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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za


 
Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Franschhoek Literary Festival: The song of the dinosaur


Michiel Heyns - 2011-05-25

Untitled Document

Fred de Vries’s hatchet job/elegy on the Franschhoek Literary Festival is a masterly piece of writing – or Writing, as he might prefer to call it. As a Writer, a middle-aged white male one, nogal, there is little for me to say but Guilty as Charged. Yes, his description both of the illusory pleasures of Franschhoek (“a revitalising bath, some wholesome food and a heartfelt pat on the back”) and of the writing life (“life behind a desk, with the odd teaching or editing job to supplement a meagre income, waiting for the inevitably disappointing royalty cheque”) is mercilessly accurate. Yes, the FLF is patronised (to use a loaded word) mainly by middle-aged white ladies. Yes, “The FLF is a pleasant comforting bubble.”

A seriously wine-loving friend of mine once described Shiraz as “Too easy, coming at you with its legs wide open.” To which a less puritanical friend replied, “So?”

And that is one response to Fred’s charge: So? So the last vestiges of a reading culture assemble once a year to share the pleasure they take in an obsolete technology; to listen to people they have read or intend to read, to talk to the people they have read or talk to other people about people they have read, and while they’re about it to eat misspelt food that tastes just fine and drink wine that comes at them with its legs wide open. So?

But of course that response is the “So?” of the couple making love while Vesuvius erupts, or waltzing as the Titanic goes down: brave but out of touch. The reality, as Fred paints it, is that, yes, the barbarians are yet again at the gates; and they will triumph because rather than decimate the inhabitants of the citadel they have corrupted them: the citizens are opening the gates to the barbarians. They have corrupted, above all, the young, those to whom every civilisation looks for its survival. The picture Fred paints of the levelling effects of Digiculture (“in which Mandela and Malema are equals, just like Steve Hofmeyr and JM Coetzee”) is sobering and convincing. Desire, as he says, has been replaced with drive, an empty infinite repetition, the universe as a search engine with answers to everything except what to do with the information.

But writing this, I wonder why I’m not as dejected as I should in all conscience be: by Fred’s definition, and by my own admission, I am about as vital and as necessary as the runner-up in the local croquet tournament. Why, then, do I bother to string my sentences together to the best of my ability, and fling my efforts into the void – into, as it happens, that conspiracy of the digital revolution, the internet? And what is it that I admire about Fred’s essay if not the old-fashioned skill of constructing a telling argument in a readable form?

The truth is surely that Fred’s attack on the FLF, no less than my defence of it, is a celebration of writing, based on an implicit faith in finding a reader out there in cyberspace. He seems to recognise something of this when says, “It’s up to writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, … to put things in perspective, to transcend the shapeless cloud of internet data and to distil our life and times in words.” I wish I’d said that.

But Fred offers us this vision only to snatch it back: writing and reading take “time, energy and effort”: “And who has the patience? Who will pay?”

Well, ask the organisers of the FLF. There are people with the patience, and there are people who will pay. The festival is growing year by year, and the library that the proceeds are intended to construct is becoming a reality. Building a library in the age of Digiculture? One more lifeboat for the Titanic? But rather launch a lifeboat than sing “Nearer my God to Thee”; and the community served by the library will not care that it has been funded by the local croquet club. (I found it striking, reading on LitNet the answers of writers to the question of what made them read, how very many of them cite the local library as their inspiration; but that’s another debate.)

Will the library triumph over the internet? Surely not. As Fred, quoting Paul Virilio, says, “Every technological advance comes with disasters.” Imagine the dismay of all those scribes who had made a living out of transcribing books when the printing press was invented. Nay, go back further and imagine the dismay of the travelling bard, making a living out of reciting his compositions, at the invention of writing. Perhaps, like the scribes and the bards, we are on the point of being made redundant by a new technology.

But I don’t know: from oral delivery to writing to printing and now to Kindle and iPad, one thing has been handed down: what Fred dismissively calls “Content”: “Everyone can provide content.” Yes, but not everyone’s content will survive. Somehow, in spite of the tremendous pressures towards homogenisation, standardisation and levelling that every technological advance has brought with it, Mandela is still venerated as Malema never will be, and JM Coetzee will outlive, if not out-earn, Steve Hofmeyr.

I realise that my reply to Fred’s powerful piece self-destructs on the page: the dinosaur’s last song, proclaiming its vitality. But then, so does Fred’s lament self-destruct: the eloquently written, informed, elegant announcement of the death of writing, information and elegance. Jonathan Coe satirically denounces the inefficacy of satire; Fred de Vries satirises Franschhoek as satire. Something, it seems, survives the deluge.