Friday, July 26, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 4) - Leaning Towards ‘Small Classics’

‘I am terribly, terribly, grateful that I have stopped writing small classics. I have known novelists who have written small classics and never made a penny, and they write these beautiful books…If you’re a member of the nobility, sure you can do that. If you’re a guy with a wife and children and you continue to do small classics, you’re committing murder. You’re murdering your family for the sake of you ego.’ – Mario Puzo, bestselling author of The Godfather

‘When I sit down to write, I do not say to myself: “I’m going to produce a work of art”. I write because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.’ – George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm

The year was 1969, and Mario Puzo was 45 years old, married with five children, and broke. Born in New York, to Italian immigrants, Puzo was a critically acclaimed but little-known scribbler. His two published novels, The Fortunate Pilgrim and The Dark Arena, had failed to excite the marketplace. His publisher had been urging him to write commercial novels and since Puzo was himself tired of writing ‘artistic novels’ he set his mind on writing a bestseller that would pull him out of debt. Working on a vintage manual typewriter, Puzo hammered out a beautifully-written crime story about a fiercely loyal and honour-bound Mafia family. Entitled, The Godfather, the novel went on to make publishing history and inspire numerous similarly themed novels, films and TV shows (notably TV’s The Sopranos). Puzo is also the author of The Last Don and Fools Die. He also wrote the three screenplays for the successful Godfather movie trilogy and won two Oscar Awards for them.

Like the broke Mario Puzo, a lot of Kenyan writers have complained about the lack of commercial success. But are their books commercial fodder? Why would buyers – already pestered with a thousand cares – flock to bookshops to purchase your book in particular? What incentive have you given them? “Artistic novels” (aka “small classics”) are often the worst performers. A minute analysis of mega-sellers reveals that they are often sensational (The
Godfather), motivational (The Alchemist), controversial (The Da Vinci Code) or offer escape from reality (Harry Potter, Terry Pratchett’s discworld series). Hoity-toity, award-begging, textbook–boring, intellectual-written art novels rarely crack the bestseller list. The only hope for such a book to sell in large volumes is if it is turned into a school set-book (every publishers dream!) and then students will be forced to buy it.

For scribblers like me and many others within our borders who want to write for a living (not for prestige or awards), penning ‘small classics’ is committing suicide. Remember the world is now ‘flat’ and your consumer products will often have to compete at a global level. Do you really want to be the guy penning boring, demure, politically-correct, gender-sensitive, everything-sensitive, unoriginal stories? Look at some of the ideas that other novelists have introduced to the world stage over the years:

- A bullet-scarred man wakes up from a coma, suffering from amnesia, and goes in search of his own identity. (The Bourne Identity / Robert Ludlum)

- At the height of World War Two, the Nazis engineer an elaborate plot to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over a quiet weekend. (The Eagle Has Landed / Jack Higgins)

- A CIA agent vacationing in the UK foils an IRA terrorist attack only to discover that he just saved the lives of the Prince and Princess of Wales. (Patriot Games / Tom Clancy)

- A man and a woman – strangers - make a brief connection when their plane runs into turbulence. Will their burgeoning romance continue on the ground? (Perfect StrangersDanielle Steel)

- A woman’s life becomes a nightmare after a mysterious stalker keeps coming after her – even after she kills him (Whispers / Dean R. Koontz)

- A hired assassin with a customized sniper rifle comes within shooting distance of French president Charles De Gaulle. (The Day of the Jackal / Frederick Forsyth)

- A young boy discovers a former Nazi living in his neighbourhood and blackmails him into revealing his hellish acts during World War II (Apt Pupil / Stephen King)

- A wife and a spy master race each other to find a double agent who has vanished (A Perfect SpyJohn le Carre)

- There is a mysterious place from which no people return and only a boy with Down’s Syndrome knows what the hell goes on there. (The Bad Place / Dean R. Koontz)

- A beautiful girl’s dream of becoming a star actress shatters as her life spins out of control (Stranger in the Mirror / Sidney Sheldon)

- The toughest British spy goes after the world’s cleverest and cruelest criminal – a super villain who is obsessed with gold. (Goldfinger / Ian Fleming)

Those are just examples of some really good ideas by some of the world’s greatest entertainers.

Clearly, there is a sharp division between ‘storytellers’ and ‘scholars’ in terms of the intent oftheir literature. Me, I’ll take the thriller route.

‘I get recognized, sometimes people come and not get recognition.’ – Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22