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Literary critics are becoming comical

By Lucas Wafula | November 8th 2015
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Author

I strain nowadays to read the so-called literary criticism by self-glorified critics. Their criticism — more of personal attacks — is puzzling! They have perfected the art of slamming everyone involved in the creation of books while claiming competent knowledge of all texts.

They insult everyone they address and in return, direct their targets to observe decorum in their responses.

They declare that it is not in their place to encourage Kenyan writers and one wonders why anyone should consider himself or herself a surgeon, if they always open up a person for a procedure and thereafter refuse to close them up!

Surely, considering yourself the head and the rest of the parts of the body as transport for the head is an insult.

T.S. Eliot once said that “the end of criticism is the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.”

The evaluation, interpretation and explanation of a text must be geared towards, facilitating the writer to achieve the merits while allowing the same writer to overcome the flaws if any.

The reason for this is that the ultimate objective of any work of literature or art is to attract  readers with its excellence while delighting them aesthetically.

Criticism, therefore, helps the author to establish whether he or she has been able to create distinctive values in his work or not. Criticism should not be reduced to fault-finding — it should help the writers achieve excellence.

Professor Evan Mwangi rightly says ours is a young literary nation that needs a good foundation upon which we can build our canon. The question is, will we establish the Kenyan canon by declaring everyone involved in literary matters stupid or utterly unable to produce anything with literary value? Or, declare that their work never existed! Well, I am not about to call anyone a dunderhead but in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s words, I will not praise my neighbour’s light and say how wonderful it is when I can make my own brighter.

Yet, Ngugi is not the owner of all good ideas but he had a point when he commented on this kind of view.

While in Kenya to celebrate the golden jubilee of Weep Not, Child, Ngugi, he reminded his audience about Njonjo and Gashamba — a young man from Nyeri who had tried to make an aeroplane.

Instead of seeing, nurturing and tapping the potential in Gashamba, the then Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, one of the most educated Kenyans then, trashed this young man just as much as he praised the inventions from the West.

This is what “critics” like professor Mwangi are doing when they declare Kenyan writing is not just dead but that it never existed. One cannot help but feel the sense of “us” and “them” in the author-critic discourse that we encounter today.

Yet the critic and the author should be working together. Their pursuits are not so different!

They simply offer dissimilar ways of expressing and playing with ideas about the different circumstances we grapple with.

A few good critics have helped grow literature in Kenya. Apart from commenting on texts, they make recommendations for improvement. Theirs is not just a simple commentary on a text but an active engagement with it. To them criticism is integral to the way in which the text works.

May be it is about time we talked about validation.

A few discussants have advanced the argument that you cannot understand spirits if you are not of or are, a spirit.

They have wondered if the critics have ever been in dark places seeking the ever-elusive muse so as to write what someone else might review and say, this is the acme of writing.

Instead of hurling insults, a literary critic should be determining the presence or absence of artistic value in the text under their microscope — but they should not stop there and should give recommendations for improvement.

The critic’s recommendations should in turn help the writer to better the work, and attract and delight the readers. Really, criticism is not hating, but some critics have insisted that their job is not to appease anyone. Without doubt, no one expects them to, just as we do not expect their vitriol.

Commonsense, which is a quality any critic should have, is really lacking amongst our critics.

Clear thinking can only come about if the critic divorces him or herself from all the prejudices they may have against the work, publishing house and/ or the author.

The critic should not approach the work with a formed opinion. Instead, he or she should interpret literary values based on his or her knowledge and experience without an aggressive and unreasonable belief or prejudice.

This is what will enable one to evaluate the excellence or shortcomings of literary works in an efficient objective way.

As I pointed out earlier, the critic and the author are not so different save for their sometimes, disparate views.

Clearly, one cannot have a literary view of a text without being part of, in it or by the authorship.

For a critic to understand an author’s works, he or she must know the fact that he or she needs to put himself in the place of a writer so that he can appraise the work from the viewpoint of a writer as well.

I expect this of a credible critic and I have to say most of them have failed in this, and their carping tastes have not been helpful. Some critics are unrepentant bullies.

Every arena has a seat for a critic, for even the writer is his or her own critic. However, constructive criticism is what will grow Kenya’s creative works.

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