Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Another attempted letter (just under two weeks ago)

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, April 30, 2007 | Category: |

I’m sitting at my laptop, late at night with a rugby-injured shoulder which is preventing me from falling asleep. I should be writing an essay I have due for Prof Haresnape, but late night letter writing is far more entertaining (for me and for you I assure you – unless of course you want a diatribe on the aesthetics of structure and form.,or their lack, in contemporary South African poetry). I have been bombarded by the following in the last week or so: Don Imus vs. The Scarlet Nights (‘Nappy-headed ho’s’), The David Benatar – Martin Hall Transformation Debate, Cho’s Virginia Tech Massacre, Smith vs. Pietersen (read South Africa vs. England), Wolfowitz and Shaha, fallout/defence of Gordon Brown’s tax plans, and then of course there’s the fairly consistent Obama vs. Clinton, but I must say, I’m kind of bored by that one right now.

So what the hell does any of this bombardment have to do with a letter for Speakeasy? Good question. Ten points. All of the stories above are driven by personalities, not by any appreciation of literature or writing. That is what drives their relevance. One of my frustrations, as yet another in the horde attempting to complete a Creative Writing degree, is the almost inevitably problem that exists between ‘having a following’ (read: having a market) and being a rookie trying to come around the outside. For someone in poetry this is doubly problematic as so few people these days seem to take any interest in this form of writing except for academics and those who flock to Off the Wall on Monday evenings in Observatory.

Last year, while doing a seminar on South African fiction it was put down to us to read a ‘sampling’ of contemporary South African fiction. We read everything from J.M. Coetzee to Rayda Jacobs to Mary Watson to Koos Kombuis. We took to this smorgasbord like little piglets to the trough guarded reverently by the Professors who attended us. However, I stopped going. It was an extra for me and I had become dreadfully bored. As a ‘young’ South African there is nothing more frustrating than coming across yet another book telling some tale about the dynamics of race relations in apartheid or post-apartheid South Africa. We’ve read Richard Rive, Njabulo Ndebele, Athol Fugard (ok, not strictly fiction), Sol Plaatje, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer – we’re told (not in so many words) “This is the canon! You must read and appreciate those in the canon.”

Problem: if they are in the canon does that mean we have to like them? The problem is often one of endorsement – because we read Rayda Jacobs in a creative writing seminar, does that make it ‘good’? Does this validate the writing, the ploy, the dynamics of the story? Should we aspire to this? Do we want a place in the canon?

What amazes me is that the concept of a canon of South African literature was ridiculed prior to the end of, and immediately after, apartheid. However, now that sufficient time has elapsed those who criticized the ‘canon’ and the very concept of a canon wish to appear in a ‘new’ canon. This canon being one that is ‘representative’ and which doesn’t ‘give credence to white hegemonic distributions of power in writing’, rather it is non-normative, reactionary. But it’s still trying to establish a canon, which is therefore normative, hegemonic and therefore problematic. If the counter-hegemony becomes the hegemony then they have simply become that which they detested. Blah!

Why? Why? Why? Why? Must literature follow in the footsteps of South Africa’s politics? Must those who previously ascribed to communist dogma and who are now staunch neo-libertarians have their counterparts in the worlds of fiction, poetry and theatre? No! I object. Screw the concept of a canon. Screw its recreation and the channeling of a canon to people who are beginning to find their own creative expression. Do not let the canon dull your voice!

So what do those first few lines I wrote have to do with any of what I wrote subsequently? Well, to me it’s all about the people. We get caught up in the people involved, we become emotionally enmeshed in their lives and consequently read what they write rather than because of an actual appreciation for the writing. This is an awful way to think about literature and to get people to read books (marketing people will tell you otherwise, but I dissent). So, no ‘canon’, Thank you very much. No reading people simply because they were or are political. Read because the writing is good and, for non-fiction, if the arguments they create are decent, logical and well-thought out. Thanks.

Currently have 8 comments:

  1. i just read 'the quiet violence of dreams' by k. sello duiker. quote from the front cover 'what aa great writer of the post-apartheid era', zakes mda. now looking back i should've noticed that this meant great writer, not great book. but i felt like i should be reading it, that i should support local (dead) authors... it's that whole recognition factor that i find interesting in SA literature - that moment of 'ooh they are talking about long st and i go to long st'. maybe it's a good thing i dropped english lit as a major..

  2. As long as English is seen as a profession there will be a canon. Needs to be a canon. It is the only way we know how to rate literature. An erasure of the canon will not erase the need to categorize. While I have definately gone through my 'why the fuck do we have a canon' phase, I've realized that reestablishing its guidlines is more beneficial than relinquishing its value. The canon was created to rate British literature and as such only knows how to look at qualities common or of value to British (and now western) lit. New guidlines on how to judge other literatures (be it South African, African-American ect) based on their own set of rules needs to be undertaken. Or more specifically - this process, which has already started, needs to be sped up.

  3. I agree with the idea that a 'canon' of books can be created. But, creating a canon of 'authors' becomes problematic - what are the criteria by which one, as an author, is listed on a canon, or accepted as 'good enough'. Does an author have to have won a certain number of prizes? Elicited 'x amount' of critical acclaim? Does it comprise of J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, with some runners up? (In terms of SA Literature that is - them both being Nobel Laureates). My commentary was against a canon of 'accepted' authors, rather than necessarily a canon of authors who are good.