|Alexander McCall Smith, the British author who has penned a series of books set |
in Botswana, was the star attraction at the FLF pic by Christine Fourie
By Konstantin Sofianos
'It seems that we are all trying to break into something, but we don't know what that is." Ingrid Winterbach, writer of adroit, searching novels in Afrikaans, is talking animatedly from her seat beside an intensely reflective Eben Venter, and next to the apparently detached figure of Carel van der Merwe, author of a string of similarly cool fictions of adult personal crisis.
The occasion is a panel on translation at this year's Franschhoek literature f?te, but the immediate setting is the narrow hull of a white-washed church building in one of the Boland town's back streets, the kind of place in which, as Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Church Going, "someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious".
Winterbach is speaking about the enduring cultural chasm between Afrikaans and English writing, a problem aggravated by the general inadequacy (in all languages) of literary translations in the country, but her comment strikes at another issue that might have remained otherwise implicit among the varied activities of the Franschhoek fest: the question of literary and cultural prestige, and of the institutions that are able to confer this in South Africa today.
What, after all, are writers like Winterbach attempting to "break into" when it comes to South African writing in English, and who decides whether they have achieved this or not? Some preliminary clues might be found in the proceedings of this year's Franschhoek Literature Festival (FLF) as a whole.
Over the past few years its claim to be the premier literary event of its kind has been contested by the emergence of other national gatherings of readers and writers such as the Mail & Guardian Literature Festival in Joburg and the Cape Town Open Book festival, which has successfully positioned itself as an event devoted to higher-end literary fiction attracting impressive rosters of prominent international authors, including Booker Prize winners - it is in conscious opposition to the FLF, one suspects.
And yet the FLF retains a special, gilded attraction for literary patrons and book industry insiders alike, and its autumnal coming each May is an eagerly anticipated event. This is no doubt bound up with its location in the laminated pastoral surrounds of the wine-land town, with its gentrified main street of shopping boutiques, outdoor bistros and haute cuisine restaurants. The FLF offers less a literary than a "lifestyle" experience: writerly conversations and poetry readings mix with panels on gardening, cookery or popular history, and are supplemented by pricey gala dinners and concert recitals.
According to the website, some 8 500 weekend festival-goers descended on Franschhoek last year, to take occupation of its scattered auberges and guest-cottages, and to saturate in its faux-francophone ambience. These are startling numbers for an ostensibly literary function, and they seem to have been maintained this year, in the festival's seventh annual iteration. Practically all the 91 panel discussions on offer were fully sold out by lunchtime on the opening Friday, though tell-tale empty chairs at most events suggest that some patrons preferred to linger over their glasses of semillon.
It scarcely bears pointing out that the FLF remains a lily-white affair. When two invited speakers, the broadcaster and recent memoirist Redi Tlhabi and political commentator Aubrey Matshiqi, sent their last-minute apologies due to illness (Matshiqi sent a doctor's note), this had the effect of significantly diminishing overall black participation in the event.
More intriguingly, perhaps, the most fitful glance around the festival precincts betrayed the publishers' trade secret that the book-reading (and book-buying) public in South Africa is predominantly made up of middle-class and middle-aged women, roughly between 40 and 65. These women constitute the core demographic of the festival as well. Casual chats reveal that many are schoolteachers or members of book clubs, some from as far afield as Gauteng, for whom the annual pilgrimage to Franschhoek, with its varied gratifications, is a specially reserved treat.
Their enthusiasm pervades the festival and determines the festival's overriding tone. Audiences are uniformly appreciative and polite, this perhaps to a fault. The esteem in which they hold reading is evident; their eagerness to participate in a wider cultural discussion seems sincere.
It is this faithful constituency that is at once consciously targeted by festival organisers - with panel-events like Feisty Women, Prodigal Daughters or even Literary Lionesses False Bay - and at the same time let down by, if not condescended to, by the literary programme as a whole, which veers determinedly towards the middle-brow and the innocuous.
A notable division of intellectual labour seemed to characterise the event. A slate of talks devoted to addressing urgent social issues, with titles like How to Fix South Africa? or Leadership and Corruption, was appropriately held in the school hall, but mainly given over to political analysts, public figures and academics, as if such topics lay beyond the purview of strictly literary writers.
The panels themselves were lively and well received, but reflected the narrowness of represented social viewpoints. Even redoubtable speakers such as Njabulo Ndebele, Moeletsi Mbeki or Hlumelo Biko were unlikely to stake out positions seriously at odds with the general sentiments of the crowd, and inevitably approached questions like What's Going on Inside the ANC? as outsiders.
A more challenging note was struck by Eusebius McKaiser, who was pressed into hard service throughout, appearing on three panels. In a discussion on racism with the cartoonist Zapiro and the theologian Francis Wilson, McKaiser enjoined the audience to engage in a continuing process of reflection on their own racial pre-suppositions, and insisted, against the humanist ideal held out by Wilson, on the need for a non-racist, but abidingly race-aware, society and public discourse.
One of the stand-out talks at the festival saw McKaiser paired with a scabrously witty Tony Leon in a wide-ranging debate on the nature of liberalism, moderated by the wonderfully meddlesome Western Cape High Court judge Dennis Davis.
Leon sent some pointed barbs in the direction of the party he formerly led and the conversation widely ranged over the liberal philosophies of Mill, Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls, and finally reached some form of agreement on the proposition that there are very few actual liberals in the current DA. McKaiser argued for a strong form of social interventionism which, as he reminded the audience, is not merely reconcilable with the liberal creed but in fact represents the founding ethos of our constitution. "This is the kind of debate this country rarely has," Davis aptly commented at the close of a vibrant discussion that had run well beyond its allotted time.
McKaiser's presence was both salutary and instructive. The enormous success of his radio show was founded on his willingness to take the intelligence of his listenership seriously, and to pose difficult questions for which the answers are not already pre-given. His collection of philosophically-minded disputations, A Bantu in my Bathroom, is touted as a local publishing phenomenon and it has notably succeeded in attracting an avid black readership, precisely that readerly demographic which is not represented, or catered for, at Franschhoek.
For the rest, the festival presented a mixed bag of offerings, in many senses. One panel produced a merely inane kaffeeklatsch on the merits of Twitter as a social medium, while another, promoting Mampoer, a website devoted to long-form essay-writing, was well described by a colleague as "a 60-minute infomercial".
Other talks addressed themselves to the natural spaces of the Eastern Cape and the Karoo, or to various books of life-writing, including the reminiscences of magazine editor Jane Raphaely and the experience of Vanessa Goosen, imprisoned in Thailand as a drug mule.
More rewarding, perhaps, were the sessions that featured the English historian of World War II Anthony Beevor, the expatriate novelist Christopher Hope, and Randolph Vigne, who launched his biography of 1820s settler-poet Thomas Pringle, each of whom unites a wide range of erudition and experience with a gift for raconteuring.
But the most noteworthy aspect of this year's FLF was the apparent place of literature within it. The festival could boast of the attendance of writers like Laurent Binet, whose novel on the assassination of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich swept a recent Prix Goncourt in France, and of The Economist's foreign correspondent AD Miller, whose Russian-themed debut novel Snowdrops was published to acclaim in 2010, but their presence was not especially highlighted in the proceedings.
Other notable writers were secreted within various panel talks. Tan Twan Eng, author of the internationally lauded The Garden of Evening Mists, was tucked away in a discussion on literary prizes, Ashraf Kagee, of the ebullient Khalil's Journey, was placed in a Friday morning panel blandly titled New Voices, while Karen Jayes was merely lumped within a schools event on science fiction, reflecting a gross misreading of her extraordinarily accomplished debut novel For the Mercy of Water.
What the festival instead most prominently showcased, as literature, was a sequence of events dedicated to pulp fictions, hipster graphic novels, fantasy and supernatural tales and blood-drenched crime yarns. This surely bears some reflection. An audience of largely mature-aged female readers is offered a retinue of time-travelling serial-killers, zombies and jaded police inspectors, and while they receive these with supportive goodwill, only some admitting to a certain unease at the prospect of graphic depictions of violence, one imagines that many of these readers would actively prefer the emotional depth and provocation that serious literature provides. This was certainly suggested by the rapt attendance at a series of smaller-scale poetry events, featuring established writers like Antjie Krog, Ingrid de Kok or Karen Press.
What the FLF reflects in its featured selections is a shifting instability around the category of "literature" itself. The festival significantly derives its prestige, even its legitimacy, from the symbolic status that literature continues to hold within the country, and its proceedings pivot around the announcement of the shortlist of the Sunday Times book award. Yet it should have been embarrassingly obvious that, save for the neglected Jayes, none of the novelists short-listed for this year's prize were presented at the FLF, with the judges passing over works by the highlighted genre writers in favour of formally ambitious and socially reflexive novels by Imraan Coovadia, James Whyle and Steven Boykey Sedley.
The featured discussants on the following day's panel on literary prizes were apparently not familiar with any of the short-listed texts.
This must return us to the question crystallised by Ingrid Winterbach: what sphere of cultural prominence are aspiring English-language writers aiming at, and what agencies control entry into this domain?
A striking feature of the FLF is the general irrelevance of the English literary academy to its proceedings and self-understanding. The academic study of literature as practised in South African universities is perceived, as various festival participants freely observed, as a joy-crushing pursuit that addresses itself to esoteric questions in a near-incomprehensible jargon. This impression is largely correct, and festivals like FLF as well as general readers are right to turn their backs on it.
But as this year's festival plainly reveals, in the absence of a broader culture of critical discussion, and with the social default of the English academy, it is increasingly the publishing industry itself that has assumed the function of issuing its own books with literary credentials, through its promotional networks and marketing platforms, and which now significantly determines the category of "literature" as such. The language of marketing infiltrated the festival's ostensibly literary conversations - talk of momentous advances on unwritten books, bidding wars between publishers and units shifted -with writers presenting themselves as savvy cultural entrepreneurs at one moment, and affirming the deep social insight provided by their latest vampire thriller in the next. It is surely regrettable that the book industry has thrown its now considerable cultural weight behind such bare genre-exercises and gimcracks, and not behind more challenging efforts of writing, which manifestly are being written. In doing so it may be mistaking its core constituency, while losing out on others, just as the FLF tends generally to underestimate the tastes of its audience. Both may discover a prevailing hunger for something more serious if they but look for it. - published May 26, 2013.