Monday, January 10, 2011

The Fragility of the Artistic Ego

The artist is a person who creates within a context of the fine arts or high culture, activities such as drawing, painting, sculpture, acting, writing, film making, photography, decorating and music- people who use imagination, talent or skill to create works that may be judged to have an aesthetic value.
Since the imagination is involved, it is easy to assume that there are no rules. No one should have the exclusive preserve of what is right or wrong because, after all is it your fault that you're imagining this? We forget though that there is nothing new under the sun. Many of the things we are doing now or will do in the future have been seen and heard in the past and definite patterns have been identified. And so it is quite easy for the discerning to know when we are way off mark.

Why am I saying all this? Yesterday evening, I was privileged to read an interview Sefi Atta, author of Everything good will come, granted to the Guardian Newspapers. In the interview, amongst other grievances she had, she was especially upset with a reviewer of her book, Swallow. The review was given by Ikhide Ikheloa in the Next Newspapers two years ago. Reading the interview made me shudder and reminded me of the egg like fragility of the artistic ego.

Here's a quote from the interview,
"Actually, I’m only aware of one critic who reviewed Swallow negatively, and that was in Next. Apparently, he is a bit of a joke and his reviews barely qualify as blogs. An American friend who lives in Lagos asked why he was so spiteful. I said that’s what bloggers do to get attention. They go tabloid on you. I just wondered what I’d done to Next to deserve such a debut. 
Critics don’t need to denigrate writers to review our works. They only expose their own flaws when they do. They can point out flaws in our works without being rude. I mean, I’ve heard of dissatisfied readers hurling books across rooms, but really, does reading a book you don’t enjoy constitute a personal affront that justifies retaliation against the writer? It’s absurd
Read the full interview HERE

Then read excerpts of the review here,
"Is this the same person that wrote Everything Good Will Come? In Swallow, Atta delivers a failed blow with her killer arm tied behind her back. Too bad, because she missed several opportunities to write an important book.
There are strands of the Atta that I enjoyed in Everything Good Will Come: Women are up front and centre, making their case; men are in the background for once chewing the plastic cud of their own issues. The book starts with promise and attitude and then fizzles into silliness. I loved Rose, incompletely plumbed as her character is. She has real attitude:
"Rose often complained about being a Nigerian. She thought she was born in the wrong country. She wished she had been born in Czechoslovakia because the name sounded sophisticated. Nigeria was uncivilised, she said." (p12)
We see the stoicism of women labouring to make night meet day and typing their way through despair daily. Haunting is this statement:
"All morning I typed debt notices. Some dated so far back I wondered why our department bothered to send them out. We never got replies." (p15)
Beyond these occasional gems, there are all these random sentences, offering no context, sprouting from nowhere, not amusing, perhaps bemusing.
In Swallow, Atta continues her once successful quest - trying to understand Lagos. This time she fails spectacularly. Jerky dialogue wrestles with wooden prose to deliver mediocrity. Swallow comes to the reader bearing the sick banality of pulp fiction - and not a very good one. You must give it to the writer though; she knows Lagos. Lagos breathes in her work.
And what is the story all about? I am not quite sure; perhaps this is the only reason I would recommend the book to anyone. Buy the book, read it and tell us what it is all about. This is one pointless story, mushy in the middle - a middle-aged yarn yearning for relevance. Mining nostalgia has its limits, I guess. Atta's prose is not merely laconic; it is resigned, as if written by a tired author. Juvenile clichés dot the landscape like flies on stale palm wine. Disconnected paragraphs are united only in their grim determination to kill the story. One minute we are reading about shoes, the next minute we are reading about what, the reader forgets. This is a forgettable book. Rambling Rose, the nickname of one of the characters, would have been a perfect title.
Yes, instead of Swallow, the book should have been titled Rambling Rose! The book literally flies everywhere, never landing, and drags non issues into the room, bewildering the reader. Inchoate characters are killed off before the book can cash in on their promise. Interesting themes like sexual harassment are treated half-heartedly. Well, I did learn a new phrase, flagrante delicto. Google it ;-) This was a tedious read. Be prepared to lose interest one thirds of the way. And my pet peeve: editing issues hint at capacity problems within Farafina, the publishing company that birthed the book.
Can you see how this could have pained Ms Atta? But let us read an earlier review given by this same Ikheloa on Atta's Everything good
"Yes, the sister can write. She weaves a beautiful story of courage with unrelenting insistence. She says out loud to a jaded world: We come from a land of incredible beauty and unspeakable sadness. The reader never gets over the shock of witnessing enormous waste of potential and resources. And I am not talking about crude oil. Atta writes in the grand tradition of the writers before her. And she says to me that language is all in the mind. When t listen to the poets and writers of my childhood, they are speaking and writing in English but I smell the earth of my ancestors, I smell the musty sweat of my ancestors’ masquerades speaking to me from across the Atlantic, comforting me, soothing me. And in these books, they tell me that this earth also belongs to me. Atta has taken a rightful place in that pantheon of greats.
The book wears its frailties gently on its sleeve and we are drawn to the writer’s humanity. The book is not without its weaknesses; in its unnecessary explanation of Nigerian terms, one senses a yearning to reach out to a mass market. Why would anyone bother to explain that eba is “a meal made from ground cassava?” When next you read about pasta, remind the author to footnote its explanation.
Sister Atta, you speak to me in your book. You speak to me from deep in the bowels of my ancestors’ coven. You speak to me howling, bawling, and soaking me in the song of our mothers’ grief. In the feverish insistence of your voice, in the feverish insistence of your rhythm, in the pounding of your feet on the earth of our mothers, you speak to me. And joy rides our senses going places in the heart where fear still clings to life. Our sister, look at joy bounding up and down the streets of happy memories. Our sister, in your book, joy takes me by the hand and sets me free to dream of the way things used to be.  I will never forget Everything Good Will Come.

Now contrast the two reviews, No one heard anything from Ms Atta when she received that first review, but when Ikheloa said he didn't like the second book, she  screams foul. I haven't read Swallow, but that is not the point. The point is that by keeping Ikheloa constant, we have been able to determine impartially his perception of Atta's craft, and remember it's not Atta as a person he has issues with, it's the book Swallow- one of her works.

This doesn't happen to writers only. I also express myself artistically through music, and I can remember way back when I was in the choir, and on receiving correction for going off key, or singing the wrong part, or screeching when singing, I would balk and be like, " How dare they? What do they know?" But, these were the same people who praised me when I got it right; so what then was my problem? 

After having read Sefi's interview, I've just advised myself, “Akan, as you embark on this literary journey, 'better face front, good review oh, bad review oh', don't take it to heart, just trudge on, get better at your craft and just move on. The reviewer is not perfect, you are not perfect, the readers sometimes have off days and that's when they'll decide to pick up your book, but never mind, just keep doing what you're doing.

Aunty Sefi, you're good. Everybody knows. If someone doesn't like one, move on, nothing spoil. You Akan, better shut up. Let's see how you'll handle your own!


  1. Lol Girl. Na true talk!
    Although i get your point about her silence on the first review, I feel our reviewer was kinda harsh, don't you think?
    Anyways like you said, one should just trudge on and resist the temptation to take these things to heart, it may be the early signs of a haughty heart, methinks.

  2. @RemiRoy, I don't even want to dwell on the harshness or lack thereof of the review. Shebi we are just starting our literary journey; I heard that there are worse critics out there. Have you read some reviews of Chimamanda's much praised Half of a yellow sun. You'll shudder. Sister, if there's nothing to be learnt, it is acquire a thick skin oh. In the same way, since the same reviewers will sometimes praise you, it is better to even take their praise with a pinch of salt, as in like I said, just settle your confidence within yourself and face front. Because to depend on them for the boosting of your ego is to depend on PHCN during your wedding.

  3. hahahahaha..... that PHCN thing is a very looolish statement!
    I agree with you o.
    Thick skin, face front!

  4. @RemiRoy...Now you're getting me :)

  5. I own copies of both books and I have read them. Everything good will come was a very good book for a debut. I read it twice because Enitan's story was just that fascinating. I couldn't find it in me to stomach Swallow and I constantly wondered if the same author wrote the two books. In this, I am inclined to agree with the reviewer that Swallow is a forgettable book. I don't know why aunty Sefi vexed, but truth is always a bitter pill to swallow (yeah. pun intended.)

  6. Hmmm... Anonymous...I still haven't laid my hands on Swallow but I hope to soon enough. Someone I attend a writer conference with said she didn't enjoy Swallow at all, so I'm beginning to wonder why the author would say "she was only aware of one reviewer who viewed Swallow negatively"


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