Not a Theory seminar

“Who gets to decide what’s literature?” panel discussion with Jenny Crwys-Williams, Lauren Beukes, Karin Schimke and Imraan Coovadia, 17 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


It is a widely held commonplace that the very idea of distinctions between “high” and “low” literary forms has been rendered somewhat obsolete or old hat since the turn of postmodernism more than two decades ago. That said, the “genre snob” debate between the firm followers of Literature with a capital L, and fans of genre fiction, such as crime writing seems ongoing. In this highly entertaining though not particularly robust “debate”, a congenial hour of good-natured repartee was the order of the day, highlighted by Lauren Beukes’s claim that we must be “promiscuous readers”, enjoying a variety of literary forms and texts.

To kick things off after the introductions, Beukes mentions that the topic first arose six years ago at the FLF. Festivals are important platforms for writers because they allow writers to be social agents, and writers should be more social in marketing themselves. She is, of course, a master at maintaining a visible online presence, and has a blog, The Spark, which allows other writers to produce guest blogs once a week. Coovadia mentions Damon Galgut as a writer who is acutely shy, one who generally lets his work speak for itself (much like Coetzee).

Prompted to ponder whether Twitter is literature, Schimke notes: “Rather write a poem than a tweet”, but states that this not a value judgement. Coovadia, evidently the panel’s scholar, reflects that he looks back to the books that survive from the 30s, 50s, 70s to see what literature is, or rather what is held up to be meaningful or good literature, that which rises from the mass of texts in circulation.

Crwys-Williams asks the panel if they have been interviewed by someone who hasn’t read their book, and the answer is a unanimous yes, with Schimke joking that she has never really been read and not interviewed by anyone about her poetry. These remarks, like many other self-effacing moments, are a treat for the crowd, who truly lap it up. Coovadia raises a fascinating issue when he speaks of the disconnect between reading and articulation of affect in the aftermath of the reading process, noting that it could ironically be better for the reader not to have read the book. That’s Coovadia in person for you, laconic and expansive, wry and effortlessly wicked. He certainly livens up any discussion, even when taking it very easy, as he does here.

The final part of the discussion gets to the heart of what is promised by the panel title: the “what” that pertains to the literary. Schimke is an acclaimed poet and the books editor of the Cape Times, and freely admits that she simply “cannot do crime”. She notes that in her case it is simply a complete lack of affinity with the form, and the kind of content that comes with the form, rather than a willfully dismissive attitude towards the genre, which is burgeoning locally and abroad. Coovadia takes a backseat at this final juncture, with Beukes emerging as a champion for “story” over “genre”, noting that there is genre snobbery on both sides of the fence.

One can’t help but agree with her assessment, and I wonder if we wouldn’t rather start asking how such snobbery could be a very productive launching pad for those on both sides to restate the case for the reasons why their beloved literary forms affect them so strongly and are still so compulsively readable, or are so formally or stylistically impressive. Rather than an all-out attack or defense, we need more focus on the properties and agentive qualities of literary texts themselves, and what the texts we read say about us as people at this point in time.

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