Literary graveyard that is the modern digital platform

There is no growth in moving from one poor online magazine to another low quality space, where there are neither credible editors nor a critical reading mass because the magazine is never able to invite or survive the kind of scrutiny needed for their next level of growth. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • The question then asks itself at this point. What happens to the promise-laden journals and magazines started by a coterie of writers and individuals? How come they never survive past the fifth year? What happened to StoryMoja’s monthly short story competition? Where is Wamathai’s literary blog which stayed on for fairly long? And, pray, where is Oduor Jagero’s KUT and Kikwetu Journal?
  • For half-baked writers now get to publish their half-baked stories easily, thanks to the unstructured online spaces which lack the keen guiding hands of expert editors. Thankfully, a few gems do emerge amidst the churning of “substandard works”.

The literary space in Kenya is always alive and full of surprises. Each year, there are numerous literary births, deaths, rumours, events and exciting developments for the Kenyan art lovers to behold. It was, therefore, not too surprising when a few weeks back, another online literary platform, Enkare Review, made its grand entrance into the Kenyan literary scene.

Admittedly, this move was quite impressive, especially because Enkare’s entrance was uncertain, experimental and, in the words of its founders, started as a “series of jokes”. Literary heads in Kenya and East Africa started turning the moment Enkare published the Pulitzer winning Junot Diaz, a gain described by writer Tony Mochama as a ‘coup’. Enkare hasn’t disappointed yet. For it has gone ahead and published Taiye Selasi, Tendai Huchu and Ethiopia’s award winning Maaza Mengiste.

But wait a minute, should we be impressed already? Haven’t we witnessed the premature births and deaths of so many start-ups in the Kenyan digital literary space? Honestly, these two writers decided to save their enthusiasm for later because as things are, there seems to be absolutely no longevity in the mushrooming E- journals, literary journals and magazines, websites and blogs. It looks like what Enkare and its predecessors offer us are but motifs of cursory interventions by ambitious young Kenyan writers.

The question then asks itself at this point. What happens to the promise-laden journals and magazines started by a coterie of writers and individuals? How come they never survive past the fifth year? What happened to StoryMoja’s monthly short story competition? Where is Wamathai’s literary blog which stayed on for fairly long? And, pray, where is Oduor Jagero’s KUT and Kikwetu Journal?

FALSE EUPHORIA

A few of these publications are likely to survive, like the Jalada Collective with its impressive thematic issues, the latest being the translation of Ngugi’s story into more than 30 African languages; and the new publishing kid on the block, Lesleigh Inc Kenya ,which has weathered the storm and gone ahead to publish three books, one of which is said to have been turned down by yet another university start up, Telling Tales Press, which also died prematurely.

In examining the aforementioned matters, one might argue that the contemporary African literary renaissance is here. And that it coincides with a technological explosion that has inevitably dismantled the traditional publishing glass ceiling and turned any and every laptop owner with Internet access into a publisher of journals and magazines. This is true.

Tragically, though, even as more publishers are being created, the writing side of the business seems to be suffering. For half-baked writers now get to publish their half-baked stories easily, thanks to the unstructured online spaces which lack the keen guiding hands of expert editors. Thankfully, a few gems do emerge amidst the churning of “substandard works”.

However, this comes alongside another issue; the obsession of young people to be called ‘published writer’ which has led to an oversimplification of the enormity of the work needed to produce provocative and engaged literature in an era where the mainstream publishing houses aren’t churning works fast enough to cope with the groundswell in artistic creativity from the young writers.

Even more damaging to the growth of and development of the writerly craft in this digital age is the false euphoria of social media hypes through the now clichéd dead horse narrative of ‘telling our own stories’. This catchphrase has turned the digital space into a God-given platform where aspiring writers peddle their anger and identity issues and cuss.

And that they have easy access to big names with just the click of an e-mail button lies to these youngish writers about the purported immediacy of literary stardom, which leads them down the much travelled road of blatant plagiarism; a carefully assembled house of cards that sooner than later blows up in their youngish faces.

Henry Chakava once asked a question: “Can Africa make the technological leap by harnessing the new technologies to exploit its knowledge potential?” 

All the above pointers seem to positively answer Chakava’s question. As such, it is inevitable to say that the online publishing platforms have so much potential. Yet the glaring challenges of the digital age, right from the lack of longevity of the newer publishing platforms to the serious issue of turning young writers into jacks-of-all trades who are businessmen, publishers, writers, own editors, literary critics, reviewers and chief salesmen must be tackled.

LITERARY QUICKSAND

The millennial might fancy themselves technology whizzes but their stubbornness and refusal to learn from those who have been there; their entitlement and guts to dismiss existing institutions as either elitist or to always blame non-existent gates whenever their half formed work emails aren’t replied to by big writers will get them nowhere. Their refusal to look inwards, to consider quality of their works and the lack of understanding that a rejection by one publishing house doesn’t mean the work is bad but that perhaps it isn’t of a certain standard yet is likely to work against them.

The poorly structured literacy spaces may be a quicksand for the younger writer who never transcends its lustre, because there is no growth in moving from one poor online magazine to another low quality space, where there are neither credible editors nor a critical reading mass because the magazine is never able to invite or survive the kind of scrutiny needed for their next level of growth.

On the brighter side, this early socialisation into the publishing scene is likely to make young writers deeply appreciate the publishing process; they are likely to feel less entitled and to be more patient. This in-depth understanding of the underbelly of the publishing houses might even result in great innovations like, say, the Magunga online bookstore or perhaps even solid publishing will be felt in digital places and spaces previously occupied by hastily conceived journals that are bred with their own death in sight.

The celebrated Tanzanian publisher, Walter Bgoya, in a foreword to Coming of Age: Strides in African Publishing, concludes by saying “Regrettably, the preponderance of African enterprises do not survive after the generation of their founders.” In the digital spaces, journals and magazines seem not able to survive beyond their first issue but the undying persistency of the online platforms is a clear testimony that the burden of digital literary presences is not a burden to be borne by a few experienced hands. It is a kind of harambee, needing many hands; it needs not be perfect, lasting solutions have come out of the messy process of trial and error and in these baby steps, solid legs that will run future literary marathons are in formation. For in birth and death there is life.

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