By Ben Williams for The Sunday Times
South African literature – or its English branch, at least, I don’t know the others well enough to talk about them with authority – has evolved by such great leaps over the last few years that it now faces a backlash, a Counter Reformation if you will. It’s led by traditionalists who would strap a chastity belt on the body of our letters to fend off the advances of crime, sci-fi, horror, books for women and young adults – popular fiction in general.
The war of literary versus genre fiction, then, has arrived. It’s a stiflingly boring war, however, with vanishingly low stakes, so to keep you from yawning through this column and eventually discarding it in favour of your ever-blossoming timeline, let’s turn to a topic that whips up your anxieties properly.
50/50 question: fracking is (a) the latest abomination invented by a blinkered race bent on turning our planet into a gigantic lump of plastic; or (b) the technology that will vouchsafe peace on Earth by staving off the energy wars for generations to come?
I used to hover fretfully around camp (a) but now find myself prowling the perimeter of camp (b), sniffing the braai smoke. This isn’t because I’ve become a convert to fracking. Rather, it’s because I’ve come to accept a few things about humanity and our tools.
First, our tools – our technology – are our only hope. We are their children; they must, eventually, take care of us. To protest this idea is either to acknowledge our participation in a death-cult, or to live in denial about just how invested we are. If you drive a car, for example, you are so deeply leveraged, sphincter-wise, into technology that you can see out its mouth.
Further, our tools improve dramatically over short spans of time, and are subject to a serendipity that sees new and often totally unrelated tools develop from the old.
Fracking, in other words, is probably not the final end of fracking. It may lead us, higgledy-piggledy, to an invention that saves us all.
A lot of fracking is scheduled for farms in the Karoo – like a lot of South African literature. This is also the natural territory of the Counter Reformationists, whose imaginations are fed by the fiction that’s bred, generation after writerly generation, out of that tired land.
Every week, it seems, another FFN (“f*cking farm novel”) lands on my desk for consideration. I say to myself, This FFN might have literary merit, but is it new and contentious and groundbreaking? Does it gather the weather over our bookish landscape, and does fresh air blow in after?
Literary works are meant to advance us, however obliquely, into new frontiers of the imagination. Fiction, like fracking, is a tool of the future, not just the present. The signs of its vigour are in the way it spins off new forms, like a storm on the plains spinning off tornados.
But the gleam of life in South African literature – its youth, its energy, its experimentation – resides in a land apart from our literary works.
Genre is the new tool and Zoo City is the new Story of an African Farm. Who knows what will come out of the cracks and fissures it has made?