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Literary Discourse: Even in an ‘instant’ world, there’s no shortcut in writing

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By - | May 26th 2013

By Tony Mochama

A month ago, in this space (Literary Discourse, April 28), recent university graduate Silas Nyanchwani lamented about the ‘young writers’ diminished path to fame.”

He complained that, nowadays, it is difficult for a first-time novelist’s books to “hit the streets and be talked about by critics,” thus launching the young writer on the path to fame.

And that is the problem with the ‘Pap!’ generation — everything is instant. Instant coffee, instant money, instant intimacies (or to be less literary, chips funga), and instant messaging instead of those long, lovely, way-over-the-top missives that we used to write to our high school sweethearts in the 1990s (scented with Brut)…

Sexting will ensure such an ‘instant writer’ cannot pen even a simple roman a clef. Just ask Storymoja, who have struggled to get their Drum Beat romance series going, in spite of ready money for good manuscripts.

Talking of ‘instant money,’ Nyanchwani claimed that these days, one cannot even write a crime thriller about ATM fraud because they would already have been scooped by the business journalist. What errant nonsense!

A business journalist will write a 500-word piece of reportage, or 1,500-word investigative piece, tops, because in this ‘instant world,’ there is a ceiling on words (and ‘glance boxes’), thanks to the attention span of readers.

A crime noir writer has the liberty to write 50,000 to 100,000 words for his ATM story. I remember my writing of Princess Adhis and the Naija Coca Brodas (Storymoja, 2012) was inspired by watching a KTN tale on the warring Chinedus, and reading a report in The Standard on molestation by foreigners in Malindi.

I did not estoppel myself because of these reports. That is being like US patent commissioner Charles Duell who, in 1901, famously said: “Everything that can be invented … has already been invented.”

Practise

Rather, like motivational writer Caroline Gachiku Mbuthia, boldly declared in another article about literature, “the problem is that aspiring writers do not read, some practising writers last read in college, and many young writers are too lazy and undisciplined to flesh out characters, let alone outline their plot lines.”

She is right. I have seen many writers and journalists who have neither carried nor read a book in years.

I have heard editors complain about young writers who will not even run a spell-check before handing in their work, reckoning that “it is what sub-editors are there for; they must earn their bread.”

Silas says that whereas jail, or exile, was a great way to catapult writers to fame — quoting Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Micere Mugo and Ken Saro-Wiwa as examples — one wonders what would stop a fame-hungry writer from carrying a piglet to that Orwellian ‘House of Pigs’ Parliament.

Bonnie Mwangi, a Standard photographer at the start of 2008, went out there, took pictures, turned his art into well-funded activism (and ‘fame’), all in the frame of five years. Provoke any State system enough, Silas, and jail or exile will come.

But the fundamental logic here is based on a false premise — that writers write so that they can be famous. That is a ‘socialite’ mentality. It is akin to saying Nelson Mandela went to jail on Robben Island for 27 years to be famous.

By-products

Writers write because they have something to say; because they must. Gaining audiences, ‘fame,’ and ‘winning the occasional award’ are by-products.

Nyanchwani spoke, lamentingly, of the “long, circuitous, torturous road of the writer.” I dare say it is that long road that the writer must walk, always, whether with anonymity or with the shadows in fame’s morgue.

“Life ain’t no crystal stair,” as goes the poem. Nor does fame come on a silver platter, unless you are lucky spermatozoon, or your old man was president.

“You need the benevolence of a good publisher, and caring media, to make it as a young writer.” I will tell Silas this: The terms ‘benevolent publisher’ and ‘caring media’ are oxymorons.

Moreover, I think Nyanchwani inadvertently pointed out to the problem among young writers when he said: “University students are interested in Google, photocopying class notes, Playstation and watching endless Hollywood series.”

In our college days, a mere decade back, there was no Google, so you went to the university library, took your notes yourself (or at worst got your campus lass to write them for you). There was no Playstation either, so you went to the pub, and if you loved a TV programme that much, you had to wait a week to watch it again.

That means we of the Kwani? Lit generation have no problem researching on our stories, taking the requisite notes and observing human interaction.

Nyanchwani should not worry about the proverbial unknown writer in Kakamega. It is the same problem, even in Sarajevo. Poet Stephen Partington shows you how, in six easy steps — Kakamega, Sakamega, Saramega, Sarajega, Sarajeva, Sarajevo. Clever, is it not?

Because there is nothing like ‘instant life’ for the writer; just instant death!

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