By Raphael Mokoena
It is shocking the general ignorance that surrounds the sphere of literary criticism; which has actually been around for centuries. In Africa it is not uncommon to see some experienced writers, never mind highly educated people regarding literary criticism as a much despised, negative thing. It is not uncommon to hear critics even being called “failed, frustrated writers”
Criticism continues to cause hatred and divisions amongst many African writers who should know better. Some even go as far as claiming that it is ‘unAfrican”, as if books should only be praised and not evaluated in any way. The simple truth is that if our writers really want to be taken seriously or respected beyond their family or closest friends, they have to be criticised.
Unfortunately that is why so many African writers are completely ignored or not acknowledged in the real literary world. There are writers who claim to have published 2,3 and more books who have never been evaluated even in the mildest manner. Such are not genuine writers; they are at best ignorant dabblers. Why are some writers scared of criticism?
In the western world, books – and even movies – stand or fall according to criticism. If critics do not like a movie then it can result in financial disasters of loss of millions of dollars or pounds...writers whose books are given a pass mark will invariably have good sales and receive tremendous boost to their writing career. More important, such books will go down well during the passage of time for coming generations. The reviews, criticisms etc will in many cases out-last the physical book itself.
Let us go back to a few early African books published which history has now deemed great successes. Amos Tutuola’s The palmwine drinkard was published overseas many decades ago, and nobody seemed to take note initially. Then a well known poet, Dylan Thomas chanced to read the book and praise it! Almost overnight his critical opinion pushed the book into an African classic and Tutuola into one of the all-time great African writers. Without Dylan writing about the work, the book will probably have been forgotten quickly. Other writers like Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah received incredible boosts from early positive reviews too...decades after such reviews were published they still appear on the blurbs of reprints of these books!
Another interesting thing is that despite what some might claim that critics are “frustrated writers”, a large number of them, perhaps even virtually all of them are successful or distinguished writers. Such is the case in Africa too. Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, Molara Ogundipe, Es’kia Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, Lewis Nkosi etc are/were excellent writers as well as literary critics too.
Still staying in Africa, why do we regard such writers as outstanding anyway? The real reason is because their books have attracted tremendous critical attention. Whenever we try to do research on them we realise there already exist so many studies published on them. Writers like Achebe, Es’kia, Ngugi, Soyinka, Armah, Ndebele, Senghor, Bolaji, etc can boast of at least ten to twenty different critical books published on them.
Yet this, by world standards is actually nothing much! Great European or American writers like James Joyce, Samuel Becket, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, etc have HUNDREDS of such critical books published on them. We need not imagine how many hundreds of books have been published on William Shakespeare! It is clear that the western world puts emphasis on critical appreciation of its writers. Hence their immortality and respect is assured for ever. So, why should Africans be scared of what would reinforce their literary legacy?
Okay, so there are “sympathetic” critics, and those who are more ruthless. I do not believe that even “ruthless” critics can destroy a book amongst discerning, intelligent readers. All the great writers have been ruthlessly criticised every now and then; and it even often generates more interest in a book. In South Africa a critic like Crystal Warren is obviously on the sympathetic side; whilst the late Lewis Nkosi, and the likes of Pule Lechesa can be categorised as “more stringent” (rather than ruthless!)
I grew up in the Free State and I am proud to say that the Province is one of the most vibrant in Africa when it comes to literary appreciation. Scores of reviews written by myself, Pule Lechesa, Paul Lothane, etc have found themselves in many journals and centres of literature around the world. The success or failure of any published work depends on how many reviews, studies it can attract; and Paul Lothane recently got it right when he wrote this about the work, Free State of Mind (Authors: Nthabiseng Jah Rose, Rita Chihawa and Lebo Leisa):
"...The book, Free State of mind has also been a critical success. The poetic work is the brainchild of Nthabiseng JahRose Jafta, Rita Chihawa and Lebo Leisa. It is a great achievement that the book has attracted positive reviews from literary figures like Bolaji, Hector Kunene, Mathene Mahanke, Napo Masheane, Sabata Mpho Mokae, Mpikeleni Duma, etc..."
I have not read the book,(Free State of mind) but after reading all the reviews of the work on the internet (even including that of Pule Lechesa), like everybody else I can say the book is very successful. That is the reality of literature. The academics call it the “oligarchic” approach – i.e those interested anywhere in the world will check whether there are any reviews etc of a book, read them, and form an opinion based on the majority.
And as for those writers who never attract any such reviews or criticisms, it is a shame indeed...