The State of South African Literature

“Why don’t you stock more local authors? Why can’t I find any South African poetry? Why are there so few black authors?”

These complaints come my way every now and then, and are often brought up at store level. While these are very valid questions, the answer is more complicated (and a little bit sadder) than most booksellers have time to explain.

The book industry, as I’ve discussed before, is ultimately a business with serious overheads and a currently volatile market. More now than ever, publishers are losing their best authors to Amazon, readers are shying away from unusual books and no one wants to take any risks. You only need look at the New York Times bestseller list to see that genre fiction makes up the majority of the bestsellers. For the love of text, the bestselling book this year is that godawful Shades of Vomit tripe. This is further exacerbated in the South African market, which already has a very small book-buying population and is still trying to climb out of a recession. That small market is also likely to own tablets and Kindles, carving that market up even further. And when Amazon sells the same book at a pittance compared to a brick and mortar store with its ridiculous overheads, it makes sense that publishers carefully hedge their bets, and that stores would do the same. After all, rent must be paid and books that sit forever on the shelves end up costing the business. This is one of the many reasons why so many bookstores have closed down.

And unfortunately, publishers are not going to take a chance on a South African author that isn’t an easy sell. Penguin is suing several authors for not producing books that they were paid advances for, and many of these authors are very bankable. If a legacy publisher is losing money on safe bets, then is it really so surprising that a publisher won’t spend the money editing, printing and marketing a collection of African short stories written by a black woman no one has ever heard of?

Ultimately, the publishing industry is much like Hollywood. It likes its leading actors to be white, straight and male (Christian is a bonus) and second it likes white, straight females. While there are definitely gay and lesbian (Stephen Fry, Ellen Degeneres) and black authors (Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe) who have enjoyed huge literary success, it is still much more difficult for them to break into it than a pretty little white girl who looks good on the back cover. I’ve discussed this issue in terms of black and gay characters, considered risky and likely to hurt sales. And it continues in a cycle of people not buying because the books aren’t there, and the books not being published because there’s a perception that no one wants to buy them.

This is not a new problem in publishing, but I’m not really sure there’s an easy or clear-cut solution. We would have to uproot a lot of social constructs about race and gender before people would be more receptive to a book that isn’t written by someone just like them. One of the many problems with the Man Booker prize is that it is nearly always won by an upper-class white English writer because that’s what the judges are comfortable with.

Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, lashed out at the “highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker prize”, whose winners have alternated “between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade'”. Speaking at the Edinburgh international writers’ conference , he added that the organisers’ failure to refute accusations of anti-Scottishness, already voiced by Scottish writers such as Alan Bissett, was a sign of “arrogance” and “intellectual enfeeblement”. Welsh, who is famous for using Scottish dialect in his novels, said: “The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology.” The award, he said, was “based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured”.

That’s one example of where prejudice can give a book an unfair advantage over other, often better books.

So, perhaps what might be done is that South African book prizes go to authors who actually deserve it rather than the safe bets. Some publishers have local imprints that are supposed to service South African authors; perhaps skimping on print quality to get cheaper books into more hands might be better. How about putting more South African books in the school syllabus instead of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice? (Although Cry The Beloved Country is an awful, condescending litany of racist tripe, it probably has a valid place in the school syllabus.) I really think that South Africa is home to enough legacy publishers with good teams to give local authors good opportunities, and there definitely needs to be more publishing in done in languages other than English and Afrikaans. In fact, I’ll tackle the potential answers in another, lengthier blog post. I’d love to hear what you think about what is happening on the South African literature scene, and what can be done to improve it.

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