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

Are South African critics too soft?

Gary Cummiskey - 2010-12-02

First of all, Fiona has some very valid points.

A couple of years ago, when I first started writing for The Bookseller in the UK, I wrote a piece saying how wonderful it was that South African readers were beginning to read and positively respond to South African writers and were finally shedding that colonial mindset that dictates that anything not produced in "the mother country" is probably inferior. However, I also sounded a warning, right at the end, that in our enthusiasm we should not lose our sense of critical evaluation of what is good writing and what is bad – though of course, what constitutes good or bad writing is so often subjective.

In terms of the situation of book reviewing in South Africa, or at least newspaper book reviews, I also wrote a piece for The Bookseller on this, pointing out that the situation many newspapers are in with regard to the books pages – eg diminishing budgets and book reviews often ending up being written by in-house staff etc – should be weighed up against the common moan by writers that book reviewers often don’t know what the hell they are talking about, produce poorly written reviews, etc.

From my own experience of having been a reviewer over the years for Mail & Guardian, the Sunday Independent, The Citizen and The Weekender I can say that if I have found a book to be weak or lacking in some respect, I have said so – but not in a destructive manner. I have had some fairly destructive reviews published of my own work and know what it is like, so I am sensitive to authors’ feelings. But if I think a book is weak or could have done with improvement, I have said so, even if the author – as has happened – has been a close associate of mine. There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of constructive criticism and it is, after all, simply my opinion – I would never maintain that my word is final.

Of course, the South African literary scene is close-knit and often incestuous – it is so damn small it is difficult to get around it – and being published is often a precarious matter at the best of times, so I can understand it is possible that certain writers-cum-critics are edgy about saying anything bad about a book, etc, as it may well be in the back of their minds that there might be some fallout at some time or another.

Or, perhaps, they just want to be nice since they think as it is now so wonderful that so much is being published in South Africa, and we haven’t had this for so long, etc, that we can't possibly say anything bad?

Like when I wrote a balanced, but sometimes critical, piece about the Cape Town Book Fair and had someone say to me, "You know, at long last we actually have a book fair in South Africa and you have to say something bad about it!"

But is the situation in publishing overseas any different? I wonder. The publishing and writing scene in the US, or UK, might be bigger, but it is also far more competitive, and probably more vindictive and cut-throat than a backstreet bar in Hillbrow.


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