How to Get more Nigerians to read

literary vs genre

There’s a not-going-to-end-anytime-soon debate about what is literary and what isn’t. It’s probably been going on long before I was in diapers. Before getting your hopes up, this isn’t the post where I weigh in on the issue; I’m ill-equipped as at now to bring anything new to the discussion. Give me a few more years, a few bestsellers and more industry cred.

But what I want to rant about discuss here is the paradoxical blackhole we seem to have encountered in the Nigerian publishing industry. And we’re stuck in it’s gravitational pull.

It’s not news that I’m passionate about reading. I love it. I could spend all day reading (I actually do). So it was only a matter of time before I noticed the paradox we’re in. And yes, it has to do with sales.

By definition, genre fiction is a better cash-cow than literary fiction the world over. Most genre fiction is written with the aim of appealing to lovers and readers of that specific genre. They hit all the right plot beats, meet certain expectations in terms of character interactions, protagonist’s personality etc. That’s why it’s easier to run into a reader who reads only romance or science fiction or high fantasy or legal thrillers or (insert category). Yes, literary works have a near monopoly on the big international awards but genre fiction has a generic trait – they are popular(some people even call it popular fiction).

Except in Nigeria. It would be wrong to call genre fiction popular because it isn’t. At least, when compared with literary fiction. Seriously, when last did a Nigerian book or author make the evening news? Or even front page of the dailies? Or any paper for that matter? If they did, was the author going by the name Chimamanda Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka or Sefi Atta (who are all literary authors by the way)?

I think the question we should be asking ourselves is – Can literary fiction be the catalyst to inspire a reading revolution/renaissance in Nigeria? People talk about the decline in reading habits, which is a reflection of the publishing industry in Nigeria. But who can blame the publishers? Publishing, first and foremost, is a business. And businesses obey the law of supply and demand. Right now, the demand for literary works exceeds that of genre fiction by miles.

This situation is irregular and counterintuitive but what is it about Africa (especially Nigeria) that is intuitive and regular? Let me quote something I read in Africa Business Magazine some time ago that stuck with me

In Africa, we have everything we need to create vast wealth for our people. You want copper, Zambia has plenty; you want oil, go to half a dozen countries; you want gas, gold, iron, platinum, diamonds, coal, timber, phosphates, sand, soda, coffee, cocoa, cotton, tea – anything – and your neighbor has plenty of it. You want land to grow things on? Africa has more arable land than any other continent and more variety of climate for a greater variety of products. It has the world’s biggest fishing grounds and more grazing land in a few countries than all the rest of the world put together – Anver Versi [Africa Business Magazine, July 2009 Edition].

Yet Africa is still the poorest “country” in the world.

It makes no sense, just like all the many things in Nigeria that don’t. I’m already comfortable with the reality that most things in Nigeria are counterintuitive. Maybe promoting and selling literature is the next thing we add to the counterintuitive list. What do you think?

Please, join the discussion in the comments.

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