Literary South Africa

Some years ago I visited my brother in Cape Town. He put together the most amazing itinerary: the ‘big five’ in Kruger National Park, then, closer to town, lounging on the beach and watching the cold surf in Kleinmond; seafood on the sea shore in Hermanus, wine and escargot for the price back home of burgers and coke, in Franschhoek; Table mountain, flowers and weddings in the Company Gardens, and hiking up Lion’s Head. This however is not what I am to him most grateful for.

Rather, it’s the tireless manner in which he drove me to every bookstore I could find in the country, and his patient waiting as I pored fiendishly over miles of shelves full of new and used books. After which, I can happily report that Cape Town and environs is home not only to the world’s

most fecund floral kingdom, but also a thriving literary life.

Almost everyone I met with during my visit spoke of Cape Town’s growing literary community, of how, after years of neglect by the chains, independent bookstores, such as The Book Lounge and Kalk Bay Books, were now, as the Lounge’s Mervyn Sloman put it ‘filling the void, treating customers with respect, hiring people passionate about the profession, and caring about more than just stock-turn over.’


Just looking through the Book Lounge’s author reading line-up for the Spring months was exhausting: three or four authors a week, minimum. It was there that I heard Andre Brink talk about his memoirs, A Fork in the Road, and where I met Ben Williams, owner of – a cluster of micro-sites for authors and publishers, news and reviews – who, in two words described the state of South Africa’s publishing industry: ‘high’ and ‘ferment.’ The heat has apparently been building for the past ten years to a point where there are now more books and local authors being published in the country than ever before.

In fact, South Africa currently in the throes of its own Harry Potter-sized success story. “Spud,” a comic novel about adolescent life in a boarding school, written by actor/ playwright John van de Ruit, has purportedly sold more than 250,000 copies. The third Spud (a kind of Adrian Mole on speed) was launched at the Cape Town Book Fair recently where cues of fans reportedly ‘snaked around for hours’ while the author signed copies.

Local crime fiction is also enjoying a sales boom. As Margie Orford, a successful crime novelist whose Blood Rose has just been optioned for film, tells me “The spectre of the past is there – racialized cities and identities, a psycho-geography of violence and spatial separation, but also an exuberant storytelling where the big issues of the State of Literature are resolved in and through the interaction between the odd casts of characters that inhabit the crime novel – to me the cops, the crooks, the murderers are the coalface of our Rainbow Nation. So that has been a marvelous development.”

During the first Cape Town Book Fair Orford spoke on a crime panel to a room half empty. This year (only three years on) the panel spoke to a packed-to capacity-room full of fans of local crime fiction.

No one is quite sure of the reason for all this of success, although Stephen Johnson, Managing Director of the recently merged Random House Struik, thinks that it has to do with a new freedom to tell stories, to write not against things, but for them. A climate that now, despite government corruption and the new president’s proclivity to litigate, encourages the letting loose of imagination.

Still, despite this heady picture South Africa’s book-buying public is, says Jenny Hobbs, Literary Director of the Franschhoek Writers Festival, “too small to fund even a scant living for most local writers.”

As Andrew Marjoribanks, managing director of the Wordsworth book chain in the Western Cape put it, the key to future success lies in penetrating literacy and price barriers, ‘be it through cheap romances or whatever, the goal is to get people reading,’ just as Harry Potter pulled a whole generation of youngsters into the pages of big books.

The country’s population remains overwhelmingly illiterate and, says Hobbs, “our government’s track record since the 1994 election has been pathetic when it comes to library funding, though literacy and reading support programmes are picking up as the government (at last) becomes more serious about the essential value of reading. What we need as well are cheaper popular paperbacks, especially in the major black languages, and to abolish the unconscionable 14% VAT tax on books.”

Getting people who know how to read, to read, is one thing. Teaching those who don’t, how to, is quite another. Those with the most disposable income are still primarily white. This relatively small percentage of the population represents the majority of book buyers. Until the government – and to a lesser extent all those connected with book publishing – understands that simple schooling is not enough…that a knowledge culture must be nurtured … that books need to be made more easily accessible…and the entire population needs to be encouraged to revere reading… until things are done to make this happen, the traditional rich markets may well continue to flourish, the publishing industry may continue to go squirrel with all the work its getting, but a far bigger, potentially more lucrative nut will remain uncracked.

First appeared in The Guardian

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