On the matter of books

Print, Text, and Book Cultures in South Africa, edited by Andrew van der Vlies, Wits University Press, 2012.

During the BBC’s coverage of the awards ceremony for the Man Booker Prize 2012, Gaby Wood, the Telegraph’s books editor, commented that the extraordinary variety and number of small publishers which have emerged over the past few years, suggest the end of the fetishisation of the physical form of the book. Her point was that e-books and the wild popularity of e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle have actually opened up the publishing world to a greater range of indie, specialist publishers and non-mainstream writers. The presence of three independent publishers – And Other Stories, Salt, and Myrmidon Books – on the 2012 Booker Prize’s shortlist demonstrates the extent to which these new publishers are beginning to influence mainstream publishing.

Writing about art book publishing in South Africa, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen argues, similarly, that changes in the global book industry are not the result of “a decline either in publishing or in the numbers of people reading books” (p. 422), but rather because of “the combined effects of technology and economic recession” (p. 423). She notes: “What has changed is how we read” (p. 423). The tedious argument that we are currently witnessing the “death of the book” ignores the variety of ways in which people choose to read: supplementing e-books on e-readers with books, magazines, zines, and other texts, often produced in fairly small quantities.

The resurgence of niche magazine publishing, evinced by the success of publications like Fire and Knives, Frankie, and the Gentlewoman, as well as tiny, heavily specialised publishers like Visual Editions, which focuses on producing visually interesting texts, and Stork Press, which only publishes books from central and eastern Europe in translation, shows that there are markets for beautiful, special-interest publications.

The internet, too, has facilitated a far wider and more inclusive discussion about books and reading. LibraryThing, a social media site which allows users to share their libraries, has more than a million users, while book blogs such as John Self’s The Asylum and review sites like Good Reads have become increasingly influential over the marketing and sale of books.

Print, Text, and Book Cultures in South Africa, in which Law-Viljoen’s essay appears, has been published during a period of intense interest in and debate around the future of books, reading, publishing, printing, and book selling. Edited by Andrew van der Vlies, this sturdy volume of essays is, as he explains in his introductory essay, “a history of the book and of the history of its study in Southern Africa.” It is not an exhaustive overview of the field of book history in this region. Rather, this collection “presents itself as a gathering, a space of interdisciplinary conversation intended to make a significant intervention in a fledgling field” (p. 41).

The history of the book emerged internationally during the late 1970s and 1980s. It encompasses “‘the creation, dissemination, and uses of script and print in any medium’, which [is] to say ‘the social, cultural, and economic history of authorship, publishing, printing, the book arts, copyright, censorship, bookselling and distribution, libraries, literacy, literary criticism, reading habits, and reader response’” (p. 9). Studying the history of the book requires an engagement with texts as well as their physical form, and the circumstances in which they were produced, sold, and read. As Van der Vlies writes: “an interest in the literary need not exclude a concern with the material, and vice versa” (p. 12).

Considering the breadth of field of the history of the book, it is no surprise that Print, Text, and Book Cultures is so long, nor its content so varied. It is divided into eight sections, seven of which each contain three chapters. I can only provide an overview of some of its themes and essays here.

The collection begins with a section on print and the workings of power within colonial societies. In two excellent essays, Isabel Hofmeyr and Meg Samuelson demonstrate that the very portability of books, magazines, and pamphlets – explored, initially, by Hofmeyr in The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress (2004) – allowed for a circulation and exchange of ideas and information around the British Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: not necessarily from Britain to South Africa, but between South Africa, India, and elsewhere in the global south. This theme is picked up in the book’s third section, on the ways in which South African writing was, and is being, shaped by an interaction between local and international politics and media. For example, John Gouws argues that Deneys Reitz substantially altered his original Dutch text of Commando, written while in exile in 1903, in the 1929 English translation, better to echo and reinforce a discourse of imperial unity in a post-1910 South Africa.

Rita Barnard’s essay on how Oprah’s Book Club’s choice of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country shaped a set of attitudes towards South Africa, amplifies Gouws’s implication that the lives and afterlives of books are determined by a range of factors, both material (the interests of publishers, for instance) and political. Barnard’s piece draws on Van der Vlies’s earlier research into the international reception of Cry the Beloved Country, and links closely with his chapter on the publishing of J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country. In this illuminating essay, Van der Vlies compares the local, South African edition of the novel published by Ravan in 1977, which contained sections in Afrikaans, and the all-English international editions. His analysis of the two versions of the novel and the circumstances in which they were produced, shows how at least one South African writer and publisher negotiated the country’s unpredictable and often ruthless censorship regime.

This chapter is echoed by Peter McDonald’s fine essay in the collection’s second-last section, “Ideological Exigencies and the Fate of Books”. In “The Politics of Obscenity: Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Apartheid State,” MacDonald considers the censors’ decision to renew the ban on Lady Chatterley in 1969 and 1978.i He demonstrates not only that attitudes towards what should – and should not – be censored changed over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, but also that the apartheid state increasingly politicised obscenity. For instance, unlike in 1969, in 1978 the majority of censors agreed that the novel should be unbanned on the grounds of literary merit, but this decision was overruled by a more conservative appeal board. What had happened in the interim was that the state had begun to use censorship as a means of stamping out political dissent.ii

As Deborah Seddon shows in her chapter on the shifting relationship between orature and a written, published South African literary canon during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, apartheid police and security forces were particularly concerned about the apparently subversive implications of a new form of oral poetry associated with the Black Consciousness Movement. This orature drew on existing oral traditions, adapting them to suit the violent, disruptive politics of the 1970s. Importantly, these poems, like Alfred Qabula’s “Praise Poem to FOSATU” (1983), were both performed and written down and printed – in much the same way as, particularly, isiXhosa praise poetry was transcribed and printed in the early twentieth century.

Although, as Jeff Opland points out in “The Image of the Book in Xhosa Oral Poetry,” nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Xhosa praise poets often associated the book with the gun as a means of criticising the imposition of white rule, Seddon’s argument is that instead of posing a threat to African orature, print preserved, altered, and disseminated praise poems and other forms of oral poetry to wider audiences. These two essays – in the collection’s fifth section on orature, image, and text – prove that understanding the changing attitudes towards print and books opens a window on to the ways in which Africans, and others, challenged and negotiated white rule in South Africa.

Similarly, Archie Dick’s chapter on the Books for Troops scheme in the Second World War notes that the books made available to South African soldiers were seen by the military authorities as a means of inculcating relatively liberal, albeit heavily paternalistic, values in conscripts. Books were a weapon of war: of educating black and white conscripts about the value of democracy, the evil of fascism, and the need to create a united South Africa – or, at least, a South Africa where English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites lived in harmony with each other, and blacks were “accommodated”. The soldiers themselves seem to have been fairly immune to this nation building through words, though.

A similar ambivalence about the use of books to construct new ideas of national identity pervades Natasha Distiller’s chapter on teaching Shakespeare’s plays in post-apartheid South African schools. Drawn from her recent book Shakespeare and the Coconuts: On Post-Apartheid South African Literature (2012), the essay notes that post-1994 efforts to make Shakespeare both more “relevant” and “accessible” to South African learners have had the effect simply of reinforcing the conservative view that his writing represents a kind of eternal, universal truthfulness – instead of interrogating the ways in which he was, and is, constructed as a cultural icon. This is particularly significant because under apartheid, Shakespeare’s plays were used, often, to justify the political status quo. Margriet van der Waal ’s piece on the Gauteng Education Department’s 2001 decision to remove a range of novels – from Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist to George Orwell’s 1984 – from high school curriculums partly on the grounds that they were not conducive to developing a cohesive South African society, shows how this impulse to use literature in support of the state, remains powerful.

It is worth asking, though, whether the field of book history is so wide-ranging – apparently encompassing everything from web-based book clubs to the politics of censorship – and means so many things, that it has it become meaningless. As many of the essays in this volume prove, this is not the case: when literary analysis is grounded in an understanding of the material circumstances in which texts are produced, it has the potential to shed light on the ways in which books and other publications are implicated in the creation of identities, and in the production and maintenance of power. For this reason, some of the strongest essays in the volume – such as those by Van der Vlies, McDonald, Hofmeyr, and Seddon – all demonstrate that texts must be understood as being parts of webs and networks of production, dissemination, reading, and criticism.

The weakest essays are those that either over-emphasise or exclude entirely any form of literary analysis. Elizabeth le Roux’s essay on the history of South African university publishers would be far more significant if she had discussed more carefully why only publishers linked to historically white universities, like Wits University Press, flourished, while Fort Hare’s press lurched from crisis to crisis – if she had considered more closely, for example, the implications of the fact that the first book published by Unisa Press was written by a convicted Nazi collaborator from Belgium. On the other hand, Lily Saint’s potentially fascinating research on the popularity of photocomics in apartheid South Africa is almost entirely devoted to making the fairly obvious point that photocomics were popular because their storylines – drawn particularly from Westerns – were socially and politically conservative. This would have been a far richer essay had she considered how the comics were produced. What were their circulation figures? Who wrote them? Who published, distributed, and sold them? And who posed in the photos?

Generally, however, the quality of research and writing in this volume is such that it makes a significant contribution both to Southern African and to book studies. Although, as Van der Vlies explains, the collection does not aim to be an exhaustive overview of book history in South Africa, it is worth noting a few lacunae in it. The first is the absence of any significant engagement with South African writers other than Coetzee. Not only are three essays devoted to his writing, but his presence pervades the collection. This is not to deny the value of Coetzee’s scholarship and fiction, but rather to note that this Coetzee mania can only allow for a partial understanding of South Africa’s literary landscape.

Secondly, the book’s emphasis is overwhelmingly on English and, to a lesser extent, isiXhosa publishing. It ignores the large and lucrative Afrikaans publishing industry. Considering that, arguably, the founding text of South African book history is Isabel Hofmeyr’s essay “Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and ‘Ethnic Identity’, 1902-1924” (1987), and that there is a scholarship on Afrikaans book studies (Stilet devoted a special edition to this field in 2008), this emphasis on English publishing comes across as one-sided.

Thirdly, with the exception of Saint’s essay on photocomics and Barnard’s piece on Oprah’s Book Club, this volume does not devote terribly much space to popular forms of publishing. I disagree with the patronising view, cited by Barnard, that scholars should “validate the emotional and deeply personal reading strategies of middle-brow audiences” (p. 142). I would point out that romantic, adventure, and crime fiction sell in considerably greater numbers than literary fiction, and that a volume of essays purporting to be about South African print and book cultures cannot really exclude authors like Wilbur Smith, Deon Meyer, and, even, Lauren Beukes.

This connects to my final point: as Van der Vlies acknowledges, only one per cent of South Africans buy and read books. A book qualifies as a best-seller in South Africa if it sells only 5000 copies. This is not a country that reads – and this is nothing new. Hedley Twidle’s essay quotes Anthony Trollope’s 1858 observation that there were very few readers in Cape Town. Indeed, in the late 1870s, the Cape Colony’s Department of Education estimated that only 17% of those white children enrolled in school could read and write fluently. With such a small reading public – both now and in the past – to exclude popular fiction means that this volume represents only a tiny and elite print and book culture in South Africa.

i The novel was unbanned in 1980.

ii For more on censorship under apartheid, see McDonald’s The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (2009).

Related reading on SLiPnet:

The complication and pleasure of being in print

Provocative book histories

Between a howl and a whine

‘New political novels’ not so political