ReView: WALE SLLS Authors’ Book Launch
South West Engineering Building, East Campus, Wits University
14th May 2011, 11h00 – 12h30
A smoky room… people speaking in hushed tones, lest they annoy the heavyweight South African authors who occupy centre stage. The enthusiasm in the room is tenable; eager attendees hope to strike literary gold in the presence of these masters! I always imagined book launches to look like this – the stereotype is true. Somewhat.
Theatrics aside, the WALE SLLS Author Book Launch was a worthwhile event to attend, even if the number of those in attendance may have suggested otherwise. It was an intimate (read: small) affair, with no more than 20 people in attendance, including the authors themselves. The bones of the Graduate Seminar Room providing no more warmth on a cold autumn morning than imbawula in an open street. Indeed, we huddled around the panellists not just because the chair spoke softly, but because winter made a guest appearance that morning.
The event was billed as a discussion around publishing in South Africa, with the authors, namely Prof Anton Harber, Dr Véronique Tadjo, Dr Chris Thurman, Prof Anette Horn, Prof Pumla Gqola and Andie Miller, providing particular guidance and expertise pertaining to their personal experiences, challenges, successes and concerns regarding their works published in 2010. A very clear scope of the various genres and their audiences was articulated by the authors, who collectively hail from journalistic, creative and academic writing fields and traditions. A common thread of the discussion, alluded to by all authors, was the concern over readers and readership in South Africa. Indeed, Professor Anton Harber, in his capacity as author of Diepsloot, succinctly stated that there are “more writers than there are readers in South Africa”, which perhaps explains the dearth of audiences who read South African texts. Beyond this obviously middle class, literate market who make up the majority of reading audiences in the country, there are structural challenges that hinder the development of new readerships and audiences such as low literacy levels and lack of affordability of and access to texts, among other pertinent issues.
The publishing industry in South Africa, I found out, is certainly vibrant with a mix of players to cater to all the major and established niche markets. However, the authors were unanimous in their critique of the reviewing culture in South Africa, which I gathered they believed was limited, lacked agency and contributed to the exclusive nature of book review clubs and writing practices in the media. Mention was made of the Mail and Guardian review section in this regard. These authors see the reviewing culture as being guilty of aiding and abetting consumerism, as opposed to stimulating and even driving intellectual and educational imperatives within the journalistic, creative and academic writing fields in particular, and in the literary realm in general. Deep stuff!
For an aspirant author such as myself, it was a sobering – if not tragic – event to attend. I was ignorant of the world of publishing in South Africa until approximately 11h28 that Saturday morning (I was working on African time, unaware that these literary types are quite particular with the sundial; apologies for arriving late); and perhaps even dissuaded from putting pen to paper. Thank goodness for the wonders of technology that have seen this age-old practice go digital, and allowed me to embrace typing and blogging. The panel discussed online publishing, in a rather limited fashion, with not as much fervour as I would have liked.
It would have been a pleasure to see more young people at the event (exPress imPress bloggers: I am directing this tirade at you!) to add some life to the doldrums of the Graduate Seminar room. It was far too old school for my liking. Outside of a customary mention of sites dedicated to purchasing books such as Kalahari.net, and to the Kindle and e-books as reading practices of the future, there was little engagement with online publishing in the broader sense, and the value that can be extracted from this trend.
For one, I did not hear the words blogging or online self-publishing come out of any of the mouths of the authors present. This will be a trending topic in the near future in South Africa, if international trends are anything to go by, and a sure fire way of engaging and establishing new reading publics. Then again, neither did I see anyone from our team of bloggers engage the panel on this trend. Much as we are a student online community forum, I believe it is important that we become knowledgeable about the publishing industry, markets and processes. And further, engage with new technologies insofar as it relates to our style of writing. Rupert Murdoch started his empire with one book; I’m just saying **shrugs**. Equally, it would have been a great PR exercise for the blogging team to mix with these literary types, support members of our fraternity and challenge their views, while advertising the site. Perhaps WALE 5.0?
Evidently, I have not read any of the books the authors wrote. In reality, that was not my motivation for coming. I was genuinely interested in getting to grips with this beast called ‘Publishing in South Africa’. I am going to Jane Raphaely my way through life and need to strike now while the tender is available! I was, however, bemused at the book stand that cut a lonely figure at the end of the room: art imitating book launch?
Review by Naledi Siphokazi Msimang – yes, I review!