A Critical Problem

It’s Monday morning and my deadline to deliver a review is Friday, but I’ve got a problem: I dare not say what I feel should be said about this book because the author – let’s call her Author X – is well-connected in the Cape Town book scene. If I say what I really feel about the book, there will certainly be repercussions of the sort no writer in his or her right mind would dare to risk. They will mess with your professional, and possibly your personal, life.

For example, the next time you apply for an academic post at an institution where the writer concerned is either well-connected or employed, your chances of making the shortlist might be severely compromised. Or the next time your own writing comes up for review, or for consideration in a prize category, your chances will be even more diminished than they already are. These are examples of formal, or institutional consequences. There are any number of adverse ‘social’ penalties – subtle, but marked nonetheless – that might also accrue to one.

I must emphasise that this situation is real. Author X is a pseudonym because I really am afraid to speak my mind about her work. She’s big in the Cape Town book scene. And I’m not alone, either. Just the other day, I had coffee with Author Y, another writer-critic who confessed to me that she also finds Author X’s new book problematic but dare not say what she really feels.

‘You’d better say it, Leon,’ she said, ‘because I can’t. I just can’t risk it. It’s hard enough to be a writer with a new book out as it is.’

That’s all she needed to say. I understood implicitly. New books typically have a print-run of somewhere between 700 and 1000 copies. The publishers say their margins are ultra-thin; they promise to print on demand if the book gets big uptake.

The truth is, though, that new books – as Imraan Coovadia once aptly remarked – are like sperm cells: almost none of them will survive.

The ones that do ‘survive’ are those which (to continue the metaphor) are find receptive germination among critics, prize judges, academics who (God forbid) might write articles about them, agents in London and New York, publishers elsewhere who pick up that your book is causing ripples and who commission translations, and so on.

That’s the real measure of success, of survival, for a writer, local or not. Publishing in South Africa, even more so than elsewhere, is something of a mushroom industry, a protected hothouse environment in which a strong post-TRC ethic remains of ‘giving everyone a voice’ or ‘letting people tell their stories’. Inevitably, this leads to many books being published which would never see the light of day in more competitive publishing environments.

So, to some extent, South African publishing – even more than other markets – has become a ‘try it out’ scene, with big publishing houses cross-subsidising near-break-even literary works by continuing to make good returns on map books, cookbooks, gardening manuals, sport-star biographies (‘jock books’) and similar, more tractable products in a society with a very thin crust of intelligentsia.

When the crust is this thin, and brittle, the last thing you want to do is poke your big clumsy finger in there and create a mess.

For your book and its author to get its rightful chance at second-round spoils – prizes, publishing contracts elsewhere, writing fellowships, invitations to connection-cash-in fairs – you want to play it safe.

For this reason, many writers I know will not review authors whose work they (privately) don’t like, or don’t like quite enough. This may seem a good solution to the problem, but when you consider that most good critics are also writers (correction – most critics who care about literature and writing more than they do about the cultural studies industry, which has seduced most ‘literature’ academics at local universities), then you will see the problem.

That leaves us with a condition which is regularly remarked upon by a few (suitably) caustic figures, namely the mutual ‘back-slapping’, hail-fellow-well-met reviewing culture – a culture in which a lot of poor or mediocre work is (superficially) lauded, as if reviewing is an extension of the congratulatory book-launch rituals which have become so alarmingly festive, especially in Cape Town, where complimentary wine flows abundantly and writer-critics rub shoulders nervously, if tipsily, with each other (and with blood-relations of the launchee).

Every time these polemical spats occur, very punchy general remarks are made about how pernicious such an incestuous literary culture is, and a nice public bunfight often follows, but nothing really changes. The reviewing culture remains a dangerous space in which to say really critical things, and the publishing culture at home continues to be a sort of domestic garden which cultivates all manner of experimental shoots to little effect.

So, in the end we’re left with the ‘market mechanism’ to lift really good books out of the mushroom-morass, but can we trust a global ‘market’ which more often than not pursues the bottom line via the short-cut of thrillers, horror stories, crime fiction or housewife erotica?

Clearly not, which leaves me with my Friday-deadline looming, and my conscience badly rattled. My options are the following: cloak the review in appreciative gestures, mainly, but slip in some ‘footnote’ remarks with an ever-so-slightly critical tenor; decline the review; write a ‘descriptive’ or ‘non-evaluative’ piece emphasising ‘difference’ rather than judgmental essentialisms; or stick to my guns, politely and professionally, without ever becoming ad hominem.

This last option is not as easy as it sounds, but if I can’t bring myself to do it, then I may as well give up the critical enterprise completely. Besides, I’m close to retirement age, in a manner of speaking. Wish me luck.

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Chris Dunton says:

Don’t tell me about it, Leon. The most saddening experience I’ve had of the kind involved two Nigerian dramatists (both now deceased), who were furious with me, despite the good work I’d done for their work (plaudits, publicity, serious analysis), because I’d documented adverse criticism of their conservative take on Nigerian affairs. One of them invited myself and another dramatist to stay in his house following a theatre production and then made it clear he wasn’t going to talk to me—saddening and maddening. The weather was characteristically hot and humid, but breakfast took place in Ice Station Zebra.