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

Franschhoek Literary Festival as a satire

Fred de Vries - 2011-05-24

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The Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) is not a bookfest, 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 meagre income, waiting for the inevitably disappointing royalty cheque. The FLF is a lament to a rapidly disappearing form of art. The 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-on-the-menu) 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 jukskei, but somehow the 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 on to 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 anymore. And just as the literate brain is physically different from 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” just to 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 the 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.”

When drive eclipses desire, who wants to deal with long, complex books?

The digital revolution has also created a kind of “atemporality”, where the screen of a computer, tablet or cell phone is a levelling interface that lifts everything out of its geographical or historical context. The internet leaves no space for hierarchy. There are no more filters. Everything and everyone is equal. Everything is accessible. Everyone uploads and downloads. And everyone uses words. “People are reading and writing more than ever,” enthused someone during the “Young Black and Reading” event. Exactly.

But that is precisely part of the problem. Words have lost their value. People sneer at the fact that a Writer thinks that he should be paid for his efforts. Content? Everyone can provide content. Cut and paste. Everyone can write. Just look at the blogs. Easy as pie, writing. Unlike music which has suffered from a similar internet overload, writing has lost most of its “old-fashioned” standing and respect.

Time in Digiculture, argues Reynolds in the same Wire essay, is lateral, recursive, spongiform, riddled with wormholes. History is something to be surfed, pillaged and abused. The atemporality and intrinsically anti-hierarchical nature of the internet has created a kind of anti-history and a non-linear archive without context, in which Mandela en Malema are equals, just like Steve Hofmeyr and JM Coetzee. The flat screen doesn’t discriminate.

The fickleness of that unmediated, nebulous world may have been the reason why the grand names at the FLF seemed almost desperate to stress the importance of rereading, reinterpretation and the further excavation of history. Again the example of Madiba, who has turned into a two-dimensional icon, a ready-made that comes in handy during election time. We have to look at where someone like Nelson Mandela came from, stressed historian Tim Couzens. “He didn’t just come out of a historical and political vacuum. There was a whole history of black leadership before him.”

It’s up to the writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, to give us that context, to put things in perspective, to transcend the shapeless cloud of internet data and to distil our life and times in words. Not least because there’s a huge need to get the country out of its current ideological rut. But that takes time, energy and effort, both for the writer and the reader. And who has the patience? Who will pay?

Which takes us to one of the FLF highlights: the discussion about Leadership and Innovation. It’s amazing how rapidly and effortlessly a lack of leadership has inserted itself after 1994, stated panellist UFS Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Jansen. Both he and UCT Professor of Economics Francis Wilson once again stressed the importance of history, the need to go back in time to understand how, for example, the 1913 Land Act or the conquest of South Africa has impacted on the present. Because if we don’t, warned Wilson, “the history of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century is coming back to bite us.”

They spoke of an impending triple disaster: lack of services, dismal education and the issue of resources (land, mines, water). “Who is leading us?” asked Jansen, not just blaming the politicians but also the business community and educators for doing the ostrich thing. “Who can lead us? Unless this issue is resolved we are on the road to a crisis.” Wilson added that we are scapegoating our problems (the blame game), and warned us that that was “how Germany fell to pieces”. But to lead you need a vision. For a vision you need knowledge. And for knowledge  you have to read, you have to know how things have developed into what they are. Ex-presidents Bill Clinton and Thabo Mbeki were avid readers, and so is Barrack Obama. Where does this leave our current pack of leaders?

The audience cheered and applauded. I was sitting in the front row and turned around. The crowd was made up entirely of middle-aged white men and women. Outside we could buy the book of Jansen, displayed on a table near the entrance. And the good burghers probably did buy Jansen’s book. And a few others. It is, after all, their civic duty. They are the ones who read, who attend book clubs and who keep the book industry afloat, not unlike the old patriarchs who supported the 17th- and 18th-century painters.

I pondered on what I had seen, and all the way back to Johannesburg I kept hearing that explosive applause that greeted Jansen and Wilson after they had warned us of an impending doomsday.

Finally it dawned: this wasn’t the anger of the bourgeoisie, this was actually satire. The whole Franschhoek Literary Festival is satire.

When I got home I looked up a quote from British writer Jonathan Coe. “Satire,” he wrote, “actually suppresses political anger rather than stoking it up. Political energies which might otherwise be translated into action are instead channelled into comedy and released – dissipated – in the form of laughter.”

And when he described his fellow British satirists he could have been talking about the FLF. “Comfortably left-liberal, slightly sneery, relying on sharing rather than challenging the assumptions of their audience – and this keeps up a low-level rumble of cynical chuckling which allows our political masters to keep on doing whatever they want to do, completely untouched and unthreatened.”

So let’s give the Mad Men and Women of Letters our best, because, to quote Paul Virilio liberally, every technological innovation comes with disasters. And our disaster may well be that the Digital beast will gobble up our writers, our history and our leaders.