Friday, August 31, 2012

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 2) - Intellectual Elitism

‘The novel, to me, is a demonstration of emotional and psychological truths, not an intellectual exercise. I don’t see myself as an intellectual…I think of myself as a craftsman.’ – Bestselling author John Irving (The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules)
 
I don’t want scientists. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.’ - Bill Bernbach, legendary businessman (advertising field)


Let me ask you a question: Has anyone ever borrowed the literary page of your newspaper?

Admit it – people will ask if they can ‘see’ your Pulse, Zuqka, Eve, Saturday, Instinct, sports section and a few other entertaining pullouts/segments but no-one borrows your Literary/Books page. There’s a reason for that: It’s usually filled with academic/intellectual hogwash and is therefore boring to the man on the street. I am a writer and even I don’t read the literary columns any more (maybe the concerned columnists don’t care about that but they should – If
you were organizing a music awards ceremony and even the musicians were not interested, wouldn’t you be concerned?)

‘Intellectualising’ the literary scene is a step in the wrong direction and it is stifling the Kenyan mass market paperback industry. Do you see professors on the bestseller lists of Publishers Weekly, New York Times, USA Today and International Express? Even if a professor-written book does make the list (and that’s a big ‘if’), it will most likely be in the non-fiction category.

There is nothing elitist about literature. Literature was, in fact, the first form of mass communication. As Edgar V. Roberts observed, ‘Literature is the property of all.’ One of the things intellectual book reviewers like to do is dissect the past, like a medical student slicing open a corpse. And from the past, they dig out such hackneyed expressions as ‘East Africa is a literary desert.’ Professor Taban Lo Liyong (Another Nigger Dead, Culture is Rutan) made that (probably off-hand) comment in the 1970’s and since then it has dominated Kenyan
literary reviews. Taban Lo Liyong, a Sudanese national who has taught at Nairobi University, is probably amazed by how much ink his little remark has received. Intellectual reviewers love to squeeze it into their literary columns: ‘…perhaps this is the literary desert Taban Lo Liyong was referring to’, ‘…Taban Lo Liyong once described East Africa as a literary desert…’, ‘…this book is a flower in the literary desert…’ and so on and so forth. What’s so special about that expression, you ask? Nothing. It’s just that we have literary reviewers who can’t seem ‘to turn the page’; they discuss the same things year in and year out, world without end. Even if that sentiment was accurate (which it wasn’t), so much has changed in the literary landscape over the last thirty years that it has now been overtaken by events: Numerous fiction and non-fiction titles have
been published, publishing houses have multiplied, scores of authors have emerged, book clubs ave been formed, book festivals have been launched, literary awards have increased, literacy levels in the region have risen and so on. In recent times, Kenyan writers have won international accolades such as The Caine Prize for African Writing, the BBC playwriting contest and the Commonwealth Prize for Fiction. In 2010, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Personally, I can’t stand that expression! If I hear it one more time, I’m going to throw a fit! I think it should completely disappear from our literary radar because it does no good to the regional book market (it can only discourage investors and demoralize authors). First of all, East Africa is not, and has never been, a ‘literary desert’ (if anything, it’s an oasis). Second, the discussion of Taban Lo Liyong’s remarks have been done to death. That chapter is now closed. I have squashed that debate for all time.

Another expression that intellectuals love is ‘to sacrifice something on the alter of something something else.’ It used to be quite popular in the newspapers some years back and it is still sparingly used today. For example, in September 2011, somebody reacting to an article by veteran columnist Phillip Ochieng’ (I Accuse the Press), wrote: ‘…the Luo have sacrificed the community’s development at the alter of Mr. Raila Odinga’s political ambitions.’ I kind of like
that turn of phrase, to be honest, and since it is not negative, I will not condemn it – I will in fact find ways of incorporating it into my writings!
In his audio book, How to Argue and Win Every Time, lawyer Gene Geter (who has represented such high-profile clients as Imelda Marcos) talks about the numerous papers that lawyers prepare for judges. Gene states that those documents constitute ‘the most boring literature in the world’ and that he pities the judges/magistrates that have to plough through all that muck. Gene
wonders aloud where it is written that ‘lawyers should not be passionate about what they do.’

I sometimes wonder the same thing when I read the professor-written literary reviews. It’s as if they’re afraid that if the article is remotely entertaining, it will not be taken seriously. They prefer to give ‘strong medicine’.

The truth of the matter is that even the most serious, sobering and weighty matters can still be written in such as way that they hold a reader’s interest. Like a lawyer introducing exhibits to a courtroom, allow me to introduce the works of Joe McGinniss. Joe McGinniss is an American writer whose forte is highly researched non-fiction. He is the author of the acclaimed true crime books Cruel Doubt, Blind Faith and Fatal Vision. At the age of only 26, his bestseller about then president Richard Nixon, The Selling of the President, appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List. During the O. J. Simpson trial, McGinniss was offered a $1 million advance by a publisher, to write a book on the case. Kenyan non-fiction writers (and jaded newspaper columnists) could learn a great deal from this McGinniss guy. Even when he is writing about dull politicians like Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey (The Selling of the
President
), McGinniss keeps you glued to the page. He is, apparently, incapable of writing a dull paragraph and its no wonder that he has made a home for himself on the New York Times Bestseller List.

To continue with the courtroom analogy, allow me to introduce several more closely-linked exhibits. As a writer, I keep a lot of old newspapers for research purposes and I will now reach randomly into the piles and show you what has become of Kenyan literature:

Book review for Sunday Nation, 23rd August 2009
Book: The Politics of School Texts in Kenya

With all due respect, that title alone nearly put me to sleep. The Politics of School Texts in Kenya? Isn’t that something school heads attending a conference in Mombasa would discuss? At best it sounds like the agenda of an early-morning meeting at the Ministry of Education, following complaints from publishers.
Let’s move on:

Book review for Sunday Nation, 2nd September 2007
Book: The Moi Presidency in Kenya: The Politics of Transition from Authoritarianism to Democracy, 1979 - 2002Author: Prof. William Ochieng’

Not bad. Moi’s presidency does deserve a major analysis. But the fact that the author is a professor is enough to put me off. I expect a dull work – even the title rambles for too long.

Book review for Sunday Nation, 1st March 2009
Book: Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922 – 2000
Author: Carol Sicherman

Perfect! This is the kind of stuff I’m complaining about. Picture this: It’s a glorious Sunday afternoon and you’re sitting in one of Nairobi’s many entertainment joints, sipping a drink while you wait for your ka-kilo of goat meat to be roasted. All around you are bustling Nairobians, drinking and feasting on nyama choma. You reach for your Sunday Nation and turn to
the literary page only to discover a review of a book about the history of Makerere University from 1922 to 2000. What do you care about its history? It’s not even in Kenya! Would you even be interested in a review of a book about the history of Nairobi University? What does it have to do with the price of eggs? One would have to be an investor in tertiary education institutions to care. (I doubt that even a lecturer there would give two pins about the distant history of the place. His/her eye is on the monthly paycheck).

And now you know why nobody borrows the literary page of your Sunday paper. I often smile when, at the end of a book review, I see the words, ‘The writer teaches literature at such and such university.’ That’s well and good but as the saying goes: ‘You don’t need to be a cook to criticize the cooking.’

I don’t know whose bright idea it was to have university professors do the
book reviews but I don’t think it has done Kenyan literature any favours. (You don’t see movie reviews being done by lecturers from Kenya Institute of Mass Communication or Multimedia University, do you?) In fact, the injection of intellectualism may have isolated ordinary people who have no wish to delve deep into things like ‘Merits and Demerits of Oral Literature’, ‘Early African writing and writers (1950’s and 1960’s)’ and so on. And this is universal. To illustrate: When world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking set out to write A Brief History of Time (for laymen), his publisher warned him that any mathematical equation he put in the book would half the sales.


Left to their own devices, academics love to review books by fellow professors, like Professor Francis Imbuga, Professor Taban Lo Liyong, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o and so on. They write articles with such uninspiring titles as ‘Dons track progress in popularizing oral literature’ (Sunday Nation, May 23, 2004) and mention things like ‘the post-colonial vortex’. I have a fairly high IQ and I have authored several books and even I don’t know what the Post-Colonial Vortex is, or was. I wouldn’t know it even if it jumped up and bit me. Which begs the question: Who are these intellectuals writing for? It sure as hell isn’t Joe/Jane Citizen on the street.

‘Literature is the property of all; its appeal is to all. But literature is an art, it employs techniques…’ - Edgar V. Roberts

I know that newspaper columnists have to kowtow to certain editorial policies ‘from above’ but I sincerely doubt that, as in the case of the Sunday Nation, the Aga Khan and other shareholders ever got together and went: ‘Hmm….Let’s make the Books section as boring as possible so that butcheries and kiosks can have a part of the newspaper that they can use to wrap their stuff with.’ (Yes, I know – I’m a funny guy. I even had some more jokes to insert here but they were swallowed by the Post-Colonial Vortex.)
Bestselling author Sidney Sheldon didn’t seem to have a high opinion of university literary courses, either. During an interview, he told a story about Pulitzer Prize winner Sinclair Lewis who was much sought after by universities. The universities wanted him to speak to their writing classes but he kept
turning them down. Finally, Harvard University convinced him to give a talk to
their aspiring writers. The famous author looked at the assembled young faces and simply said, ‘Why aren’t you home writing?’ and walked off the stage. ‘There’s never been better advice for a writer,’ Sidney Sheldon concluded. ‘Don’t talk about it - do it.’

A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.’ - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Not only is the crafting of novels, plays and poetry not the preserve of scholars but some of the best writers were either poorly educated or dropped out of school. Sidney Sheldon dropped out of college after only six months. Paulo Coelho, who has sold more than 100 million books in over 150 countries, dropped out of law school after only one year. Frédéric Dard, a French
novelist whose thrillers sold over 100 million copies, was a school dropout. (He authored over three hundred novels, including over one hundred in the ‘San Antonio’ series.) British-born Jackie Collins dropped out of school at age 15 and joined her actor sister, Joan, in Hollywood. ‘Even then, I knew I wanted to write and that year gave me insight into the movie business,’ says the talkative writer whose voluminous novels based on Hollywood stars have sold millions
of copies in forty countries.

Of course, many literary professors/lecturers will not agree with the foregoing sentiments, but that’s OK. As Bill Bernbach observed, such people may do the ‘right things’ (teach the authorized syllabus, write a newspaper column within the editorial guidelines etc) but they can never do ‘inspiring things.’ They don’t motivate or entertain. Everything is coloured grey. I pity their students. In such a fast-paced world, my advice for the disciples of such un-evolving teachers is:

‘Don’t let school interfere with your education. It is well known that universities kill by degrees.’