This blog reflects on life at work at comments on the latest news that shapes my 9-5 working day in a Corporate Communications consultancy.

About Me

I am a born and bred South African who has always loved to read and write. As a child my mother used to read to me and my siblings, from classics like the “Lord of the Rings” but later also from her own stories. She would write children’s stories and then use us as her test audience, but I loved to hear what she had written long after my siblings had tired of it. So I grew up in an environment of reading and writing, which inspired my love of these things. I hope to write a great book some day, and have learnt first hand the determination and will that it takes. My love of English inspired me to continue my study of it at university. I majored in Law and English in a BA degree at UCT where I found that I took to English much more than law. I enjoyed learning about South Africa’s history and the development of our liberal Constitution, which increasingly made me committed to the hope this country has for the future. Ideally, I’d like to find myself in a job where I am able to write; that allows a good mix of time spent with people and being able to work on my own.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

South African literature as a commercial success

Last weekend when I was at the movies and an on- screen advert got me thinking. It was for “Spud: The Madness Continues”- the second instalment of “Spud”, the South African book that has been on the Exclusive Books bestseller list since its release in 2005.

The first “Spud” has been an incredible success, selling 56 000 copies to date, when the definition of a South African best seller is 10 000 copies. Penguin has recorded that 30 000 copies of “Spud II” have been ordered since its release just over a month ago. It will be interesting to see how well the sequel fares, but this figure is already an indication of its anticipated success. South Africans are not known to be great readers, and there are even less who actually buy books. That one home-grown novel is doing so well is encouraging.

The advert for “Spud II” was the first time I have seen a South African book advertised at the cinema. It was part of a larger “Homebru” campaign to promote local literature, running in May- but “Spud II” is at its forefront. Nu Metro cinema and Exclusive Books are both owned by Johnnic, so the partnership probably meant that the cost of the advert was affordable.

“Spud” is a wickedly funny novel that is accessible to all ages- anyone who’s ever been to boarding school will identify with the boys’ antics. John van de Ruit, its author, was already a fairly well known South African personality because of his two plays, “Black Mamba” and “Green Mamba”, which he performs around the country. John ‘Spud’ Milton, the book’s main character, is likeable, and his dilemmas often evoke feelings of pathos in the reader. He has many awkward moments during his descent into manhood and is continually embarrassed by his less than orthodox family. The things Spud and his dormitory mates get up to provide endless fuel for entertainment.

John van de Ruit has his own theory about his book’s success. He thinks as a nation we are hungry for literature that moves away from traditional “South African genre”- stories about apartheid laden with white guilt. “Spud” doesn’t carry any baggage, despite being written by a white male. The young boy going to boarding school and learning to survive there is also a story that can come from our country. Our literature needs to diversify the narrative of the past and locate stories that step away from the nation’s suffering.

Seeing the advert at the movies prompted me to consider what “Spud” has done for South African literature. It is possibly the first fictional bestseller not written by one of our literary ‘heavyweights’, such as Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink. The story is currently being made into a movie, which indicates that South African writing is becoming a commercial success. And it’s also been adapted for an American market and has been given a huge release in Barnes and Noble bookstores. The novel will draw attention to our country in a positive light, and begin to break the association of our literature with apartheid and human rights issues. The roaring success of “Spud” indicates that there is hope for South African literature. Let’s hope the Americans agree.


Thomas Blaser said...

You seem to suggest South Africans are a bit tired of serious issues and want rather bland entertainment. I quite like South African literature and the themes it gave birth too. But ja, perhaps the time is ripe for new themes, without 'heavy' entanglements.

Valentin said...

Dear Susan, I agree.
I really believe that it is already time that South African literature breaks away from the political context and history of South Africa and revolves around a more diverse range of themes.
Nevertheless, remember that whatever is put into writing always exists in a form of resistance against social rules, political regimes and ruling classes and authorities.
Thus, today literature has largely become a form of resistance; in fact, it has always been such.
However, today there are more tricky ways of how to avoid the political slogan (and "propaganda")and go around it: in other words, convey the same message (or meaning), but in a different way or in a softer, not so straight-forward way-thus more metaphorically).
Thus, we might still come across the same themes and issues in the South African literature in the near future.

Susan Arthur said...

Thanks guys for your comments. Valentin, if you've read Spud, I think you'll agree that there's really nothing political about it, and Thomas, it's very funny- not at all bland in my opinion!
I think there is still a place for politics in SA literature, given that we still have a long way to go, but there needs to be a balance: in the past we only really had serious literature. In 1989 or 1990 Albie Sachs presented a paper (the name escapes me) at an ANC conference that called for more human stories to be written. As a nation we also need to laugh!

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

Hi Susan,
Lovely post. I agree with you that there's certainly room for lightheartedness amidst the weighty issues South Africans are dealing with. Laughter is good medicine, that's one thing we do in Nigeria - laugh about our situation, it releives stress and makes one take life less seriously. I would love to read the book. I'm going to go out and buy a copy. Thanks for bringing it to our notice. I really look forward to reading your novel one day soon.

Adam N. Mukendi said...

Hi Sue,
I did not read the book yet but I start very soon. Your description is so nice that I am thinking to buy mine already even if I did not read the one in possession yet. Happy to hear that they still good writers who don't focus on stressing issues such human right, criminality and politics. People like me don't like to read bad news as I always want to feed my soul with positive stuff. If this book can, I am happy. I will post my comments once I read it. thanks

Susan Arthur said...

Laughter, the best medicine!