until all these ills have been put right, I remain delighted to associate myself with the most militant, ball-breaking and aggressive of my feminist sisters. I have never been ashamed to call myself a feminist. I will shout it from the rooftops. I am a feminist. I believe in feminism. I do my best to live a feminist life. And I will try to bring my daughters up as feminists too so that they can carry on the struggle for women’s rights into the next generation. A luta continua.

Will Write For Mojitos

There are some books that you look forward to with a real, palpitating excitement. You nag your local bookshop day and night, and when faced with an unavoidable two-week wait, you purchase them on your Kindle instead.

Did I mention that I have a Kindle? Well, I do, and I love it with a deep and abiding passion.

But getting back to those books you just can’t wait for. ‘Mini Shopaholic’ by Sophie Kinsella was one such. I am a mega-fan, having read the whole series through at least five times. Confronted with the unwelcome news that it would only release in South Africa in mid-October, I cracked and ordered a copy on my Kindle. Even though, I really, really wanted to hold the actual book in my hands.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The book is just as much fun as its predecessors, although possibly somewhat short on narrative tension. But what it lacks in suspense it makes up for in BlackBerry references. Yes, you read that correctly. ‘Mini Shopaholic’ is absolutely peppered with references to BlackBerry. Every single character in the novel owns one and is regularly described as talking, texting, or browsing on it.

Now, I have absolutely no way of knowing whether this is a paid-for product placement. All I know is that there couldn’t be more BlackBerry references in the book if it were a launch party for the latest Torch. Either way, BlackBerry must be tickled pink. ‘Mini Shopaholic’ debuted at number one on the UK book lists, and will certainly go on to command millions of readers worldwide.

As I say, my thoughts on the subject are pure speculation. But I find it mystifying that a staggeringly successful author, who must be a £ millionaire several times over, could have been persuaded to run product placements in her book. What kind of money would have to change hands to overcome one’s very natural squeamishness about selling about selling one’s soul to the devil?

On the other hand, once you start selling your writing for money, does it really matter how the cheque is divided up? Let’s say your publisher pays R10 for your story, and a sponsor pays another R2, who’s keeping score?

The movie industry has been doing it for years. We’re all familiar with the camera that pans slowly across a suburban kitchen, lingers lovingly over a bottle of Pepsi or a box of Pop Tarts, and finally settles on the heroine’s face. We all know that serious moolah has changed hands to make this happen. We greet each new product placement with no more than a wry smile, and don’t let it spoil our enjoyment of the movie.

It’s difficult to put my finger on why I have different standards for fiction and for movie-making. It may be because I perceive fiction to be somehow a more ‘sincere’ art form than film. Or it may simply be a lingering naivety that will disappear as novels become increasingly colonised by marketers.

Perhaps I’m just feeling a little sensitive after being approached by one of those ‘Tweet for Money’ sites on my Twitter account. It happens to everyone, I gather, once you acquire a certain number of followers. Now, I, of course, drew myself up to my full height, looked down my nose at them, and declaimed, “Get thee hence, sinner, and trouble me no more.”

Or at least, clicked on the Ignore button.

But I couldn’t help wondering how many of the tweeters I follow succumbed to the temptation and are now shilling for Big Corporate.

“OMG!!!! Woolies Choc Crunch tuna fish is just DELISH!” I see tweets like this on a daily basis. Are they all some form of paid-for product placement? And am I the only one who doesn’t already know this? It’s all rather worrying.

There is certainly a presumption of sincerity attached to any form of blogging, micro or otherwise. Blogging is supposed to be a process whereby the blogger drops his or her public mask and talks directly to the world. That’s what makes it so seductive to the reader. Most of us would rather find a writer’s blog than click on their official fan page. We expect the latter to be nothing more than PR spin, but hope that the former will consist of the writer speaking directly to the world.

But is there really any difference between allowing a company to advertise on your blog, and doing their work for them by blogging about how much you love their product? I’m inclined to think that there is. This is also something I’ve been forced to consider as I get approached more often to host advertising on my website. I’ve said no to the online casinos, but may possibly say yes to more reputable concerns.

What I will not do, in any circumstances, is get paid to promote a product. I mention brand names all the time – in my novels, short stories, blog, website, Facebook and Twitter – but these mentions are frequently uncomplimentary, and never sponsored. Ever.

I’m aware, however, that my squeamishness is a changeable thing. It is dictated by what I’m accustomed to. At the moment, I’m accustomed to product placement on TV, and no longer flinch at it. I positively wince at it in fiction. This may change as marketing infiltrates every arena of our interaction, until we become branded from birth – Moxyland style. But until then I’ll be sandbagging the trenches and keeping my powder dry.

Vive la resistance!

The Roomse Gevaar Makes An Unwelcome Comeback

I am not a Catholic – lapsed or otherwise. I have no Catholic relatives (but quite a few Catholic friends.) I did not go to a Catholic school.

I don’t believe for a second that the Pope is God’s annointed representative on earth, and take a pretty dim view of the man presently occupying that position. I find it hard to forgive Mr Joseph Ratzinger his Nazi past, and even harder to forget the overwhelming evidence that he participated directly in the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests.

In short, I carry no brief for the Catholic Church.

I have, however, been considerably dismayed by the hysterical witch-burning tone that has crept into public criticism of the Pope’s current visit to the United Kingdom. As I understand it, this criticism is founded on a number of points:

- Many Britons do not recognise the Vatican as an independent nation-state and therefore resent, as taxpayers, having to foot the bill for his official state visit.

- The Catholic Church has been battered by a tidal wave of sexual abuse allegations in recent years, all of which have led to a great deal of anger against it as an institution.

- The Pope, and indeed the Church itself, have intransigent views on the equality of women and homosexuals, and actively discourage the use of condoms, even in societies with a rampant rate of HIV infection.

I quite understand these points of view and have a great deal of sympathy for them. What I don’t sympathise with is the reductionist attempt to wrap all the world’s evils up into one convenient package called the Catholic Church. Yes, it may be handy to have just one target to hate – to project all your loathing onto one manageable and easily identifiable Other, but you’re hardly going to address the real ills of the world that way.

A conglomeration of atheists and agnostics – headed by men like Richard Dawkins and mistakenly considering themselves to be ‘liberal’ – would go further than branding the Catholic Church as the root of all evil. It’s religion in general that’s the problem, they would argue. Most wars throughout history have been started by religious fanatics. Wipe out religion and we would all be living in a marvellously tolerant Utopia.

Does one really need to point out how naive this proposition is? Yes, Marxist historiography may have fallen out of fashion lately, but one cannot forget the lessons it taught: that most wars – actually make that ALL wars – throughout history have been about power and access to material resources. Yes, religious fanatacism may have been dragged in by the hair to whip up enthusiasm among the populace about sending their young men off to die, but when you cut to the heart of it, it has all been about controlling the means of production.

Anyone who believes that taking religion out of the equation will reduce human conflict is talking arrant bloody nonsense.

But let’s return for a moment to the argument that societies with a higher proportion of atheists and agnostics are more likely to be peaceful and tolerant. Which societies would those be? The United Kingdom, by any chance? Or would that be the United States of America? Both have entirely secular governments and a total separation of church and state. I bet the innocent citizens of Iraq felt the warm glow of tolerance as missiles starting raining down on them eight years ago in the most vile and wicked unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation in modern history.

Let’s see what else these celebrated atheists and agnostics have been responsible for. Do they build clinics in the world’s most impoverished areas? Do they build orphanages and schools run by unpaid volunteers? Did they protest apartheid years before it became fashionable to do so? Do they stand shivering on street corners in Hillbrow handing out sleeping bags and blankets to the homeless in winter? Did they create a refuge for hundreds of displaced victims of xenophobia in central Johannesburg?

Did they hell.

So who were those sainted do-gooders responsible for these admirable initiatives? Why, they belonged to various religious institutions, of course – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu – with the Catholic Church frequently leading the way. While atheists and agnostics might not be good for much beyond writing snarky columns in The Guardian, it’s the religious folk who spit on their hands and get down to the real, dirty business of poverty alleviation.

Which is why it makes me madder than a wet hen to see remarks like a recent one on Twitter: “Who actually admits to being a Catholic anymore?” Who actually admits to being an intolerant bigot anymore? is what I was tempted to reply. Add to that the self-satisfied agnosticism of the chattering classes who would happily lynch the Pope from the nearest tree and abolish the Catholic Church as an institution, and I feel a very strong urge to start knocking some heads together.