By Leon de Kock
“Now, 10 years after JM Coetzee left the country … South African literature in English does not matter very much any more.”
This sweeping – and to many, potentially devastating – comment, was uttered just a few weeks ago by veteran UCT-based critic Ian Glenn during his public spat with Imraan Coovadia.
In the context of his intra-UCT wrangle with Coovadia, Glenn’s judgement serves to diminish Coovadia’s importance as a South African author, but in a more general sense the statement deserves wider consideration.
Is it true that South African literature doesn’t matter “very much any more”?
A few years ago, I published an academic article under the title, Does South African Literature Still Exist? In that piece, I asked whether the anti-apartheid imperative of “landlocked”, special-case struggle literature had not fatally overdetermined what we used to call “SA Lit”.
Not only did the symbolic and legislative conditions for such a literature disappear after 1990 (though not the material ones), but the world also became “post-national”. It is a globalising world in which success as a writer increasingly demands readership – and content – beyond determinate borders.
Simply put, “national” struggles such as apartheid – and national “exceptionalism” – no longer capture the world’s attention. As a writer, you now need to speak to larger issues, breaching terrestrial boundaries.
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