Wednesday, 6 June 2012

FLF 2012: Chapter or Worse?

By Matthew Blackman

The last time I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival I made a mental note never to return. This was after a session where several novelists not only shamelessly plugged their own books but also seemed disingenuously to promote their fellow panelists'. Now call me a hypocrite lecteur, but on Saturday I returned and attended the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist announcement.
However, unlike the bonhomie that pervades - in my limited experience - some of the festival's panel discussions, I noted some disquiet after the announcement. The editor Helen Moffet was expressing chagrin. "I want to box somebody's ears," she said to judge Imraan Coovadia. "Thando Mgqolozana was robbed." Moffett then admitted she was Mgqolozana's editor.
It is this "incest" that lies at the heart of many of SA's literary ills, and it is one that extends to the festival itself. There is no doubt that criticism becomes a complicated business in the South African literary microcosm. And certainly biases derived from the closeness of the community, when aired publically, can lead to a distorting of the relevance and value of certain works.

It was precisely this that became the debate the next morning when Brent Meersman, Michiel Heyns and Sean O'Toole discussed "Critics on Critics". During this engaging discussion, Meersman suggested that critics should only review the works they like. Admittedly Heyns noted this was a circular argument - that is, I can only establish for certain that I like something by critiquing it. But the problem with this argument is more complex and relates, in some ways, to the problem discussed above. As Hume's argument goes, just because I like something doesn't mean it is good. I like McDonald's on a Saturday morning but know it isn't good and I found JM Coetzee's Disgrace dry and humourless but it is excellent prose.
The problem is that, in SA, criticism should not be written about books that are liked (for one can like books for many reasons, including the fact that one is friends with the author). Rather, criticism must be about establishing whether a work is good or bad through a process of unbiased and rigorous analysis. And, sadly, it is often precisely this kind of rigour that is lost at festivals.
Perhaps a leaf could be taken this year out of a talk from last year's festival. Here Willie Esterhuyse and his interlocutor, Moeletsi Mbeki, discussed topics that both men clearly found uncomfortable. And yet Esterhuyse's facilitated discussion was fascinating precisely because of this tension. This is where the festival can reach heights of interest. On the other occasions where novelists gather to be mutually serviceable, it is often where it falls flat.  - published in The Sunday Independent, May 20, 2012

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