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Literary Discourse: Popular fiction today, acclaimed classics tomorrow!

By - Silas Nyanchwani | July 7th 2013

By Silas Nyanchwani

If you asked a university graduate to name at least five Literature Nobel Laureates, you will put them in an uncomfortable position. They will scratch their heads. They will crack their brains and with luck, fish one. But if you asked them to name at least ten popular fiction authors, names such as Norah Roberts, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, John le Carre`, Jeffrey Archer will spring up without breaking a sweat. 

 One of the bigger paradoxes of life is that such renowned writers, who have entertained hordes and hordes of book lovers, are often dismissed as trashy, by academics. Let us get a few things right, shall we?

 Popular fiction is not any less literary than the conventionally sanctioned literature. It is not any less stylistic than the authors preferred by the classroom teacher. Maybe they dwell too much on near pornographic scenes that they are presumed too lecherous for the young minds susceptible to corruption. But more people read such books in their pubescent years, than in their adulthood.

Locally, of course, it is odd seeing a grown up immersed in a Sidney Sheldon novel, but as young people we enjoyed the tales, no end.

Over time, I have come to the conclusion that literature is best enjoyed in retrospect. And it should not necessarily have to be this way. The spirit of the moment that is often registered by newspapers and now the Internet too, can be captured in a novel, the play and other contemporary media platforms. Hence, the popularity of Heartstrings Ensemble plays that have become popular with the middle-class in Nairobi, and have revived the love for theatre, which for long, was dominated by plays of dead English playwrights.

 What happens is that what is popular fiction today can easily be a classic tomorrow. The commercially acclaimed authors who are not recognised in literary circles have churned books that span from historical events within fictionalised settings, to marriage, to international relations to espionage, name it.

When you look at the kind of things they said about Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle — he of the famous Sherlock Holmes, you begin to get the idea. Dickens and Doyle’s works were reproduced in newspapers and magazines, and now they are fully acclaimed and accepted as timeless literature.

How we perceive literature will definitely change with time. The poetry now in the streets, is what a professor will frown upon. It is not a sonnet, or a masterpiece, but it conveys the emotions just as apt. John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime is having renewed interest including a film adaptation.  

 Books by Kenyan writers such as Charles Mangua, David Mailu, David Karanja (whose ‘The Girl was Mine’ is a modern classic that is highly underrated), Mwangi Gicheru, Mwangi Ruheni among others, were popular in the 80s and the 90s, but interest in local writers, has plummeted over time, but it can be resurrected.

 It wasn’t until recently that Stephen King — one of the greatest writers who pursue science-fiction — started winning awards primarily based on his writing. His books were largely classified as popular fiction but the tag classic is now being bandied about.

 The books that win awards are scarcely readable. When you read them, they are rigid, never-entertaining. Save for the occasional startling metaphor and good descriptive writing, such books can hardly interest anyone with limited time on their hands. There are other better things that people do with their time.

People now have money. With money comes power. The two now grant people many options and the last thing they want is a mindless literary description of a dusty path in Africa, or ribs of a dying African kid.

To me, having a good story that will inform, educate and entertain should be the main thing. How you tell a story, determines who reads you. Unless, the millions who buy books by popular American writers whose works have been construed as garbage and consigned out of the class room are sick in the head, no one has a right to refer to one piece of work as a classic and dismiss the next one, even when numbers tell a different story.

 Those who think differently, I can only recommend them to read Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, the futurologists who rightfully pointed that many people have never learnt to adapt to a fast changing world. And he aptly said that the illiterates of our time will be those who will not learn, unlearn and relearn.

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