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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    February 14th, 2011 @10:54 #
     
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    Fiona - yet again - has nailed it with intelligence and grace. Seriously, she's my spokesman.

    I made an arse of myself on Friday trying to respond to this dishcloth debate in my ordinary kneejerk way, not even realising why I felt affronted in the first place. But I was affronted, and Fiona helps me see why. Isn't there a certain stage - maybe a couple of years beyond the schoolyard or the university - when people stop proscribing to other people what they should do and how they should do it? It's not like writers are all rolling in taxpayers' money or sushi: maybe then we would need to be accountable. But we spend the bulk of our time doing unpaid work because we love it, and chatting - in the way we see fit - to other writers who make us feel part of a community.

    The prerogative of an elite empowered by their access to the media to set a cultural agenda and to say what writers should and shouldn't be writing is a thing of the past. It implies a moral-intellectual superiorty on the part of the critics, the agenda-setters, the authorities. Some olden-day writers may have set themselves up as moral or ideological authorities, but more likely it was the critics whose ideology they suited who elevated them. Writers recognise better than ideologues that truth is mutable and truth is inclusive. This is not a new and revolutionary concept. TYhe philosophical basis of authority is thoroughly discredited - an advance now being put into practice on the internet, where we bourgeoisie and proles can natter away ad nauseam without the permission of the value-creators. Very irritating, I'm sure.

    Specially because when writers talk to each other the talk is generally supportive and inclusive. Now we make more noise than the traditional media, we generate ideas, we unionise, we review each others' work far more usefully - we set the agenda ourselves. We comment on each others' work, our readers comment directly to us, we no longer wait in frightened isolation to be justified and legitimsed by the moneyed, monolithic media. When we chatter online, our agenda is broad and encompassing. We're not interested in archaic categories, in distinguishing work with some spurious moral or ideological value from that without.

    Certain few reviewers remain in frustrated search for something they read and learned in their undergrad English courses - 'literature' - and of course they'll only uncover books written by old men, or given the nod by old men. The rest of us are out frolicking in the present.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    February 14th, 2011 @12:06 #
     
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    Well said.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 14th, 2011 @14:13 #
     
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    Wow, Louis. I applaud. I hadn't thought of the Leavisite implications of the M&G pieces. That being said, I found Percy's piece in particular lacks the magisterial arrogance I associate with Grand Men of Ideas Naming The Classics. He acknowledges, rather endearingly, that his reservations are shaped by a nostalgia I share... but then if asked to choose between reading only 19th or 20th century literature for the rest of my life, I would pick the former. So as a reader, I have very specific colours nailed to my mast. As an editor and a writer, my concerns are very different.

    And Fifi, well done. I had entirely missed the discomfort with the "democratic" effect of writers inhabiting an online world. Am going to think about it some more.

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  • <a href="http://byronloker.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Byron Loker</a>
    Byron Loker
    February 14th, 2011 @14:23 #
     
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    As Fiona so accurate deals with in her response, I'm also a little incensed by the paragraph in which Percy offers his ideal of the "young writer...worthy of [the] forebears" up as: ''... the hungry, busy, beady-eyed romantics who are quietly working. " This is an insulting, unhelpful caricature of writers and writing. Good writers and writing can, and are, emerging from everything but this useless stereotype.

    Also, (as Ben corrects in his summary), it's K. Sello Duiker, not "Sello K Duiker", as Percy Zvomuya put it. That's a very sloppy mistake for a literary critic to make.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    February 14th, 2011 @15:11 #
     
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    Byron, just a quick one, that "K Sello" vs "Sello K" may have been a subeditor's error. My theory is that the sub made the edit to make the text conform to standard name layouts - eg, first, middle initial, last - not knowing that Duiker's was a special case.

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  • <a href="http://byronloker.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Byron Loker</a>
    Byron Loker
    February 14th, 2011 @15:35 #
     
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    Thanks Ben, that's a fair explanation.

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  • cdvbelg@netactive.co.za
    cdvbelg@netactive.co.za
    February 14th, 2011 @17:49 #
     
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    While reading your piece a thought came to mind: how can a writer isolate themself from the society in which they live? If you are to create credible modern characters they will be people who use technology in daily life. Of course, this depends on the time frame in which a story takes place but, nonetheless, if you were to create characters living in a modern setting they would surely be on Facebook, use Twitter, etc.? If the writer did not have epxerience of those things then how would the writer work them into the text?
    My other thought is that there are many people with stories to tell who find they cannot get their work published because, I assume, sometimes, publishers think that their stories will not sell. So, if one really wants to tell a story and not make a cent out of it, the online arena is the way to go. Well, it seems that way to me, anyway.

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  • <a href="http://ingridandersen.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    February 14th, 2011 @18:20 #
     
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    To throw another thought into the discussion:

    Do I detect an underlying pique in Accone and Zvoyuma's arguments that has to do with the issue of power? It is an undeniable fact that the availability of information (and publicity and opinion) online has had a substantial impact on this industry - could it be that they are no longer the gatekeepers they were?

    Which I pointed out in an online interview in the last few days - http://book.co.za/blog/2011/02/09/dye-hard-press-interviews-ingrid-andersen-about-incwadi/

    (tsk - back to the garret for me.)

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  • hammingweight
    hammingweight
    February 15th, 2011 @13:50 #
     
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    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.

    This argument is always dodgy. We know very little of bad authors, the further back we go since the bad authors are no longer in print. Since the only playwright most of us can name from 16th century England is Shakespeare, we are inclined to believe that 16th century produced only playwrights of genius.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 15th, 2011 @15:44 #
     
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    An excellent point.

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  • <a href="http://www.jamesclelland.co.za" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    February 16th, 2011 @13:33 #
     
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    I believe Fiona has responded sensibly to the M&G article. Online is where we are heading, regardless of the Ludites out there. But perhaps we should first consider what the purpose is of Book SA anyway? From my limited experience it seems to be a support group for writers. And that's not a criticism. Every disease imaginable has a support group these days - to share the pain and make sufferers feel less alone. So, there it is, we have a wonderful support group for those afflicted by writing. Thanks Ben and Book SA. We really need you.
    Also, maybe some don't understand that the need to communicate is different to the need to write, although nowadays there is considerable overlap. I write every day but most of it is not for publication or even future use. My writing improves the more I write - in my own humble opinion, one certainly not shared everyone else. So, whether I practice on paper, or for a computer file or on Book SA, it is not a waste or idle chatter. It is practice, pure and simple, a honing of whatever talent I have.
    One final point: I agree with Darry Accone when he quotes Smollett: "the taste of the town is so changeable". This comment also applies to the opinions and writings of those reviewing books. What is critcised or misunderstood today, may be considered a classic tomorrow.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 16th, 2011 @22:02 #
     
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    Agreed James, although it's worth distinguishing between Book Chat (the online-therapy-for-writers part of this site) and Book SA, the most influential online literary publication in South Africa. Book SA is read by practically everyone in the book trade and a large number of book buyers too, but Book Chat is pretty much just us writers burbling forth.

    I completely agree that hindsight is an essential tool in assessing the significance of any period in literature. I made that point in an earlier blog about Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom'. For Zvoyuma to declare himself disappointed with the entire generation of writers born in the 70s and 80s is quite absurd.

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  • <a href="http://www.jamesclelland.co.za" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    February 17th, 2011 @08:57 #
     
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    Hey, we totally agree. Burbling-as-therapy is cheaper than visiting a mind doctor, and very necessary. And popularity now doesn't mean significance later, dead right.

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