Writing genre fiction in South Africa
S.L. Grey (Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz)
The other day at a literary festival event (one of the rare occasions when both halves of S.L. Grey have been trundled out in public in the same room) the panel was asked whether South Africa should have its own genre imprint. The audience was made up of some of South Africa’s very loyal SFFH fans, and we think they expected the answer, ‘Yes, of course, it’s a scandal that there isn’t a dedicated genre imprint in South Africa.’ But we and fellow panellists, Lauren Beukes and Tom Learmont, all agreed that there shouldn’t be. The market in South Africa is simply too small to sustain one.
There’s no particular reason to have a dedicated imprint selling local science fiction, fantasy and horror. There’s still very little original novel-length SFFH coming out of South Africa, although it’s clear from District 9 (an example of South African SFF idiosyncrasy which is reaching its retirement date) and Lauren’s marvellous Moxyland and Zoo City, that there is a potential audience for them. There is a very loyal and fanatical SFFH fanbase in South Africa, which devours whatever SFFH it can lay its hands on, and most of this is British and American. Louis worked in a bookshop for years and remembers the round-the-corridor queues at a Terry Pratchett signing, compared with the embarrassing no-show at a signing by Graham Swift who had just that year won the Booker Prize.
Zoo City and Moxyland were published first in South Africa by Jacana, a publisher known for choosing leftfield novels of interest to them. ‘We publish what we like’ is their tagline, more than a nod to the title of murdered struggle icon Steve Biko’s posthumously collected writings, I Write what I Like. Jacana is not making a great deal of money.
It was barely a decision for us to submit The Mall overseas and bypass South African publishing. We had written a mainstream horror novel which we wanted traditionally published rather than going the self-publishing or online routes. As far as we knew, no general trade publisher in South Africa had published a South African horror novel before and we thought very briefly about the incredulous responses we would get from local publishers, before submitting it to Corvus. We would be lucky to sell a thousand copies in South Africa, we thought, not a compelling prospect for an industry that makes most of its money on sport, current affairs, motivational and cookery books. Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of Penguin South Africa who distribute The Mall in South Africa, The Mall has had wonderfully enthusiastic coverage on South African blogs, and a few South African newspaper reviews: not bad for a debut horror novel and one of the advantages of this small market which is top-heavy on writers and reviewers but a little short on readership. Understandably, most South African media’s not quite sure whether space on a South African horror novel will interest its audience.
Penguin South Africa has also been doing a wonderful job promoting Sarah’s other alter ego, Lily Herne (with her daughter Savannah Lotz), whose Deadlands young-adult zombie series they publish. They’ve been getting her decent mainstream media coverage and great exposure in stores, complete with dump bins and posters. Their willingness to push genre fiction into the press and the shop windows is admirable. The Deadlands experience shows that certain South African publishers like Penguin South Africa are actively looking for a commercial genre success and are willing to put some money into it. But it certainly is not enough to warrant an entire imprint. Even better that Deadlands is a lead title on a general list, rather than being stuck in a SFFH ghetto where only dedicated fans will look.
Penguin SA also publishes Sarah’s other work, her crime novels, and this is where South Africa certainly has a burgeoning industry. Crime fiction has grown incredibly in the past decade, with writers like Margie Orford, Mike Nicol, Roger Smith and Jassy Mackenzie enjoying international publication. Crime novels by Andrew Brown and Sifiso Mzobe have won the Sunday Times Award, the country’s major literary award, in recent years. Umuzi, one of the country’s foremost literary imprints, part of the Random House Struik stable, publishes Nicol and Mackenzie among other crime writers when they have not considered commercial SFFH. It’s an interesting and open question: what is the difference between crime and SFFH in South Africa? Why is crime readily published by South African houses and not SFFH? The same could be asked about women’s commercial fiction, another genre struggling gamely for a foothold in South African publishing.
The answer lies, to a great extent, in the subject matter. South African crime fiction is set squarely in South Africa and reflects and transforms South African realities in fiction’s magical, cathartic and powerful way. A lot of the SFFH produced in South Africa is quite generic, set in fantasy neverlands or in the States or steeped in an amalgam of already-written locales and tropes. While some of this work still has great merit, it is South Africanness – a broad and massively disparate range of experiences – that often sets the best, most notable, of our writing apart.
South African writers still suffer from ‘cultural cringe’, the idea – derived from the time when we were the pariahs of the world, caught in the past and in cultural isolation by that bizarre retrograde apartheid government – that if it’s South African, it’s not good enough, it embarrassingly falls short of international standards, it’s not world class. So many young writers, who start out as fans of SFFH from the States and Britain, think that to write well is to emulate the styles of those international writers they admire. Many South African readers themselves still deliberately avoid South African novels because they preconceive them as heavy, guilt-ridden and boringly political, and prefer to escape into realities that aren’t so close to home. This prejudice misses the fact that so much South African writing, past, current, ‘genre’ or ‘literary’, is inventive, challenging and entertaining. It’s all an awful internal PR job concocted out of cultural cringe and bad choices for school setworks. It doesn’t help that South African fiction, be it literary, genre or mainstream, is so often lumped together and relegated to its own ‘SA Fiction’ ghetto in many of our local chain book stores. It’s as if booksellers are sending the message that South African fiction isn’t worthy of rubbing shoulders with say, Steig Larsson, Stephen King or David Mitchell, or that it needs remedial attention to compete.
Any writer wants to be published as widely as possible, and aspirant writers often think they have no chance of being published in the rest of the world if they write about South Africa. The international success of Zoo City and the interest in The Mall reminds us, as the canon of South Africa’s literary laureates has already proven, that the opposite is true: that our exotic, unique South African setting can make our writing stand out from the crowd. Then we need to back up that slight competitive edge with top-quality writing. This is what gets South African crime writers on international shelves, and we hope it encourages South African SFFH writers to write what they like, not what they think they should write.