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Treason against literature

There is something fundamentally wrong with literary journalism in Zimbabwe.


No good book reviewers. No regular book pages in the local papers. No quality arts and culture magazines. In fact, there is no more vibrancy of literary debate and discussion in Zimbabwe like we had in the 80s and 90s. What we have is a lot of charlatan praise jobs.

Those who write about books do so, as I see it, only to praise trash. They are good at inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatsoever. And I am not proposing hatchet jobs.

The architects of this sad state of affairs ironically used to be the once vibrant literary critics and editors of the past. The ndini ndega [I am the only one] mentality that permeates our political discourse also lends itself to our book and publishing industry where there is no continuity in discourse.

While our writers, publishers and intellectuals were celebrated as the vanguard of Africa, we have now become a culture with no presence.

Unlike say, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, we lack the passionate energy and creativity of literary bloggers, who are seldom timid and inhibited to speak their minds. The bloggers we have, the ones who have national and international prominence, write for and about women’s issues, politics or general gossip. Good enough.

Why is it that Zimbabwean writers have widely failed to embrace social media? In fact, just a handful of authors have blogs, or engage on Twitter and Facebook.

We are unfortunate in this country that our newspapers, public and private, have no dedicated space for book reviews and literary essays. It is no secret that there is an absence of robust, independent voices on arts and culture pages in Zimbabwe. We are tired of political commentators full of hot air.

Zimbabwe is one country where social and political contradictions have been so stark that the influence of politics on other social activities and vice versa, has been most easily observable.

The few book reviewers that are there are fellow writers who write about their friend’s books. As a result their opinions are predictable and too nice.

I had a self-published author bragging of a glowing write-up on their book by a “big time” university professor. When I eventually received the book to read I was very disappointed not in the author but the sly university critic, one of those creatures committing treason against our literature. The book had huge tracts overwritten and a long involving plot.

The characters lacked depth. With the amount of spelling mistakes you would think it was produced on a typewriter, not a modern word processor with a free spell check.

This lack of serious interest in our own literature has invited foreign critics to dominate the shaping of Zimbabwean literature. They read and define us. It is time we not only declared our independence, but seriously started reading our own writers.

The reviewer’s role is more about providing context for a book or art, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present, and all that touchy-feely sort of thing.

The critics I love don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and also let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story.

What we currently have in our hands is a general loss of focus. And there lies the crisis of culture in Zimbabwe. Central to the resolution of that crisis is the achievement of a genuine democracy in our country.

In practical terms, it means the creation of a society that can throw up new creative problems for our writers.

It means that the possibilities for new writing are inseparable from the quest for a new Zimbabwe — a society in which everyone is entitled to education for which the state must assume some responsibility; in which there will be much cooperation between accessibility and affordability of books for a greatly increased reading public.

4 Responses to Treason against literature

  1. Gutter Poet February 9, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    What is this? Is this some self promotion to literary critic or something maybe, some personal vendetta against those critics one does not agree with? We were informed there was going to be a column on the arts (books) this it? If this were so, then this couched hatchet nonsense we can do without..Rather than bland generalisations..pick a book for the week and review it and lets get this show on the road..Your opinions should be in the Guest column not here..

    • JustAreader February 10, 2014 at 10:27 am #

      I agree. We need to get on with it. Criticizing and problematizing is pointless without a way forward, without action. He should BE the good reviewer that he tells us is missing from Zimbabwe. However, and this is a big “however”, churning out a bunch of literature, and book reviews on that literature is not the whole solution, we end up reproducing the same crap and participating in our own cultural, political and ultimately personal demise. We cant just keep patching these issues up, we have to take the current state of our literature apart, debunk it and start all over again (and this is definitely not exclusive to literature). We can be so unaware of how responsible we are for creating and shaping the societies we live in. So I think columns like this are a good idea, as bland and general as you might think they are. At least we have an individual that understands what it means to live consciously. Im sure the reviews will come. I hope! lol.

  2. Marrily February 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    It is a sad state of affairs if we fail to get good quality literature because the critics write glowingly of their friends’ trashy work, as you call it. The greatest critic however, is the reader. It is possible that what you consider to be trash praised by ‘sly’ critics is, to others, an excellent piece of work. In the past book columns as we knew them aimed to bring good books to the attention of the readers, which makes me wonder what the aim of your piece is. There is a veiled attack on obviously popular and acknowledged critics here. It would have served the readership better had you quoted from the book and named the ‘sly’ critic. It would make this an academic debate rather than the poisoned pen that you have made it into. If what you say is true then there is no need to hide the title of this self published book and the name of the critic. I am surprised the editor allowed your medicre article space in a paper that is usually good.

  3. Books'R'us February 13, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Tinashe this starts off as a good article, but on reading further one can’t help but notice a bitterness towards the acclaimed and successful critic for whom you use derogatory terms such as ‘sky’, ‘one of those creatures’ and whom you accuse of committing treason against literature. This sounds no more like an academic write up but the trashing of someone in whose shoes perhaps you long to be but have dismally failed to climb into. Nothing is to be served by calling him names. Concentrate rather on his work rather than on his person. Your reference to the ndini ndega mentality and creatures committing treason against literature says a lot about your bitterness. As for the work you refer to as trash, perhaps some of the blame ought to go to people who masquerade as editors and go on to charge writers for what turns out to be below standard work. A writer friend I know had their work returned and considered as print ready when it had only been half done and the red tracking ink was all over the pages. Had it not been that it was given to me for the final once-over I bet you that what you consider to be trash right now would pale in comparison to what that book would have been. So some of the blame should really go to these so-called editors. A critic may at times choose to concentrate on certain aspects of the novel but not others which are technical, eg spellings. And he or she might read the work before it is published and therefore might not be aware of any errors in the final piece of work, hence you find a critique with something like this at the end; to be published by Faber & Faber on 23 February 2014. And before you go calling others names for their incompetence, you would do well too to learn that we do not say ‘the amount of mistakes’ but the number mistakes. If you can count it then you use ‘the number of’. If it’s not countable like salt, sand and sugar then it’s the amount of. Lastly, I hope you find a way of working together and constructively with those in the book and publishing industry so that together you can effect the issues you raise in your article. It appears no one is good enough.

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