Transformation On Paper: The South African Literary Debate
(I hate Franschhoek – it is a bastion of privilege that just stokes my class hatred.) During the Franschhoek Literary Festival, Thando Mgqolozana began a discussion on the unnaturalness of the South African literary scene: during one of his panel talks he said to the all-white audience, “look at yourselves, it’s very abnormal”. He spoke about how he was quitting the ‘white literary system’, and then people got upset, but not for the right reasons.
Because in South Africa, publishing is as white, from author to reader to publisher, as bleached chalk. And of course, Twitter erupted because twits are as Twitter does, but the point he made was entirely valid. There’s something horribly wrong when the vast majority of authors published and promoted are white in a country with a minority white population. It suggests that with millions of black people, we can’t find more than a handful of authors, but every third or fourth white person (usually male) is a literary investment. And the few black authors that make it in are not being edited, marketed and sold by other black people. If they want to get published, they must write in English, and be sold to an English market, which is dominated by a conservative readership. Oh, and they must only write political diatribes, or about ‘how black people live’. (Think I’m being facetious? Have a look at the bestseller lists, you know it to be true.)
I used to work in the book industry, and in my time there the same questions were being asked over and over again. Why are there so few black authors? Why are the South African books in their own book ghetto? Are there seriously no female authors of colour in South Africa? How is Zoë Wicomb the only one that seems to gain any traction? Why aren’t there any publishing houses who publish in anything but English and Afrikaans? Of course, there’s always a knee-jerk reaction from the privileged who feel that their status quo is challenged, but they must listen more carefully: no one, absolutely no one, is calling for fewer books in South Africa, or the burning of all books by white authors.
The problem is that the system is closed off and out of touch, and it needs to move with the times. There is no black ownership anywhere in the supply chain, and very little black presence: whether it’s the bookstores or the publishers, there just isn’t the skill set or acumen, not yet. Mostly because books are expensive to source, produce and ship, and a publishing house needs huge initial capital to start and this means being risk-averse. Add to this the sheer cost of books: even if we did have many black authors publishing in their own languages, books cost too much. It’s that straightforward. Local books are printed in Singapore and China and are shipped here because they cost too much to print here. What madness is this? Add to this an educational system that lacks libraries in schools (and the cycle begins anew – there aren’t enough books for the kids to read in their home language) and definitely far too little in the way of local children’s publishing. (And what there is is always some twee thing involving rhinos.) I could go on and on – the middle class is under strain, the only books that keep getting printed are political warnings about the imminent collapse of SA, the refusal of the upper class to believe that anyone else even reads (this is an issue across races). The issue of black authorship and ownership of South Africa’s literary scene is part of a much wider discussion of economics, spending power, education legacy issues and the failure of traditional publishing to catch up with how we all live now.
But! Let it be known that there is hope. In a fascinating discussion held at Wits University called “Decolonising The Literary Landscape” (google it: Books Live has all the highlights and a podcast of the event), there was vibrant discussion with practical ways forward. The examples of Gayton McKenzie (The Hustler’s Bible) and DJ Sbu (Leadership 2020) have shown how dedicated, self-marketing black authors can sell books in the tens of thousands outside of the traditional publishing system. While I generally have little respect for the kind of stuff that gets self-published, especially on Amazon (cryptozoological erotica, anyone?), in South Africa this may be our way forward. Why should an author with a following wait for approval from a snobbish, closed-off publisher? Get your books printed, get out there and sell, and keep ALL the money, rather than the measly 6% (and pitiful advance) that traditional publishing offers. Mofenyi Malepe, the author of the controversial book 283: The Bad Sex Bet turned to Thando Mgqolozana and asked him if he still owed Jacana any more books, because then he shouldn’t complain about a white system and keep returning to it. (To be fair, Jacana probably gives more black authors a platform than any of the other publishers.) By taking ownership, an entirely new publishing system could be produced, with black authors, editors, printers and marketers rising to create something new and fresh.
And while it was a long time coming, at least the discussion has started. At least there has been a shaking of the tree, a kicking of the hornet’s nest. This discussion, which has been going on for a long time in very insular places, has finally broken out and been had across all groups. The ongoing silence from the publishers responsible is a pity (only Jacana appeared at the Wits discussion, from what I can tell) but I am glad that so many have come forward and had the discussion. The conversation is fascinating, as are the questions being asked. Are black parents buying books for their children? What sells? What doesn’t? How can we break up the system? Have a look at the #LitApartheid discussion as it is ongoing on Twitter and Books Live, and think about what kind of transformation that you, as a South African, as a reader, maybe a parent or a teacher, would like to see. I am delighted that we are finally having this discussion, and that it is making people uncomfortable: meaningful change never happened in anyone’s comfort zone.