I read what I like

Image © Philip Bloom
And I’d like a story about the haunting at Ponte tower, thank you.

I have always wanted to tell stories to my country, about my country, for my country. This has been a non-negotiable with me since I was eleven years old. Fast forward sixteen years and here I sit, a novel under my belt and a prose edit looming in my reality. A big shift, to be sure.

With this shift has come the necessary evil of exploring the South African literary community. I say necessary and evil, because to someone like me, with big dreams and big ideas and an eventual goal of changing the face of reading in this country, my local writing world is awash with pitfalls, with insecurity, with a mean sense of obligation to what stories are told, with oppressive structures that are seldom challenged, with ideas and thinking that are, to put it bluntly, archaic and backwards.

This is nowhere more exemplified than in a recent piece Tom Eaton published on his blog, titled ‘Miss Congeniality: South African Fiction’. In short, he lays out a framework that establishes the following: writers in South Africa won’t make a lot of money; South Africa is a country that does not read and who knows what to do about that; English fiction doesn’t sell well and , in fact, it is dwindling alarmingly; and, finally, that quality and story have very little to do with any of the aforementioned.

I could wallow in my own ire and calmly take his piece apart, line by line, refuting each statement and giving a lengthy explanation as to why I do so. I really could. But that would be a waste of time and energy.

Particularly since most of his arguments for the ‘shitty life of writers’ seem to stem from his belief, and one held by many others, that South Africans do not read and as a result, will not fork out the required cash for a book. Particularly a book by a local author. This, he says, has nothing to do with plot and story but is rather symptomatic of some larger affliction on South African literacy.

Fine.

But also no. No way. I have questions.

The first being, to everyone: why the need to always differentiate between local and international? I have never understood it, being the kind of person who reads books I like, no matter who the author might be, or where they might be from. This differentiation has always filled me with concern, not only because it seeks to elevate one author above another (such nonsense!) but also because it puts unbelievable pressure on the audience. There is an implicit obligation in the lines drawn between local and international writers — this idea that because the author is from the same country as you, the reader, it is your patriotic duty to consume their work.

Which is a hot piece of bullshit.

Where is the story of the skateboarder who suddenly finds he can stop time? Where is the story about the child-led family of chess prodigies from Delft, who find themselves in a dangerous world as secret and as unknown as any? Where are the vampires from Soweto? Where is East London’s werewolf pack?

Not only does it foster a reluctance in the reader, who now feels like they would be selling their country short to not read every single piece of South African writing under the sun because it is South African, like them, but it also places an awkward duty in the lap of the writer, who now feels the need to tailor their story to a South African audience (instead of, perhaps, an audience who just likes a good detective novel). It is the explanation, I believe, for the legion of books that seem to focus on race as their main, arching theme and somehow forget that there needs to be a story there too.

The second question is: how can people suggest that the reasons South Africans don’t read have nothing to do with story? Because I, happily to the contrary, believe that the reasons South Africans don’t read have everything to do with story.

This relates, somewhat, to my third and final question: why are these statements about South African readers and writers made in this weird vacuum? Where is the context? In a world where nuance governs relations and interactions, context is everything. Without it, any outcome of an argument becomes purely hypothetical and thus, useless when it comes to implementation.

At this juncture, I will unashamedly air my belief that the South African literary world is damn near crippled by the oppressive structures that govern our lives. This was brilliantly showcased at this year’s explosive Franschhoek Literary Festival, where Thando Mgqolozana laid bare the abnormalities of this country’s literary culture.

It moves me to think that it is perhaps not a case of South Africans not reading, but rather, a case of South Africans being disinclined to read the literature currently being published. And why should they? The dominant narrative of stories in this country is one of overcoming racial struggles, of vast cultural journeys, tales that mock daily living and the Average Joe, satire and hilarity woven through history, exposes of court cases and criminal affairs and lots and lots of biographies. Young, on the hustle, managing your grind — would you read about any of the things I mentioned?

Where is the story of the skateboarder who suddenly finds he can stop time? Where is the story about the child-led family of chess prodigies from Delft, who find themselves in a dangerous world as secret and as unknown as any? Where are the vampires from Soweto? Where is East London’s werewolf pack? Where is Durban’s zombie infestation? Where is the lone cop in Hillbrow, just trying to do right by the law and the people it’s supposed to protect? Where is the drug syndicate that runs all the way up the West Coast, plagued by infighting? Where is Nelspruit’s caped hero, protecting its residents from ill? Where, oh where the fuck, is Bloemfontein’s Hellmouth? Where is the story of the granny from Mthatha, gifted in her old age with incredible powers of observation, who becomes a private investigator?

Story is king in literature. Through story, a writer can touch on so much, explore everything, structure a message, change the world. The story, though, must be good, and fun and enjoyable and dark and light, in turns sad and joyous, thrilling, gripping, compelling. In South Africa, it is story we lack, not the will to read.

But why? I am surrounded by so much story, every day of my life. We all are. How can there be no story?

The answering of this question employs the context so seldom used when making sweeping statements about reading in South Africa. In short: the literary industry remains dominated by whiteness, propped up by privilege and is largely structured to serve a very small part of this country’s population. This effect exists strongly throughout, from the simple consumption of literature, to its teaching and examination, and how it is shaped for citizens of this country. It is a vital part of figuring out just why it is South Africans don’t read, and often the one most overlooked.

Structural inequality is exemplary in the literary world (sadly, a global trend) and it is most effective in silencing voices that could bring a different story to the table, remaining instead a frightening homage to an antiquated, oppressive way of spreading the joy of story.

It narrows the scope dramatically, ensuring that all the stories come from a small section of the population. While I do not begrudge anyone their opportunity to air their tales, it does mean that the variety is less, that the appeal to the larger population is less. The inherent bias in systemic oppression — against skin colour, gender and sexuality specifically — also ensures that an egalitarian representation of humanity is largely absent. This in itself alienates certain audiences, turning them into non-readers. As a friend once expressed to me, while defending her love of fanfiction and online writing sites: where else was she going to read the story of the black, queer superhero with only one arm who still manages to triumph over the odds, save the world and live happily ever after?

The truth of the matter is that we have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard as a literary community. Start demanding better stories. Start telling better stories. Above all, make room for different stories, stories that have never been told, stories as dynamic and complex and entertaining as the people who read them.

South Africa is a country that has always loved story: it weaves its way through our complex cultural heritage, through our history, through the very roots of what makes us. There is no lack of love or need for story.

Writing a book is hard. Every day launches a thousand new writers. The industry is extremely competitive, rife with problems and governed by ancient academia. It is difficult work, a long slog that at times can seem so uncertain. It’s a big risk, one that could pay off in huge dividends, or leave you hanging with little more than your notes to show for it. It requires confidence, strength of character and an unshakeable belief in your story. Selling a book is even harder.

But neither are hard because people, particularly South Africans, don’t read.

PS: I realise that I have not touched on how one addresses, then, structural inequality in stories. My belief is that for anyone who understands and realises that way the world works, they cannot tell a story without touching on systemic oppression, because it is everywhere. I also realise there are certain points I do not touch on here, including the issue of language. However, I believe that it finds itself part of the structural biases alive in the literary world and so, in that respect, have been highlighted here.

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