Literature cultivates healthy debate

2011-09-17 10:45

As I write this, I’m attempting to pick apart Terry Eagleton’s book, Literary Theory.

It has also been a time of reflecting on, and having public conversations about, what makes good literature and whether South African literature stands out in the world.

The opinions that abound are as much about politics, culture and identity as they are about literature per se.

At a National Book Week panel discussion, Poet Laureate Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile made a poignant point, with his usual flair, that South African literature is a misnomer.

Ours is a land of cultural diversity, hence the need to speak of South African literatures.

This renders the work of reviewing and analysing these literatures more complex as a result. The debate regarding whether we are doing a decent job of this continues to rage.

Reviewing literature, according to Kgositsile, should be approached in a scientific manner and it should not be treated like recording one’s tastes.

I’ve often had to suspend my disbelief when I read work that is constructed well yet assaults my sensibilities.

In hindsight, I appreciate this test of my tolerance. Book festivals also act as a kind of Wailing Wall for low literacy levels, with writers and word lovers gathering for after-tears sessions to have it out with ideas on how to reverse this
worrying trend.

Many of our writers and artists have become activists, championing the cause for literacy.

While the nobility of this cannot be questioned, I just hope that this activism doesn’t kill their primary calling, which is to create.

You can tell, just by listening to the radio, that conversation is a chaotic creature, and writing and reading act as ways in which to bring order to our thoughts, emotions and interactions.

Engaging with written words is a gentler way in which we may reach out to each other.


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