On Tuesday 22nd of April, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka announced the shortlist for the 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing in Port Harcourt as part of the UNESCO World Book Capital celebrations.
Unlike last year when four Nigerians made the shortlist, none was part of the five man list this year. Understandably, Nigerian twitter was abuzz with reactions to this development. The one I found most interesting and which I retweeted was one by Alkasim Abdulkadir @alkayy which says, “Nigerian writers have been busy on Facebook and Twitter, reason why they missed the Caine shortlist this year”
But frankly, I’m glad that none of us from Nigeria made the shortlist. And no, it is not bad belle, which is the default reaction from Nigerians whenever one says something like that. If you have read my thoughts on Nigerian publishing, then you will understand why I have this position HERE, HERE and HERE I have put my thoughts on this down in detail.
One of the major problems I see in Nigerian writing is prize-centricity. This is organizing the production of our writing around various prizes. We write to meet submission deadlines for prizes and not periods when sales of books are projected to be great. It is more important to many of us writers in Nigeria to have an xyz prize winner tag attached to our names than making sales of a hundred thousand books. We have reduced the story of success of the African writer to a single one – that of winning literary prizes.
We need to break this mould and multiply the types of successes that are available to African writers to aspire to. Grisham has sold 275Million copies of his books, Rowling 400Million copies, Clancy 100Million Copies and Ludlum 290Million copies. They all have had books published in a minimum of thirty languages. Many of their books have been adapted into critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies. Some of them won the great literary prizes, others didn’t, but they are all regarded as very successful authors.
There are different shades of success as an author internationally and it should not be different when it comes to African writing. In fact, I believe it is more important for us as Africans to begin to publish works that will sell millions of copies, so that we can generate the kind of volumes that will cause us to have an industry that can sustain its practitioners. And that must be the goal – not to create a few superstar African writers who wear a badge of prize affirmation, but to first create a thriving publishing industry which will have the prize winners as only the tip of a very huge iceberg.
As we celebrate Port Harcourt being the World Book Capital for 2014, we must remember that we are yet to have a true publishing industry in Nigeria. We have popular authors whose books are unable to deliver sales of fifty thousand copies, even when those books have won prizes. It is an anomaly, made possible because we haven’t built our own publishing, preferring to outsource the publishing of our brilliant authors to foreign publishers.
We must roll up our sleeves and focus on tackling the challenges to our publishing – distribution, quality assurance in printing, proper editing, varying our stories and focusing on our vast market. We must focus on selling African authors first in African markets, across borders. We must take advantage of technology to reduce the costs of distribution and where we can deliver the content via these platforms. We must collaborate with the arts that have already grown into industries, our music industry and Nollywood, to adapt our work and commercialize for the mass market. We must not forget our history, but we also must not forget that writing is about capturing imagination in letters. Therefore we must look into our present and our future and use them to create writing too.
So Nigeria not making the Caine Prize shortlist this year is really a blessing, to take our eyes away from the prize and enable us focus on building the industry that matters the most.
Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be.
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