The Fishermen, the Fishes and the Fishing Nets in New Nigerian Poetry by Senator Ihenyen
“If a publisher is unwilling to take your manuscript, it is perhaps the script is not good enough. You should not run to the local printer, pay him because you believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, look for somebody else who also believes in you, and can tell you the truth. That yes, you are a good writer, you have the potentials but these are flaws in your writing.” – Prof. Dan Izevbaye on the eve of announcing the Nigeria Literature Prize, 2009.
For too long, the new generation of Nigerian writers, particularly poets, have been continually criticised for stubbornly producing poor works, which according to our literary critiques, do not deserve any attention. The degenerating generation of new writers are accused of being ‘too much in a hurry’ to get published and consequently compromising publishing standards. In turn, the ‘children of globalisation’ are quick to point accusing fingers at the publishers, particularly the long-established, for robbing Peter (neglecting new creative works by new writers) to pay Paul (publishing established authors and educational titles). Has anyone got anything to say about this degeneration? Of course, everyone in the book industry in Nigeria does!
The publishers claim that if they are to stay in business new writers must be seen as a big risk, while the literary critics seem to be saying that new writers must be rightly starved to death since their largely poor works do not feed their literary hunger for great literature. Usually too glad to see that the go-it-alone new authors are paying the price for sidetracking professional editing services, the editors are always quick to nod their heads in agreement with the critics! Down the book-chain, the booksellers say that because Nigerians have a poor reading culture, literary books don’t even sell anymore! And what has the book reader got to say (if they still read at all based on what the booksellers hare saying)? The book reader says literary books are not available in the bookstores; and when they rarely are, they are not affordable; and when they are rarely affordable, they are not accessible; and when again they are accessible, they are not good literature like it used to be in the Soyinka days! On their part, literary journalists are making headlines to the effect that literary critics who continue their endless romance with Soyinka, Okara, Clark, Osundare and the other lucky few without a look at new writers are to blame. Phew! Or have you got something to say as well?
But in the same vein, literary critics who are from the Soyinka generation are wondering why there is a scarcity of critics from the same generation that has been ‘too much in a hurry’ to produce works. They believe that with the wild and wide sea of new Nigerian writers, waves of fresher and younger literary critics who are better placed to do the job considering ‘age and energy’ should come with it! According to Nnolim, ‘…younger critics are lazy. I called them lazy because when we were younger, we wrote about Achebe, Soyinka; these were the icons of Literature in the 1970s and 1980s…’ The accusing fingers in contemporary Nigerian literature, particularly poetry, are endless! Faced with this situation, the young and upcoming Nigerian writer has become even more confused: running to Lulu and others for self-publishing, or worse still paying a roadside printer, or more honourably taking Nigerian literature abroad! The consequences have been simply dimensional: the good, the bad and the ugly.
There have always been poor works –no doubt – even Soyinka’s generation did not lack it. The critical issue is fishing out good works for publishing. And unfortunately, we presently lack, largely, good fishing nets in the literary industry spread out by good and experienced fishermen to catch good fishes. To extend this metaphor a bit further, those long-established and experienced publishers in Nigeria who are the fishermen with good fishing nets have refused to spread their nets further into the sea of new writers because the new fishes are easily caught in water but not easily sold on land. So they hunt for big ones found deeper ashore – they find the very big Achebe, Soyinka, Okara and other lucky giants. Also, newer and less experienced publishers, with little nets go fishing in the same water, not for the Soyinkas, but for other fishes with some pedigree and great potentials to become bigger with a little fish-feed (they probably caught me). And once in a while, you find some ‘fishermen’ without out nets at all, desperately jump into water to catch the fishes at shore, usually small (probably you this time), while many are not fishes at all, but fish-looking frogs fanning their fins (probably who?)! But in the same sea, many fishes are left behind. And in frustration, they soon become ‘too much in a hurry’ to get out, thinking a literary life anywhere but in unfulfilling water was going to be better – they jump out of water unto land! However, they soon die for want of water – the self-publishing author who keeps travelling around with the unsold copies of his book in a certain travelling bag that is always heavy (yes, he must have arrived at your destination by now with a bent back)! Please, buy his book before he departs, else you might be forced to pay more during his funeral after years of no reward for intellect in a country that ‘does not have a reading culture’.
Not every fish must be big when caught. Achebe was a small fish when the fisherman called Heinemann caught him with their fishing net, African Writers Series. One rarely finds a ready made fish except that fish has since been caught and fed by another fisherman who was nurturing him for the bigger market, but one way or the other found himself in the sea again, bigger but still fresh. So the question is do we still have fishermen who have good fishing nets? Not whether there are fishes or too many of them, or there are fish-feigning frogs in this very wide sea of Nigerian writers. Everyone wants be the big fish, but not everyone has fed well. I am not quite comfortable with a situation where Nigerian writers are stoned whenever another bad work ends up in the book stands. In Law, we usually say nemo judex in causa sua (no one can be a judge in his own course). Writers cannot themselves set literary standards to measure their works for the purpose of validating themselves for recognition. The reason we have what we usually describe as ‘too many writers’ is because there is no standard in the industry to separate the boys from the men, as there will always be boys if there must be men. The young shall grow is the instructive message here, but of course many have died and still dying from the impoverished literary industry, causing us future Achebes, Okigbos, Soyinkas, Ben Okri, Osundares and many others. Perhaps, the way to go for young Nigerian writers is to stick to Prof. Izevdaye’s advice: “If a publisher is unwilling to take your manuscript, it is perhaps the script is not good enough. You should not run to the local printer, pay him because you believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, look for somebody else who also believes in you, and can tell you the truth. That yes, you are a good writer, you have the potentials but these are flaws in your writing.”
To accuse Nigerian writers for falling below standards does not show that we appreciate the situation on ground. It is tantamount to stoning the victim, rather than apprehending the predatory monster in Nigerian literature. Isn’t it the same Nigerian writers who go ahead to win the Cadbury Poetry and Gabriel Okara Prizes, including the more prestigious Nigeria Literature Prize? Please, don’t remind me that the judges keep complaining about the entries and consequently warning us about that time in the future when the prize will no more be awarded for lack of deserving works, making us understand that even the legendary Gabriel Okara and the late Ezenwa Ohaeto were a compromise, not the ideal NLNG winners! But I sense that some of us possibly lack faith in local prizes after all and would rather allow foreigners choose our canons for us, deciding what will be our national literature, our culture and heritage. Well, isn’t it the same Nigerian writers who get the Nobel Laureate, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Prize, and other prestigious international prizes, making us greatly ahead of other African counties?
According to Nnolim, and I fully agree with the critic, the fall in standards is the purple patch in Nigerian literature, not the writers. In other words, Nigerian writers churning out bad works by the day is a symptom of the disease that our society has been infected with, not the disease itself as we tend to think. Contrary to the public opinion on this issue, it is my considered view that Nigerian writers, young or old, new or established, fledging or flying, beginner or finisher, should be greatly applauded for keeping literature alive against all odds! But to ask them set standards for their own creative works would be demanding for too much! Nigerian writers cannot set the standard for their own works, because they cannot be a judge in their own course. There are others such as publishers and literary critics who are better placed to judge us. We are only fishes, or probably frogs feigning to be fishes by fanning our fins in water, it is left for the fishermen to caste their fishing nets into the sea of writers, if they have any in the first place. But whether they go for big fishes or not, many fins are already swimming towards the land. It is there struggle to survive out of water that we see as a strange dance in Nigerian literature. And when they eventually die for lack of water on the literary land, usually so, we hurriedly perform the post mortem. And since post mortems are meant to trace the cause of death, and not grounds for life, everything ends there. The fishermen, the fishes and the fishing nets become another cycle of a degenerating generation, not the ‘wasted’.
©Senator Ihenyen 2009