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Lewis Nkosi

Writer’s Block

by Vuyo Seripe / 28.09.2010

Boringly the biggest bestseller is still the Bible. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was a runaway bestseller with 1.5 million copies sold by 1933. Neither Mein Kampf – “My Struggle” – nor the Bible are the best of reads! Both are a tad judgemental.

In order to spread his vile “gospel”, Hitler made sure every newly wed German couple got the book. Every Nazi was expected to own a copy. Signalling the totalitarian roots of mass marketing. I’ve been thinking about oppression (Hitler) and belief (the Bible) ever since hearing that Lewis Nkosi died (on September 5th). A day before at the Mail&Guardian Literature Festival, his wife stood up and asked for donations from the audience. Nkosi was in a critical state. Cameras clicked away as she begged in her French accent for help. I won’t lie – I felt little genuine sympathy – but I began to care when I read that in recent years he’d only received R145 in royalties. A single insulting cheque.

Lewis Nkosi wrote famously for Drum Magazine back when it mattered. He wrote alongside Henry (Mr. Drum) Nxumalo, Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, William Bloke Modisane, Arthur Maimane, and Casey Motsisi. Vital South African writers all with a great drive and verve to their work. Proving the system hadn’t crushed their spirits. Proving the best resistance is to live it up.

Nkosi had lifelong trouble with publishers. Struggling to get paid what he was owed. He faced enormous challenges due to the Suppression of Communism Act. It took immense faith in his own talent to keep going. For what? A R145! Perhaps fellow writer, Nat Nakasa did himself a favour by jumping off that high rise building in New York in 1965.

One of the first short stories I ever read was by Casey Motsisi, Lewis’ contemporary. Nkosi never grabbed my attention though, in the way Nat Nakasa did. I never knew who he was. I loved reading but grew into other kinds of writing – not so much African lit. My mom read Daniel Steel, Stephen King and a lot of socialist literature. When I was about fifteen, I fell in love with Bessie Head. Then Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Bukowski, Kafka, Victor Cohen, Jack Kerouac. I don’t know… all sorts of books. I was drawn to them because they were “big names”.

“Fame and reputation is a question of the snowball effect,” says Andrew Miller, editor, and ghost writer for CEOs. “Get the media and throw a cocktail party and opportunities emerge!” A week ago, Nkosi’s death was the talk of the town. Now Khanyi Mbau’s back on the front page. I’m still mad about that cheque!

The fight over copyright and royalties is intensifying. “We are in the beginning stages of one of the biggest changes in communication in history – so the traditional ‘book’ is being redefined,” Miller tells me. “The printed book no longer dominates as a knowledge source. And it never will again.”

If nobody knows about your writing – it’s impossible to make a living as a writer. Simple as that. Even students have a better lifestyle than the average writer. Most writers have to juggle writing with full time jobs in PR, and copywriting, and all sorts of other shit.

But many big writers were broke and unknown well into their forties and fifties: Vonnegut, Auster, Bukowski. They wrote for decades (some died) long before they really “made it”. Nkosi was just another victim of the writer’s curse of low local literacy levels and lacklustre literary culture. Bloody talented but broke. The challenges in South Africa are enormous – as they are across the world.

Raw street talent inspired Miller to co-found Ge’ko Publishing in 2004 for urban voices in the hip hop scene that needed to be heard.
“Of course we’ve shut the whole thing down now,” Miller tells me. “We had the best intentions but we realized after a few years that you can’t publish effectively ‘on the side’. You need to be focused to make the whole thing work – if you’re not driving publicity all the time you’re not going to sell enough books to keep going.”

Ge’ko shut down. South Africa, are we reading? Lounging around Excusive Books reading the paper not the books on the shelf. We are reading. I read books online, blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook notes, mags. I read all day.

But no matter how good your book is, your success will be measured in sales. It’s hard just to get published. And even when you’re published, you’re still broke as fuck because enough people aren’t buying enough books. What’s JK Rowling’s secret? Magic and puberty?
“If the publisher doesn’t think it can sell a lot of copies the book is doomed to a niche market,” Miller says. “And too many writers submit half cooked manuscripts that are really little more than hopeful ideas.”

Miller refers to Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan): “he talks about ‘herding’ – the fact that opinions from critics tend to be self reinforcing – with very few critics willing to break free from the herd.”

Critical reception needs a shake up. Something different and fresh, appealing, authentic and unique might be what creates the Zukiswa Wanners and Kopano Matlwas of the world – black, urban voices addressing South African issues that are close to home. At the same time, there’s a world of unrecognized writers outside the industry.

Publishers are hustling just like writers in a tough local market. The publishing industry is fading. Ways to get published in print are dying out. Writers are pouring water in a desert. That Nkosi cheque haunts me. It’s pointless. Right? Miller agrees to disagree. “Books matter. Ideas matter. Writing matters. Writers need to be careful, however, of the idea that once they’ve published a book they can write full time and earn their money off book sales. That very seldom happens.”

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RESPONSES (35)
  1. Lizzy says:

    great article, interesting topic. it is sadly true that being smart and talented doesnt equate to being rich or even solvent…

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  2. Burp. says:

    Amazing stuff, but why’d you have to insult the Bible?? Completely unnecessary and pointless.

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  3. Bob says:

    Why not? It’s a kak read.
    Unlike this article which I enjoyed reading but is pretty depressing to think about.

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  4. Tellin ya says:

    I wouldn’t say thats an out right insult of the Bible. I’m sure a Christian would agree that they find the Qur’an boring? Doesn’t mean it’s an insult – it’s just opinion.

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  5. Burp. says:

    Only the fool believes there is no God.
    When read with a pure heart and the bible is a great read.

    It is still the best seller because even though it was written ages ago, the advice, teachings and basic principals it contains, is still applicable today.

    The only reason anyone would say that the bible is boring, is either because they do not understand any of its teachings or because they do not wish to apply the advice given. All who apply the basic biblical principals in their daily lives and ponders over its magnificent advice, warnings and teachings, can testify that it not not a boring read, but a universal masterpiece that is way ahead of its time..

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  6. Jean Mutean says:

    i am not a christian or a muslim or an athiest or anything but burp is right. the bible warned people about blood diseases (AIDS) ages and ages before it was discovered. the bible also provided prophesies about how bad things will get and how ppl will be (money hungry, untrustworthy, disloyal, greedy ect) and thats exacely what is happening right now…
    none of you can dis agree with that…
    thank u for your wholesome comment burp.
    i have much respect for ppl who say what they belief instead of just badmouthing others-(BOB!!)

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  7. Rook says:

    ag kak man the bible is a boring read. I’ve started it repeatedly and never been able to finish. All those weird names and strange plot twists, the double standards, the misogyny and homophobia. It’s hardly an enlightened text. The whole concept of a jealous God. Yeesh.

    And besides this whole article is about the struggle of contemporary literacy and culture. And you all got stuck on the first sentence. Who gets paid for all the bible sales? Because that’s a profitable publishing business…

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  8. Kay says:

    How the hell did this turn into a religious debate???? Stupid dogmatic pompous religious wallies always get on their high horse over any unfavourable opinion directed at their faith! “Boringly the biggest bestseller is still the Bible.” The fact that it’s still the biggest best seller is boring, if you gonna take offence at least know what for! “Neither Mein Kampf – “My Struggle” – nor the Bible are the best of reads! Both are a tad judgemental.” Give the guy credit…at least he lasted long enough through it to formulate a critical opinion and comparison of it, I couldn’t get past Genesis….zzzzzzzzz!!!!
    Depressing article, but the struggling artist is no new notion, R145 struggle?? Scary stuff!
    Thanks for letting us know Vuyo!!!

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  9. Anonymous says:

    If you read the Bible as a history lesson you will enjoy it, unbelievable enlightening. Yes writers have it tougher and ebooks are not helping any. xxxxxxxxx oh yes I am a Jew xxxxxxxxx

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  10. Bob says:

    As a history lesson?!
    Are you out of your fucking mind?
    The Bible shows just how stupid primitive people were and serves as an example of how far we’ve come as a species. It’s an immoral, mostly fictional book.
    How are people still this fucking stupid?

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  11. Bob says:

    And the point has been missed here.
    God fucking damn it.
    Sorry for having a hand in derailing what is a very good article that has fuck all to do with religion.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Bobbbyboy you are showing your ignorance how do we as a species differ from Soddom and Gammorah and I promise it existed.

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  13. Doctor L. says:

    Dope article, Vuyo.

    I have to disagree on Lewis Nkosi’s (R.I.P) penmanship, though. Dude was a weak writer.

    Small presses and self-publishing are also an option. With the internet you can easily market and sell your books yourself. And even then, with something going, publishing houses would feel less wary to pick you up.

    Peep Aryan Kaganof

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  14. Kay says:

    Hold everything, stop the presses!!!!!! Anonymous promises Soddom and Gammorah existed!!!! There is your reason for converting your well constructed opinions all you non-believers!!!! Phahahahaha…if you gonna try defend your opinion, try using an intellectual angle next time and while you’re at it throw in some fact with your fable….whose ignorant?
    @ Doctor L…are small presses and self-publishing really a viable option? Does that not just fall into the same old “you need money to make money” scenario, even online marketing, done well, is quite costly! And then, as stated in the article, writers are forced to juggle writing with a full-time job! Why? Writing doesn’t pay! And it bloody well should!!!

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  15. Bob says:

    My ignorance?
    Okay, I chuckled at the irony.
    Good one.

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  16. Anonymous says:

    I truly can’t wait for the coming of the Lord,
    Then every knee will bow & every tongue will confess
    and the greatest treasure will remain for those who gladly choose Him now.

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  17. Max says:

    the future on publishing lies in full online publication, then limited Print on Demand runs with tons of extras thrown in – people just dont want to pay for books anymore. sad.

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  18. muerte says:

    ‘the coming of the Lord’…yeah it’ll be a doozy. we’ll need a new noah to build a cumboat so we can ride the gleaming silken waves.

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  19. Anonymous says:

    @ muerte,
    coming not cUmming you turd. You’re comment is worth less than anything I can think of. please Fuck off.

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  20. vuyo seripe says:

    okay Kids, Play nice!

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  21. muerte says:

    less than…jam that’s been in someone’s mouth? less than a program to last year’s July? less than a faith that’s reactive and exclusive and chiding?

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  22. Tellin ya says:

    I find that often christians lack the ability to talk on your level, they rather just spew out some sort of sales pitch which was fed to them since birth. Im looking at you Burp. As I said – IT ALL COMES DOWN TO OPINION!

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  23. Chucky says:

    These comments are why intelligent and talented writers struggle. We don’t want stories. We want The Story, handed down in a book written by The Lord God Almighty. While the mouth-breathers argue over whether God’s manuscript was printed in Helvetica or Arial, the modern prophets continue howling into the wilderness. RIP Lewis. You were a good bloke, a phenomenal drinker and a man with real talent. If there is a God, I hope she is telling you how much she enjoyed your writing. If there isn’t, I hope the worms are feasting on you as the bookworms should have. Hamba kahle.

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  24. Bob says:

    Yo, Anon, hate to break it to you, but cum and come are the same thing, yes, come also has another meaning, but words are cool like that.

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  25. If there is a god, let him strike me dead now! says:

    Hmm, still here…

    Come on god, I dare you….

    Double dare?

    Obviously not listening….

    What are these delusional god freaks doing on the internet? I didn’t realise that anyone that believed in that fairy tale could actually read…

    Here’s a brilliant George Carlin takedown of religion
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xanak_george-carlin-on-religion_sport

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  26. @Burp says:

    Only the fool believes…….

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  27. Andy says:

    thou shalt not test the lord your god

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  28. Suzahn says:

    What is the point in arguing?
    If you do not grasp the truths in the Word of God, you must be quite daft, because Gods word is truly simple to read, understand and obey.
    In a couple of weeks, this article will be old news and forgotten. It would not have made a difference to anyone who read it, not having changed the way people conduct themselves, not having changed the way people treat each other.
    The Bible might be old, but its definitely not outdated.
    The people who read it with open hearts, knows what a difference its teachings has made in their lives, and the way they treat others is the best testimony of how majestic Yahweh, our God really is.

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  29. If there is a god, let him strike me dead now! says:

    Still here….is that called a god-fail?

    Oh shit, fuck, my head hurts….ahhhhhh, I’m dying!!!

    Oh, nevermind. Ice-cream headache, the milk in my cereal is really cold….

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  30. Roger Young says:

    @Suzahn + Anonz

    What is the point in argueing indeed. You either believe or you don’t. Coming onto an article that a tribute to someone recently deceased and complaining about semantics and belief systems is just insulting, short sighted and exactly why Christians have a bad name.

    Religion is like a penis. It’s fine to have one and it’s good to be proud of it but don’t wave it around in public and don’t try shove it down my throat.

    Hamba Kahle Lewis Nkosi

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  31. Max says:

    really, how did this turn into a religious debate? there is a much more pressing issue here – the future of writers and publishing

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  32. Anonymous says:

    @ Roger Young
    And if someone said something offensive to the penis you are so proud of, would you not defend it, regardless of the reason it was insulted, or the “deeper meaning” of the insult?

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  33. Bob says:

    God damn it people are fucking stupid.
    RELIGION IS NOT THE FUCKING ISSUE!!!

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  34. Roger Young says:

    I don’t need to defend my penis. It can stand up for itself.

    Besides no one offended your religion. Learn to read, fucking nazi bible bashing asshole. You see there, that was an insult. Now, can you fuck off and stop being disrespectful to the dead. Have some humanity. And stop protesting so much, it really does have the opposite effect that you are intending.

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  35. Andy says:

    Rog, Now that just makes you look cheap.
    Try again.

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