Why There Is Stunted Growth in African Literature

Why-There-Is-StuntedLast month, I launched my latest book, The Girl with the Flawless Face at the Goethe Institute, and there was something interesting that I noticed. In attendance was a woman, who claimed to be a lecturer, but had nothing positive to say about my book. The fact that she had neither read the book, nor bought a copy, got me wondering why there is a stunted growth in African literature.

Any good critic should criticize a piece of art after carefully reading, analyzing, and understanding the work. He should look at the themes, characters, language, setting, and plot of the work, and acknowledge the genius of the writer, as well as his flaws. Going by what I observed in the launch, this is not the case in Kenya. We have people who call themselves critics, yet they do not know anything about the work they are so quick to criticize. They make prosaic comments that are not based on facts, and are not related to the book in question. One of the comments made was that the book should be indexed. Now, why would one index a work of fiction, whereas this is done in nonfiction? Clearly, this so-called critic did not have the slightest clue of what she was talking about.

In my opinion, a good critic should have at least written and published a book. This will give him an understanding of the publishing process, as well as the tenets of a good piece of art. In the past, we have had good books being rejected due to their different nature, yet later, these books became best sellers. Ayn Rand’s, Fountainhead was rejected twelve times, as critics said the book was too intellectual, yet it eventually sold over 6.5 million copies through the word of mouth. The same goes for JK Rowling’s, Harry Potter, which was rejected countless times with critics pointing out that such a work would never sell, yet surprisingly it became one of the best sellers in the world.

When we have critics, who have no experience about the book market, making unwarranted comments that are subsequently published in newspapers, they end up hurting book sales. For instance, if we have a critic who has not read a book but claims it is boring and badly edited,  does not have rounded characters or excellent language, many readers will not likely buy the book. If what he says is based on hearsay, this will in the end decrease the chances of an otherwise great book being bought by the masses. On the other hand, if a critic has actually read the book, finds that indeed the characters are not well developed, and the language is terrible, it is only fair that readers should be biased against the title.

There should be a certain yardstick for one to qualify as a critic. It is morally wrong to have an individual, simply because he is in academia, to act as the whistle blower for what is good and what is bad. One of the reasons why Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o became a successful writer is because those who criticized his work actually took time to read and comprehend its essence. They understood his style of writing, as well as his intellectual genius. Today, we have critics, who do not read the entire book, yet they are very vibrant in newspapers and in book forums to point out flaws in a piece of art. This has in turn affected people’s perception towards certain works, therefore hurting sales. This only cripples the growth of African literature, making artists, who are destined to be great, to fizzle out like sodium in water.

It is true that some books do not have a spark of genius, but who are we to determine this? Marcel Proust’s, In search of a Lost Time was one time regarded as too intellectual, and he had to pay for the book’s initial publication. Yet the book turned out to be the best work ever written in the history of literature. As his work was different, it was not primarily understood, but later on the masses could not get enough of it. The same applied to Henry George’s, Progress and Poverty. In Kenya, we must learn to appreciate what is new. I personally specialize in magical realism, something that is new in Kenya. I have had many people try to compare my work to that of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. However, my work is of a different genre, and as such, it should not be judged against that of another writer.

Critics should be open to new forms of art, instead of being so militant with their so-called African rules of literature. The whole essence of literature is to explore and reflect the current trends in lifestyle, beliefs, and actions of the society. A good piece of literature is one that is not bound by any rules. It acknowledges these rules, but it is not tied entirely by them. There is a reason why Haruki Murakami and Veronica Roth are best sellers. It is time we embraced change, for the market is tired of the same old things, with the same old critics saying absurd things about Kenyan authors. It is time that the Kenyan book market got something new and different. It is time for us to change the book industry, so that authors and publishers can make profits from books, and the entire population can get a feel of something different and exciting.


3 Responses to “Why There Is Stunted Growth in African Literature”

  1. Muthoni wa Gichuru says:

    So true Ndiritu.

  2. Don’t listen to critics full of negative energy. They don’t attend the launch of a book because they love literature but because they crave free juice and bites. Keep writing Nderitu, we need it.

  3. I speak for Kenya here which I am familiar with as a Kenyan. I think Kenyans do not know how to handle different views of opinions. We claim to celebrate different yet tend to do it by bashing down what we do not understand or by putting what we do not understand down. When we try to critic ‘positively’ we do so with such bitterness that it turns out sour. Mimi ni Mkenya though and most likely do the same thing even if oblivious to it. I guess it is our unwritten societal norm. Just my 2 cents though. Laura O

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