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Books Column: Advice to a budding African short story writer

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Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams urges young writers seeking to make their mark to re-rediscover the ordinary.

One of the most important awards for African writing is the Caine Prize, given each year for a short story. It has just gained a new sponsor, which should secure its £10,000 (about R194,000) cheque to African literary fortune-hunters for many years to come. This is to be welcomed: we thank the AKO Foundation for its support of African letters.

Each January, the journal that I publish, The Johannesburg Review of Books, dutifully submits the qualifying stories that appeared in its issues for the prize (the Caine imposes a minimum of 3,000 words for entered stories, a frankly bewildering rule which succeeds in preventing some of Africa’s best work from ever reaching its judges’ eyes). We publish, in my opinion, very good fiction, but such is the quality of writing to be found along Africa’s length and breadth, not to mention in its diaspora, that we haven’t had a sniff at the shortlist yet.

That’s not a problem – it’s how awards work: occasionally you get a sniff, but mostly you don’t. I myself ran two of South Africa’s biggest literary prizes for several years, so have an acute appreciation for how entries filter through the system, until only those with the least impurities are left for consideration.

In the scramble to get our submissions in order for this year’s prize, I was minded of a pattern I’ve noticed in the many short stories that wing their way to The JRB, only to fall short of their goal of being published, like birds hitting a pane of clear glass mid-flight (our imaginary stoep is littered with their poor, twitching bodies). Namely, there’s a trend among budding African writers of including episodes of sensational violence in their stories: murders, rapes, beatings, suicides, and so on. It makes for a rather grim experience, wading through all the gore that sloshes against our submissions inbox, week in and week out.

The last thing that you want to be, as a short story writer, is on trend: it’s the stories that buck trends that catch editors’ eyes and get published. This is not to say that, at The JRB, we don’t accept stories with violence in them: if they’re especially well-crafted, or if they approach violence in an unexpected way, or arrive at it via an unexpected path, we give them a second look. Sometimes we even publish them: a few of the stories we just sent to Caine Prize’s office in London have particularly gruesome moments. But I confess to stifling a yawn when I come across yet another work of fiction whose promise falls apart with the appearance of a gun, a knife, or a fist.

The cure for the epidemic of carnage that currently prevails in the literary imagination of Africa’s rising generation is evident, and has been put forward before, by the great author and intellectual Njabulo Ndebele. In his essay, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary – required reading, as are his own short stories – Ndebele urges writers to search for solutions to their fictional puzzles beyond sensational incidents of violence. The context was different when he wrote this advice, of course – he was addressing writers who were grappling with one of the most violent regimes the world has ever seen – but the caveat remains. The quieter the elements in your story, the better chance you have at arriving at a moment that rings its human truth in our ears long after we’ve read the last word.

Violence in fiction is not as wrenching as violence in real life. It’s time to re-rediscover the ordinary. Writers, grasp a subtler knife for the filleting of our emotions, and you might find yourself at the edge of your own seat – with your fellow shortlistees, that is – at the main table the night the annual Caine Prize winner is announced. ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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