Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Debate: "Should we even be talking about the novel?"

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

Literary studies in SA seems to be taking a while to work out what its project and its objects of study ought to be since the transition to democracy. In his piece “Roger Smith and the ‘genre snob’ debate”, and in the discussion the review generated on the Slipnet website, Leon de Kock, the academic and author, makes the point that some recent works, such as Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, are unscrambling the categories that have become too easy for literary critics to use to classify, describe and discriminate.
He also suggests that the “field is ripe for contention and remapping”.
To make the point that these debates have been had too often, De Kock refers to, among other things, the 1980s Leftist condemnation of elitist criticism as attending only to highbrow literature. He asks: “Do we really want to go back there? Can’t we take those debates and mainly read, now, and move on?”
While he is probing these matters in the context of asking about the ascendance of so-called crime fiction in the place of more “serious” novels, it is worth widening the lens slightly to take in a larger view of literary studies in post-apartheid SA.
As the form that has been privileged for perhaps the last century in literary studies, is the novel still worth agonising over? Does it matter that it is being forced to describe socio-political conditions in the country to be considered good?

In this post-colonial society, should we not perhaps be asking a wider set of questions about our objects of study and what we are obscuring by keeping our focus on the novel?
Should we rethink and reshape what we study and how the institutions in which we work are set up to allow the study of different objects in our present context?
Contention and remapping indeed. Yes, more, please.
The nexus between the political, the literary and the social that crime fiction is riding the wave of is playing out in unusual ways in, for instance, many people’s attempts to push back against static categories of identity such as Zulu by revitalising pre-Zulu, pre-colonial identity formations.
Oral poetic forms are being put to use in ways that are simultaneously radically new and quite conservative to work through the past. Such projects are going on from Giyani to Cofimvaba, from Calvinia to Hluhluwe.
We are missing much if we keep obsessing about the book.
We have a lot to gain from beginning to observe more carefully and extensively how, for instance, old oral literary forms are being remade to engage the politics of the day, social issues and even categories of analysis that are ripe for being challenged.
The ways in which we do research and the institutional structures in which departments of English and Afrikaans hold the most cultural capital may have to give a little, just like the centrality of the book has to shift somewhat.
The call made by Gayatri Spivak in Death of a Discipline for literary studies to take seriously the learning of languages other than simply English (or Afrikaans in our context) in the manner of the old Area Studies and Anthropology, is worth emphasising.
There are way more people doing creative things with spoken, recited and sung words and in different forms of assembly, including in virtual realms via Facebook, than those reading books.
It’s time we encouraged a more extensive look at these forms of creativity at the same time as we read, evaluate and teach literature.
Out of this shift might emerge a kind of literary production and study more appropriate to our changed context after 1994. - published June 24, 2012.

Buthelezi lectures in African and African diaspora literature at the University of Cape Town
Image: Poet and storyteller Gcina Mhlophe.

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