Wednesday 5 June 2013

John Sutherland, Judge 2013; columnist and Lord Northcliffe Emeritus Professor at UCL

Why is the standard pop music track around three minutes? Because, on the old wind-up gramophone that was as long as the steel spring could keep the disc revolving at 78rpm.

Why do films have musical ‘soundtracks’ and theatrical plays don’t? Because silent films (i.e. those before 1925) had either little orchestras, or pianists. It’s another ‘cultural inertia’ which just, somehow, hung about long after its time had gone.

Why do people dress up, and behave more ‘correctly’ at the theatre than the cinema? Because, for 200 years, theatres operated under ‘royal’ licence.

My point---one I believe in fervently---is that material circumstances condition art.

Which leads to the question I’d pose here. Why are African writers so damned good at short stories? Short, where narrative is concerned, is not easy: it requires more art.

Having just read 100 entries (the bulk of them short stories) for this year’s Caine Prize I’ve been struck by this almost universal mastery (is there a word ‘mistressy’---there should be) of the short form.

Two things particularly constitute that mastery. One is the ability to grab the reader from the first sentence. I’ll give one example, from Elnathan John’s Bayan Layi:

The boys who sleep under the Kuka tree in Bayan Layi like to boast about the people they have killed.

Twenty-five words, and the hook is in the jaw. I would defy anyone not to read on.

There’s no room here to go into the intricate techniques of short narrative. But the other thing which strikes me (and, to put my cards on the table, I come from a different literary tradition) is the control of ‘voice’. One hears, rather than reads. It’s a powerful---at times overwhelming---effect. The ears ring.

Returning to my little riff on ‘material circumstances create art’ there seem to me to be two factors at work here. African writing (it’s a strength) still has roots firmly in oral traditions. If you tell a story orally, you can’t go on too long---it’s cut to the chase from those first 25 words. The other factor is that Africa, until recently, has never had the publishing infrastructure that Europe has built up over 500 years. No HarperCollins, no Viking-Penguin . There is, I think, something uneasy-making that every major work of Chinua Achebe was given the world by courtesy of a British or American publishing house. Colonialism of the imprint. Short stories can slip past that barrier.

Having thought about this year’s Caine entries (would, incidentally, there were ten ‘first prizes’) two things give me pause for thought. Large African states do now have their own publishing industries. And a surprising number of entries for this year’s Caine are from graduates (in some cases instructors) in the thriving ‘creative writing’ classes in the US / UK. 

These two factors will, I think, bring new creative pressures onto African fiction.  How that works out is for the judges in the 2023 Caine Prize to report on. 

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