The Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) is not a book fest, it’s a tribute to the old style Writer, a celebration of the ancient Analogue world. It’s an event that offers the Men and Women of Letters, those who’ve swayed and sweated for years, a revitalising bath, some wholesome food and a heartfelt pat on the back. For a few days they are fêted and allowed to bask in the glow of admiring readers in a beautiful town, surrounded by blue mountains and endless vineyards. After that it’s back to the harsh reality of a life behind a desk, with the odd teaching or editing job to supplement a meager income, waiting for the inevitably disappointing royalty cheque. Franschhoek Literary Festival is a lament to a rapidly disappearing form of art. FLF is a pleasant, comforting bubble.
That was more or less what went through my mind as I strolled along the tree lined streets, past all the faux-French (and occasionally misspelled) culinary delights and saw the glowing faces of the Authors and the stiffly excited crowd of mainly middle-aged white women who were happy to meet heroes such as Barbara Trapido, Michiel Heyns, Etienne van Heerden, Mike Nicol, Tim Couzens and of course Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin and Scottish author Janice Galloway.
It’s not yet in the same league as juskei, but somehow FLF conjured images of gents and ladies playing croquet, dignified yet archaic. Sure, there were attempts at something more hip and trendy. I saw Zapiro walking around, which usually means there is something about cartoons. One of the forums discussed our new mishmash language, labelled ‘lekker English’. And I attended a discussion loosely based around the question why young blacks don’t read (although the organisers were hesitant to phrase it like that and called it ‘Young, Black and Reading’), a hot topic that was fortified by the fact that there were no eager black kids in attendance. The participants talked excitedly about ‘R50 romances’ for the townships and Yoza.mobi short stories you can download through Mxit onto your cell phone. And if you comment on the story you will get free airtime. Wow. But will it promote a culture of reading? Somehow it sounded like that cunning theory that Sun readers will eventually pick up the Mail&Guardian.
There were sincere worries about a lowering of quality and standards. Whatever happened to the serious book review? The Sunday Independent doesn’t pay its reviewers anymore, so they’ve lost respected critics like Michiel Heyns, while Tymon Smith of The Times admitted that his paper prefers the ‘re-interview’ (a journalistic monstrosity that lives somewhere between uncritical review and shallow interview) to a thorough review. The virus also seems to be affecting the higher echelons of learning. As Stellenbosch University academic Leon de Kock wryly observed: ‘The UCT creative writing course has produced a lot of not so great books.’
Later I spoke with one of the ‘new black voices’ Sifiso Mzobe, who hails from Umlazi, quotes Salman Rushdie as his hero and has written Young Blood, a novel about car hijackers, which has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. So dire is the book situation in the townships that he sometimes stands on an Umlazi street corner to sell his books. So far he has sold about 150.
Hijackers, skop skiet en donner, romance, urban blight, science fiction, fantasy and horror, those seem to be the subgenres that might get young readers interested in books. But will they? And will they subsequently make the jump to the more demanding ‘literary’ works? ‘Kids don’t read’, said Mzobe. ‘Maybe they don’t have time, maybe it’s not cool.’
No time, not cool… In a recent interview with The Guardian English author Martin Amis noted that ‘the long read is a dying art’, because ‘there are so many claims on our attention. Very literate people admit they can’t read books any more. And just as the literate brain is physically different to the illiterate brain, the digitally savvy brain is different again. It’s a physiological change, not just a moral one.’
The digital age has given us excess of access, where the ‘desire’ to find anything tangible (a record, a book, a magazine) has been replaced with ‘drive’ to just keep going, to keep tweeting, blogging, uploading, surfing, downloading, facebooking, to keep on keeping on – a kind of addictive kill-time that has replaced the time consuming proper digestion of culture. As cultural theorist Simon Reynolds put it in June issue of Wire magazine: ‘More primal and basic than desire, drive is associated with repetition and regression: it’s not the quest for the (impossible) object that will fill lack, but a kind of enactment of loss itself.’