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Culture, Reality
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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