Abidjan — In Ivory Coast, music is forever a popular pastime, but these days books often get neglected. Yehni Djidji analyzes the causes of literary apathy and proposes ways to wake up Ivorian readers.
A published writer walks down the street, and is less likely to attract crowds of hysterical fans than a musician who gets regular air time on the radio. No, this isn't a joke. At one of the rare meetings trying to liven up the literary community here, a discussion among the handful of book enthusiasts in attendance considered the reasons behind this reality. It's also what led them to ask the following question: Why can't literary events in Ivory Coast generate as much enthusiasm as musical ones?
But a more strategic question might be this: How to boost attendance at literary events using the music industry as a model?
To answer this, it's important to identify what makes the music industry so successful - even if not in terms of artistic quality, then at least the strength of its audience.
Listening is relatively easy. Sound reaches the ear, able to be heard without too much concerted effort. As the saying goes, music soothes the soul, right? Reading requires more effort from its audience. Readers have to decipher words, comprehend their meaning, bring them to life with their imagination. So that's a first victory for sound over sight.
Then there's the fact that musicians enjoy a wide array of broadcast tools to promote upcoming events. Performance dates are relayed via TV, radio, in the press, online and, better yet, in nightclubs, bar and bistros - which Ivory Coast has galore.
Meanwhile, literary events don't get solid media coverage. They lack an efficient word-of-mouth system to boost their PR. Those officially responsible for promoting this endangered art seem to have low expectations themselves. Their strategy is tame, hardly aggressive when compared to the exuberance of concert promoters. Lacking an official communication channel is another blow to the book.
Hundreds of thousands of Ivoirians would prefer to pay 5,000 CFA (about 7.60 euros) to attend a concert over a literary event. At a show, they'll dance and have fun, though they'll also bust their ears and go home empty-handed. But, at a free-entrance book fair, they can exchange views with others, carry out discussions and, if they so choose, take home a book (purchased for less than 5,000 CFA).
Still, there's the problem of not knowing about these fairs in the first place or, ultimately, not being interested. Why is that? Traditionally, literary events are associated with stuffiness, nerdiness and boredom - far from what an average concert is expected to deliver.
But if we hope to someday draw large crowds to the book - and events surrounding it - we need to know how to reach out to the masses. We should entice them, showing them another worthy medium for entertainment, one which has the added benefit of education.
To do this, we need to expand spaces for literary interaction. We need to make better use of bookshops, revive libraries, resurrect school book clubs and encourage neighbourhoods to serve as literary information points. At the same time, activities should get with the times. We should borrow ingredients from the competition's successful recipe: good atmosphere, a means for relaxation and fun.
Literature must reinvent itself and keep better company. It shouldn't be unheard of to mention literature alongside music, sports, cooking or dance. Book events should also be more than a gathering of literary dinosaurs, moving away from their overriding identity of malehood and fraternity. Instead, they should establish a vibrant, united and, more significantly, youthful community.
Youth are the future, even in the book world. Yet, the generation gap between Ivorian writers is striking. The disdain some authors and literary critics express for those who are up-and-coming is no secret. In the face of a population's growing indifference to reading, gratitude should be shown towards those trying to uphold this art, despite their faults.
The state of literature is too fragile for books to be wholly dismissed as boring or for the talent behind them to be grouped into one category. Inevitably, the time will come to nurture this young generation. It's the way to guarantee that the future of Ivory Coast's literature be as sound as that of its music.