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

The Franschhoek Literary Festival: Clutching at mist

Fiona Snyckers - 2011-05-27

Attempting to grapple with Fred de Vries’s article “Franschhoek Literary Festival as a satire” is like clutching at mist. Just when you think you’ve pinned him down, he limbos off in another direction. By the last paragraph your head is spinning slightly with contradictions, U-turns and blind alleyways.

De Vries opens strongly with what appears to be a swipe at the smugness of the writers at the festival – the “Men and Women of Letters” who received “a heartfelt pat on the back”. As one of the featured writers at the FLF this year I was forced to do some soul-searching.

Could De Vries be right? Did I enjoy the shyly admiring glances cast my way as I strode the streets of Franschhoek? Did I revel in the sushi I consumed nightly off the taut, tanned bodies of the male models wheeled out for my delectation? Did the cheers of the crowds ring sweetly in my ears as I was paraded through the streets on camelback?

Yes, yes! Okay. I admit it. Stop going on about it. I did enjoy it. I did. I’m only human.

Or should I be honest and confess that I didn’t get recognised once in Franschhoek? That writers almost never get recognised anywhere? That my own children frequently pass me by without a flicker of acknowledgement? (Mom who?)

De Vries also targets the FLF audience, whom he dismisses as “the stiffly excited crowd of mainly middle-aged white women”. And here, once again, he has a point. One has to wonder what the world is coming to when women are permitted to flaunt their ageing femaleness in a public place. Do they not they know that, as a gender, they should be neither seen nor heard unless they happen to be young, single and attractive?

According to De Vries, not only is the audience antiquated, but the entire festival is too.  He describes it as “a lament to a rapidly disappearing form of art”, and as akin to “gents and ladies playing croquet, dignified yet archaic”.

One could be forgiven for concluding that the Franschhoek Literary Festival is an ancient and moribund event that is unlikely to last much longer.

The truth, of course, is that the festival is a robust five-year-old – in the rudest of health  – that has more than quadrupled in size since its inception. The FLF, in fact, is well on its way to becoming the most important event on the South African literary calendar.

There are even those who say that it killed the Cape Town Book Fair, or at least administered a nasty flesh wound. From a publisher’s point of view the most delightful aspect of the FLF is that it costs them absolutely nothing. The Cape Town Book Fair, on the other hand, costs them the equivalent of a black-market kidney, with a couple of corneas thrown in.

Having polished off the writers and audience of the FLF, De Vries segues into a discussion of some of the panels he attended, reserving special scorn for the “Young, Black and Reading” event, which discussed various publishing initiatives to bring cheap and accessible fiction to South Africans who can’t afford to drop R220 on the latest trade paperback at Exclusive Books. “Somehow it sounded like that cunning theory that Sun readers will eventually pick up the Mail & Guardian,” he comments.

As another FLF writer, Edyth Bulbring, tersely riposted: “Why would a Sun reader want to ‘graduate’ to the Mail & Guardian? That’s like going from cheese and pickles to cold porridge.” 

The point, however, is that organisations like the Shuttleworth Foundation, Kwela Books and Nollybooks are actively putting their money where their mouths are and trying to do something positive to address the problem of literacy in South Africa. Are their initiatives perfect? No. Have they waved a magic wand and instantly solved the problem? No. But can they be classified as a Damn Fine Start? Most certainly, yes.

Criticising the attempts of others is the easiest thing in the world. Suggesting viable alternatives, or making your own attempts, is much harder, and this is what De Vries consistently fails to do.

But then encouraging people to read is a waste of time anyway, he asserts, because the digital revolution has killed off our ability to concentrate and rendered us unfit to absorb anything longer than a tweet or a sound bite. Yes, somehow we have arrived at the Death of the Book and the Demise of Long-Form Journalism. I’ve read De Vries’s article several times over and still can’t quite work out how he got here. But never mind - the Death of the Book it is.

This is not a new argument. It has, in fact, been raging for the past 250 years, ever since long-form fiction first came on the scene. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was a cherished academic orthodoxy that all novels were crap – fit only to be read by women ... and low-class women at that. Novels were going to kill Real Literature, which was regarded as poetry, plays and non-fiction.

We all know how that turned out. Those much-despised novels - by Fielding, Austen, Dickens and the Brontës, among others – have turned into today’s Real Literature, which in turn is under threat from blogs and tweets, and so forth. And so the cycle of angst continues.

It is also worth noting, as academic and literary agent Ronald Irwin points out, that today’s readers seem to have a greater tolerance for long reads than ever before. This is especially true of younger readers, who devour thousands of pages’ worth of Harry Potter and Twilight before graduating to the long-windedness of Stieg Larsson.

De Vries then turns his attention back to the FLF audience, and specifically their overwhelming whiteness.

This is certainly a valid point. As one who is more accustomed to speaking at the Jozi Book Fair and National Book Week I, too, was struck by the paleness of the Franschhoek audiences. But there are dangers attached to reading too much into this.  It is patronising, for one thing, to insist that black South Africans have a problem if they are not attracted to one particular literary festival. It is furthermore misguided to believe that every single cultural event has to represent the Rainbow Nation in demographically accurate proportions. Does anyone bother to wring their hands over the tragic absence of white folk at Jazz at the Lake in Jo’burg? The fact is that not every cultural group will respond with equal enthusiasm to everything. Why would we even want them to?

Of course the FLF is an elite event. It is expensive and exclusive, and designed to encourage the well-heeled to untie their purse strings in support of South African literature. Most of the people who work to put the Festival together are volunteers, which means they get paid absolutely nothing for their time and effort. This isn’t some government-funded initiative that is answerable to the tax payer.

One of the main aims of the FLF is fundraising. By the end of last year it had donated books worth a total of R165 000 to local crèches and schools. In addition, the Exclusive Books Reading Trust donated a fully-stocked container children’s library to Groendal.  There was also around R750 000 in the FLF Library Fund, which will eventually build a new community library. The Festival’s various sponsors have undertaken to build this total up to R2,5 million, which will then be matched by the municipality.

These are fantastic initiatives that will make a real difference in people’s lives. It seems somewhat churlish to grouse about what’s not entirely perfect in an event that wouldn’t even exist without the goodwill of volunteers.

Having complained about the smugness of the writers and the archaic nature of the Festival, De Vries does a bewildering about-face in lamenting the demise of “old-fashioned respect” for writers and the written word – everything, in short, that the FLF celebrates.

He ends off with a discussion about satire, and Jonathan Coe’s theory that laughter dissipates anger and the threat of real revolution. But the example De Vries cites is not of an audience laughing at satire, but rather of them warmly applauding a point well made by Jonathan Jansen. That is not the same thing at all. Satire may not lead to action, but rousing speeches certainly do. Just ask Robespierre ... or Julius Malema.

You are left with the confused impression that De Vries does not approve of the Franschhoek Literary Festival, but you fail to understand why, since it seems to stand for everything he holds most dear.