You Are What You Read – Postcards from The Bookshelf – Part One
There could only be two things that could come out of me writing this article. One, you could read this article because you have read so many commentaries on the local blogsphere that you have decided to find out what another self righteous cunt has to say. Two, you won’t even read this article, because you could care less about what about what a few internet junkies have to say about anything. In that case then this isn’t for you, but if you fall under the former category, I thought I should tell you this.
After reading and absorbing a fairly decent amount of content on our Dot Co-Za’s, I have decided that there is a lot of premature optimism about the whole affair. Local bloggers have decided it is safer, or easier (or a combination of the two) to articulate opinions about things that they do not understand at the risk of claiming greater authority than the rest. I find it quite hypocritical on several levels for a Wits grad who has lived their whole life behind a picket fence to pontificate about the plight of South Africa’s poor. The trouble with our local bloggers is that they claim greater authority then is available. Some opinions need to be earned.
Although I must confess that I am somewhat jealous of many of our must read bloggers, not because I envy their content but because I am baffled by their success. The age of globalization has allowed even small ideas to be rewarded in immense portions. You can write a few pieces a year (void of quality) and be set to play Sunday golf with the chaps drinking the best whiskey under those mahogany counters that money can buy. It has become a frenzy of “Whose spaghetti is it anyway?” It is for that reason that I will not be pontificating any further on how I feel about the status of our blogsphere.
Allow me however to speak candidly on the issue of writers who write with the purpose of communicating genuine ideas and feelings. A journalist friend of mine pointed out to me recently that it is rather distasteful for a critic to question the intention of a writer as he writes. I however am not to be held to such traditional values. I am of the belief that intent is just as important as extent in the process of penning one’s ideas. I recently listened to a lecture by Jonathan Franzen. Indeed one of the most incisive and most compelling contemporary novelists.
Coincidentally, he writes at a rate of one novel every ten years, but somehow his prose is not weighed down by the long time lapses in between, rather it is informed by it. His recent novel Freedomis testimony to that. During the lecture he spoke with some degree of varying humor about the questions that he and perhaps other writers hate being asked, amongst them he included questions that we have all being guilty of asking writers at signings or book club meetings. Such as “who are the writers that have influenced you?”, and “is your work autobiographical.”
I suspect he chose this subject as a way of-demystifying the novelists personas as well as a slight poke at the audience he gained after Freedom was selected for Oprah’s book club. however the issue that Franzen failed to address was the a fundamental question that writers need to ask themselves before plotting down any narrative and that is “what is the motive behind that narrative?”
Perhaps motive is a strong word, but fitting none the less as it implies the ripple on effect that books can have on people. Doubters who say that the novel is dead, are not only mistaken but they are categorically naïve. The will to enter imagined realities is far more potent than any form of temporary orgasm that can be given by video games. Although some studies have revealed that books are less popular then video games in the upper tier of global social class. a worrying sign but certainly not a reason to stop the printing press by any measure. After all it is not only the upper tier that consumes books, and that is a reason for celebration.
But on the subject of writing with motive both as critics and consumers as well as writers we need to firmly question the intent behind what we write. a few months ago I sat with Durban author Aziz Hassim as he told me about his then upcoming book Song of Shoba. He told me how writing for him was his own “personal TRC”, with all due respect and acknowledgement of his powers I am firmly suspicious of any writer who says that they write strictly for themselves.
After all there is a greater public participation on the characters we weave and it is to that point that I believe that writers should write with a standpoint of all things considered. Because as the world we live in changes the interpretation of ideas changes with it. I am not advocating that writers suddenly become paranoid and write stories with an increasing sense of vagueness that can only be out done by liberal election campaign speeches. Instead I would implore that novelist consider carefully their intentions, accept them and write with them in mind.
After all it is not websites and blogposts that have caused a downward spiral in genuine readership, it is the books. As Fran Lebowitz so eloquently points out “there are too many books and the books are bad” and writers should not blame a misinformed public for that. In actual fact the public has been misinformed for a while now, as idealistic as it may sound but it is part of the writers responsibility to yank out the chains of dogma from the public’s mind and instill a sense of social confidence that can only be inspired by real, purposeful words in an imagined reality.
As the old saying goes you are what you read. And the loss of that goal is the real disappointment of contemporary and popular fiction.