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

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

Are South African critics too soft?

Janet van Eeden - 2010-12-02

This is a difficult question. Would anyone really want reviewers to launch into South African writers across the genres to prove how clever they are at dissecting and comparing their work with UK and USA literature? Would it serve any purpose to discourage the fle dgling literary and film industry? I think not.

I have felt this way ever since I was first asked to review books and plays and occasionally films for the Witness. I was incensed by the vicious critiques critics meted out especially to South African films brave enough to venture on to the screens. Film critics especially couldn’t wait to show how clever they were and ripped the films to shreds before they’d even opened on the main circuit. Then the film industry wondered why there wasn’t a South African film viewership? Why would viewers prefer to see any old US rubbish instead of a well-made South African film? Not even our Oscar winner Tsotsi made a profit, thanks to this mentality.

The same is true of South African writing. We should praise wherever we can, though not in a blanket way. There is room in South Africa for sensitive and positive critique wherever possible, and helpful guidance towards room for improvement where appropriate. That's what I try to do with each book I review. Only occasionally do I hate books outright. I find blatant violence and porn deeply offensive, not only as a woman but also as a sensitive human being. I've had to review a few gratuitous shockers, one of which came with a silk garter on the cover. That was the best part of the book. I did resort to harsh criticism then and said that hardcore porn was to erotic writing what fart jokes were to PG Wodehouse. I actually burnt that one on a specially lit fire. Occasionally I have also given negative crits to writers who offend others by their own prejudices in their work.

On the whole we have done very well to produce an enormous amount of good writing for a fledgling democratic country. So I believe positive reinforcement works one helluva lot better than destructive criticism. It’s not hard to be destructive in a crit. If you don’t believe me, send me your book and I’ll critique it viciously just to show you how clever I am. But I have made a deliberate choice to build up the industry of writers in literature as well as film wherever I can.

I feel very strongly about this after years of having had my plays and films broken down by smart-arsed critics trying to prove that they were cleverer than I was.

I’ll continue to appreciate the good in the work I’m asked to review when I find it, and when the author or filmmaker’s writing is inspired, I’ll rejoice and reflect that in my review, which will also be inspired.


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