Literary critic and academic Dr Jerome Terpase Dooga of the Department of English, University of Jos in this interview with Sunday Trust opens up on Nigerian literature, social media and criticism. Excerpts:
Considering that your paper presented at the last Association of Nigeria Authors' convention in Uyo focused on literature and the social media, would you say that social media serves a positive or negative role in literature?
Right now, I would say it is having more of a negative influence although it has the potential to have a huge positive influence on literature. The negative influence is not only due to social media but social media only inherited something that began before it. It began before the advent of the personal computer and other devices that made text creation very easy. Because of that, everyone who had access to a device to create text became instantly a writer as it were. So the tenets of writing literature, which include the rigours and care to use the medium well, which medium is language, whether you are writing online or writing traditionally, language is the medium and people, traditionally, who are writers, who pay particular attention to how language is deployed, with social media, people [now] shoot from the hip. They do not take time to reflect on what they are saying, they do not take time to look at their grammar, their punctuation and even the other things that make literature literature. What they are producing is presenting very poor examples to young readers, poor examples to people who would learn to use English through literature because literature is a means by which people learn how to speak and write good English. Social media is compounding the problem which exists in other media; it's compounding the problem which we see in many newspapers, which we hear often on the radio.
And yet we have a new generation of writers bouncing off the internet and publishing books. What do you make of this development?
First of all, let me say that the internet as a medium, and social network especially, has the potential to propagate writing beyond the confines of traditional means. Social media have the ability to make thousands or millions of people aware that you have produced something. So as far as publicity and awareness are concerned, social media are a very viable tools for literature, especially for young writers, who otherwise will have difficulty publicising their works through the traditional publishers and so on. Also the idea of literature, if you went back to olden times, was for performance and presentations before aristocrats where the writers and artistes received instant feedback and as time went by, that became very difficult. But with social media, the writer and his audience can be in touch and be able to receive, perhaps not instant feedback, but regular feedback [from readers] to see just how they are feeling about what they are reading.
So how would you assess the quality of literature of this generation?
That is where I have my challenges and doubts and worries. True, we have budding talents in the sense that we have young people coming up who have stories to tell. All generations have had stories to tell. In pre-literate times, these stories are framed as oral tales and eventually lost agency. They were no longer associated with individuals, but individuals began these tales, framed them in the way they became part of the lore of oral literature. Now that we have the kind of literature that exists, the problem is that our young writers in Cyberia especially are focusing on the content and forgetting the means of packaging the content, forgetting the form. Recall during the ANA Prizes, the report by the judges said many people submitted what they described as 'Trivial Literature' and they explained that they were full of typos, grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors so that as you wanted to access the content, the story itself, your senses were assaulted by all of these things and therefore you could not concentrate on the story. It's like a woman cooking meat that is full of salt or over-peppered, generally badly cooked. The fact that there is meat inside would not make you continue eating by saying, Ok, let me forget about the seasoning and concentrate on the meat. It is the same thing with writing.
Unfortunately, young writers in Cyberia are not aware of this, partly because they are poorly schooled or never schooled in the art of writing in the first place. They are opportunists who have access to the keyboard and just start creating text, without knowing that text creation goes through a process before becoming literature.
But don't you feel that the leaning towards online publication is as a result of the obvious dearth of publishing houses?
In a way, yes. Nigeria has suffered greatly over the past 10-20 years in terms of scarcity of reputable, affordable print publishing. Where publishers exist, and they are very few, they are unaffordable because of the cost of print paper. So, yes, the leaning towards electronic publishing is because of this problem. However, electronic publishing is in itself not an uploading of poorly created text. In Europe, it is also becoming the norm. Major publishing houses such as Blackwell, Longman, Penguin, Oxford, Cambridge, all of these publishing houses have very elaborate online publishing suites, but it goes through the same process so that when it is considered publishable, it is the electronic version that is released. Our own writers and publishers must follow that line, they shouldn't feel that because you can just click and have it available to the readers, when you dream and your dream doesn't follow a logical pattern, you just scribble and click to publish.
Generally, you are saying social media has more of a negative impact on literature?
Yes, especially in terms of text production. In terms of publicity we are yet to fully harness the potential of social networks. It's a potential money spinner. We are also yet to fully get the dividends from drawing our readership so that we are in constant discourse with them. This is something writers will learn over time. Right now you see writers attacking their audience because they made comments on their writings that appear uncomplimentary. But the more comments people make, complimentary or otherwise, the larger your profile as a writer. Because if you do not create tension, create conflict there can't be a resolution and therefore that is not good literature. So if you write a story with everybody holding the same opinion, then it becomes trivial literature. So even in respect to interacting with the readership and getting feedback in other to improve our writing, which may form the basis of our future writing, our writers are yet to get there.
But using the internet and social media as a platform of our publishing, we are taking short cuts and they will boomerang. They will come back to haunt us, so what is the point of it?
But inevitably, these things are already here, the internet, the internet generation of writers, so how do we harness it and make it work for us?
I am aware that in other parts of the world there are publishing organisations that have proper structures set up where you have copy editors, reviewers, proofreaders and subject matter specialists in different fields. I am not sure whether publishing houses in Nigeria are set up as properly as that. If they are not, then this is the time for units to be set up, for individuals to consider channelling their works when they want to publish. People like myself are just individuals who are very busy, I edit books but at the moment I may not put myself up for large scale works but I am sure it is possible to have avenues where young writers can have their works cooled down from their own pen and reflectively examined. It is a shame where somebody has a wonderful story and yet it is not received wonderfully because it was poorly produced, poorly written.
We seem to have a lot of writers in this country. Where are all the stories coming from?
Nigeria is a cesspool of contradictions. Nigeria is a breeding ground for endless stories. We are only touching the tip of the iceberg with respect to stories we can weave about our experiences as a people, our contemporaneous realities and our reflection of our histories; whether recent history or distant history. And that is what literature is about, like Chinua Achebe said, literature is knowing where the rain began to beat us so we know where we begin to dry. There is so much that we can confront and in fact, although writers are writing, many are confining themselves to very few areas they can talk about; subjects of love, of disappointment, witchcraft, all those narrow subjects. There are many areas we can confront and writers are the only ones with the courage to confront these issues. Historians don't have as much courage as writers have. The actual histories of a people are contained in their literature. There should be writers who should, beyond a few poetic lines, investigate and tell us why our country is in the kind of crisis that we are in, the kind of insecurity that we experience. We have been living as diverse peoples for years and didn't have this kind of problem, so where is it coming from? We need to confront subject matters like this. Alpha Emeka's work, The Carnival, although fictional, almost played out in one part of this country. A story that said some military people needed to take power and in order to do that they needed to destabilize civilian lives and use that as an excuse and so they brought in arms, paid people to kill people and make it look as if it's a particular group of people that was behind it. And when I saw these things happening, and because I had read it in a book years before, I wonder if it is the particular people [being blamed] who are behind it.
In relation to this, Achebe wrote his book Man of the People in which he predicted a military coup and not long after, the coup happened and we've had several instances like this. Are you saying writers are soothsayers of sorts?
The writer, because of his reflective solitude, possesses sanity that is otherwise missing in the community where he resides; therefore he is able to see things others miss although it is glaring. In that sense, yes, he is a kind of soothsayer.
So what does it take, since there are a multitude of people claiming to be writers, for one to qualify as a writer?
Writing like other kinds of endeavours must be graded in terms of type and quality. In type, some people are just interested in generally entertaining people. It is not wrong to do so. Some are interested in addressing deep issues and don't have commercial gains as their main concern because when you write on complex issues not many people are willing to buy. The generality of readership prefer to buy things that amuse and entertain them. So if you just want to make money, then you write on a very light-hearted matter. Writers have their different dispositions and their dispositions will frame the kind of writings they focus on. So, yes you qualify as a writer provided that you use the language you have chosen to write in, effectively and skilfully. Nonsensical writing is not nonsensical by virtue of its content because you can write on filth, see Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is all about filth. It's supposed to be symbolic but it's disgusting but we appreciate that work not so much in terms of its content, which is nonsensical, but in terms of its form, which is excellent.
One sector that is crucial to the writing profession is criticism and we seem to be having a dearth of that. And you are a critic. So what is the problem?
I will tell you why. There are basically two reasons, maybe there may be more. I remember when I began to do critical writing. In those days, if a writer published a book, they would send it for critical review and the review would not be to patronise the writer, to sing praises about the book and if you got a reward for writing the critical appraisal it was not on account of the slant of the writing. All of these seem to be changing. Many people pay for complimentary reviews and many newspapers, including reputable newspapers, accept to do so, to sing praises and avoid critical issues in the book. Because more people are interested in making a living than in making an honest name, that has reduced the number of reviewers. More important and in all honesty, fewer and fewer people are taking criticism seriously even in our institutions of learning. Fewer people are taking this as something they want to engage in. See how many books of all genres have been produced in 2012 alone. How much of it has been heard of and why has it not been heard? Because people have not been talking about it. And why are people not talking about it? Because they are shy , they don't want to say something critical and become the enemy of the author. The criticism shouldn't be looked at as an attack on the author but as a tribute, even if you say the person wrote nonsense. So for these reasons, people who are critical observers are in the decline.
So the few that are left, to what extent do we trust them?
Let me tell you what someone said about Soyinka during the second term of Obasanjo. When Soyinka made a comment opposing the third term bid, Obasanjo and his apologists said that Soyinka should shut up, that he was only someone who wrote plays for people's entertainment and is therefore not someone with the pedigree to comment on our political life. What I am trying to say is, if people don't like what you say, they will try to discredit you and trivialise what you say. But like Soyinka, although these comments were widely circulated in national newspapers, his track record was what validated his credibility. In the same vein, the few critics left, how you know to trust them is to consider their pattern and see if they have been consistent in their approach to issues and criticisms, then you know how to place them.