Only Paul Graham, the English programmer, essayist and venture capitalist would explain Evan Mwangi’s attack on Tony Mochama’s book, Nairobi: A Night Through the City in the Sun. It was totally uncalled for. Today, I would like to defend Mochama and other men and women of his ilk who write what academics usually dismiss as populist fiction/writings. But first, have a look at this hierarchy. If not clear, just google, it: Paul Graham Hierarchy of Disagreement.
Jackson Biko, The Nation columnist, is easily one of the most celebrated writers in the country currently. Whereas, he is necessarily restrained in his newspaper articles owing to the moralistic sensibilities that national newspapers must honour, in his blog, he is unchained and commands a huge following.
He has won the Kenyan Bloggers’ Award (BAKE) for creative writing for three consecutive years, since its inception in 2012. Although the awards come with a lot of self-promotion, there is no overstating of Biko’s ability. He charms our dreary lives weekly or as frequently as possible with wit, humour and a remarkable eye for observing what drives Kenyans, especially Nairobians. The blog is one of the most read, most shared on social media.
Twice in recent times, Biko has thrust himself into the national arena because of his blog. In September 16th last year, he wrote a blog titled ‘Visa Denied’ that went viral, exposing the usually insulting procedures that as Kenyans and many Africans are subjected to various consulates, before we travel to their countries in the West (and South Africa, annoyingly). The piece provoked national ire that even saw the British envoy write what read like an apology to Biko. With just that, he brought home one of the uglier aspects modern immigration that we are often forced to put up.
To underscore Biko’s sphere of influence, he recently helped raise Sh 6.4 million within just 48 hours to help Emanuel Otieno (famously known as Jadudi) undergo his fourth brain surgery in India. The money was more than the Sh 1 million requested by Jadudi. The 22-year old is back in the country and recently thanked Kenyans for their generous contributions that have given him another shot at life. With a single blog post, Biko helped the young university student, exposed the rot in our health system, the defective and ineffective health insurance that has made Kenyan rely more on fundraisers and going abroad for treatment.
Some of Biko’s blogs are masterpieces that can be taught in any literature class in the world. The comments in his blogs tell as much. Yet, in Kenya, no literature professor will pick them for a creative writing class. The blogs carry style, technique and a unique voice all of which are essentials taught in class. Except the professors in the Kenyan class rooms are still stuck up with colonial days’s writers and 20th century European and American poets. God forbid. Some literary critics will shun him and dismiss the blog in its entirety. If he was white, may be, they will take him seriously.
I write this because a fortnight or so ago, Professor Evan Mwangi, opened an unwarranted attack on Tony Mochama and his book, Nairobi: A Night Runner’s Guide Through A City In The Sun. By subjecting the book to literary criticism, Prof Mwangi behaved like a cricket umpire refereeing a football match. For Mochama’s book was supposed to be an entertaining guide around Nairobi, not necessarily a literary gem. Mochama, who has used the moniker ‘Night Runner’ since the early 2000s, is well known for his nightly exploits that he often shares in newspaper columns.
The book under attack, if read objectively is part an encyclopaedia of the Nairobi social scene, a criticism of what is wrong and right about our society, the enduring entrepreneurial spirit of Kenya-regardless of the choice of business, pointers to poverty, desperation, disillusionment, our shared humanity-such as Mochama running into a homeless tramp in a first world country (Montreal-Canada), who he gives a two dollar coin, and concludes that he is going to buy liquor instead of medication. A better critic will try and discern if Mochama’s observations a re a true reflection of the Kenyan society.
Mochama and Biko are the Charles Dickens and William Thackerays of our time, recording the anxieties, tensions and the decadences of our time. Often, good writers are usually celebrated in retrospect. It used to be this way and for long we were stuck with Shakespeare as the best thing that ever happened to literature. But now, younger generation know what is good for them, and will soon pick a popular novel than be stuck with an awarding winning abstract novel that you need pain killers to read from cover to cover.
Critics play no role in our lives whatsoever
Critically acclaimed and commercially successful writers are always in agreement that critics serve no useful purpose, whatsoever. Ken Follett, the British thriller novelist in a 2001, New York Times interview, told the interviewer,
“I am so focused on pleasing the reader that any good criticism is important to me. I admit I know best. The decision to take the advice remains with me.”
Most critics are spoilt brats, favoured by institutions and privilege who try to dictate tastes, yet their literary gourmet is not universally acceptable. It is never accessible (physically and literary). The critic or the professor bearing theory, ready to kill your dream is mostly in the confines of the university walls, still teaching Shakespeare and Chekhov. From these ivory towers, they pontificate but nobody cares really. How many Literature Nobel laureates do you know?
A typically respected critic comes from a reputable institution in the country, highly intoxicated on Literary Theory, that act as a lens from which he views the world. Very few African critics have even come up with any discernible theory. To a writer and a reader, you do not need a theory to write or read every book. If anything theory ruins the pleasure of reading.
Some of the books, art, and music usually spurned by critics, end up getting the best reception from the real, thinking crowds. They end up raking millions, leaving critics with eggs on their faces. Literary tastes, are highly subjective. And your PhD in Literature does not mean that your tastes are better than an accountant savouring a Stephen King book. Bottom line, are you enjoying whatever that you are reading. If Rihanna has more fans on YouTube and you don’t necessarily like her music, that does not make the millions who listen or dance to her dunderheads.
And the difference between traditional critics and the direction the world is headed was best brought home by William Deresiewicz, writing in The Atlantic in the January/February issue of this year. The illuminating article titled, ‘The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur’ is a must read for critics and artists alike.
Deresiewicz, argued that the web has democratised tastes and has made everyone an artist, they ever wanted to be. Think of bloggers, Instagram photographers, YouTube artists and their ilk. If they listened to critics, some of the innocuous and childish things that we share on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter that make our days, will not exist.
Despite their perishability, they do earn some of creators good publicity and money. Even better, they are better social critics for creating material that is accessible to the common man, than the obfuscate academic papers that the critics write and shelve in their departmental libraries. A clever satirical tweet, sardonic cartoon, or a telling meme about Moses Kuria or Trump portraying their shenanigans, is worth a thousand academic papers written by the critic that no one will read.
“Another word for gatekeepers is experts,” wrote Deresiewicz, pointing out that when the Modern Library asked its editorial board to select the 100 best novels of the 20th century, the top choice was (James Joyce’s) Ulysses. In a companion poll of readers, it was (Ayn Rand’s) Atlas Shrugged…Prizes belong to the age of professionals. All we’ll need to measure merit soon is the best-seller list.
Makes perfect sense. How many books by Nobel laureates have you read? But you have probably read and enjoyed books by the popular fiction writers flood the market. Mario Puzo’s Godfather will remain a classic for long time yet, it will never be approved into a class of literature even as some out of tune, grey-haired professor who has never heard of Facebook selects for the umpteenth time another Shakespeare book for a class read. For heaven sake, try Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy. A swear word, does not make a book any less readable or desirable. Such kind of Victorian puritanism is what killed the reading culture in Kenya. For books deemed literary-worth can be a painful read, you need pain killers to finish them.
And that is the road, Prof Evan Mwangi and literature professors want to take us. Even as they look to the West for direction, they should try and see some of the writers who went off the tangent such as William S Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson, Jack Kerouac among other Beat Generation writers,are studied in American Universities. They produced a literature that defined their generation that was characterised by defiance and what came to be known as the counterculture movement.
Mochama and a host of new writers in Kenya are trying to disrupt the old models of telling stories that never worked. We can’t keep killing their dreams by subjecting their material to this kind of destructive criticism that Mwangi thrives in. It never helped anyone.
No writer has made critics more irrelevant than the novelist American novelist James Patterson who the Vanity Fair has dubbed the Henry Ford of Books. The former ad man turned novelist is now one of the bestselling authors fetching millions and living a life, no critic will ever dream about much less live. He is doing things (starting the ReadKiddoRead website, for parents looking for good books for their children, setting up the James Patterson Teacher Education Scholarship in the schools of education in two universities in the states and a college scholarship program) that no critic can even try.
Lisa Scottonline, famous for her legal thrillers, has previously praised Patterson in the Washington Post review of his Kill Alex Cross novel, saying his tens of millions fans can’t be wrong.
“They used to say 50 million Elvis Presley fans couldn’t be wrong, and James Patterson makes 50 million fans look like a good start, he has sold more than 230 million books, and his fans aren’t wrong, either.”
That is what it is. Fans, if they are happy, then write for them. Ignore the critic. Create for them to criticise. By creating, you are being charitable enough, giving them a job that gives them relevance and bread.
One last thing, critics sometimes are failed writers. Their books or attempts at creative writing never worked and you can never rule out the aspect of sour grapes when critiquing award-winning writers. Just a polite reminder to them: There is no monopoly for taste.
Mochama is an award winning writer. We love him and we don’t need to be taught on how to read him.
I’m currently pursuing my Masters in Science in Journalism at Columbia University, New York.