I belong to many literary groups courtesy of my online friends’ conscriptions to a proliferation of social media groups. But there are at least three that meet in real time and space to help me make sense of the digital abstraction of dialogue. It is to these meets that l owe much of my critical experimentation, the buying and selling of hard knocks.
Of recent though, l have watched literary criticism fall into the grips of a certain group whose forte is the sociological reduction of creative pieces be they prose, poetry or fine art. Maybe this random group has been there all the while only becoming apparent, even obtrusive, by the trajectory of my own critical development. Or maybe they have just become popular because courtesy and civility forbids us from slamming them with exactly what we think of their efforts – pseudo-intellectualism!
At a recent reading, Elegance (my name for her) had just finished reading her short story set among the Igbo, a different cultural group from hers. Time for comments and the salvos poured from the sociological reductionists: a woman cannot be seen storming the chief’s palace in real lgbo society; the chieftaincy requirements in Igbo society were well captured, bla-bla-bla. If you ask me, both the critics and admirers of her fictional portrayal in this instance belong together. Both groups operate from the premise that a work of fiction should maintain fidelity with real life. Most of us subconsciously expect this too, especially with literary fiction. The more insidious vice is the presumption that a work of fiction should be sociologically correct. It is a fine line and I explain.
I have been an advocate of literary fiction’s duty to be “historically correct”. But this is different from sociological correctness. Years back, at a reading by the critically-acclaimed Helon Habila, l had criticized his choosing to state in his work that most of Lagos’ newspaper houses were located on the Island. In response, he retorted that it is not the duty of the writer to be “historically correct.” In his case, he hadn’t chosen to write of a mythical city where the newspaper houses were located on the island. That would have made him sovereign in his narrative. Instead, he chose Lagos to set his story – Lagos of the Mainland and Island, of lkeja and lkoyi. Having part-surrendered that absolute power to range wild and free by choosing a setting we are all familiar with, to what extent can a writer still insist on his fictional license? Especially in literary fiction, a writer may not insult the intelligence of his reader without consequences.
Genre fiction has less restrictive clauses in its license. It is like dreaming. The Igbo say you don’t criticize the narration of another man’s dream. A man is sovereign in his dreams but also his nightmares. He could be the president of the whole world therein but also the one whose neck is on ISIS’ slab. It is his prerogative or that of whoever directs dreams and nightmares. Genre fiction subverts reality but first there has to be that reality – the point of departure. If it is fantasy where people walk backwards, its validity derives from reality where they walk front-wards. If it is historical fiction, a real-life event would have happened in the past which would form its basis.
In contrast to historical correctness, what the sociology school seeks to do is reduce every piece of poetry, prose or art to a commentary on some aspect of society. And it doesn’t stop at social commentary. It insists on being didactic and where it is not, these critics foist one on it. I have sat in on poetry critiques where another writer went on and on about what the poet was trying to say about mob justice or forced marriages, for example. It might have been a spur-of-the-moment poem written to make fun of the herd mentality of the mob. Closet sociologists and emergency psychologists take over and extrapolate on the sociology, psychology and theology of the mob not forgetting to throw in for effect, The Crucifixion. They choose to lionize a domestic feline.
Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen has been described as some sort of allegory on Nigeria’s political history. “How comes?” – that’s what you quip having read the novel. Also, no less a publication than The New York Times captioned its critique of Leslie Nneka Arimah’s collection, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky as A Debut Collection Looks to Nigeria’s Past, Present and Possibly Fantastical Future. Two great books, these, but they needn’t be invested with cracking the puzzle of the Chibok Girls just so that they can belong to the Achebean tradition of social commentary.
It is often a gut-churning detour reading or listening to this tribe. I’d rather leash my rage for the clergy’s homilies – at least, he got trained for it. Increasingly, I’m finding my critical takes on aesthetics, tropes and the mechanics of a piece regarded as technical, even indulgent. Have we forgotten we’re supposed to be having fun with every creative piece? And that opportunities exist aplenty for didactic homilies in churches and mosques and for sociology on mammy wagons’ carriages and street graffiti? Want to be told, “God’s time is the best”? Go plant your feet beside the highway.
It is not unlikely in the Nigerian cultural landscape that the disposition of Nollywood, its nascent film industry, is getting contagious with other creative spheres. A good chunk of the old Nollywood of home movies is about a slapstick feast on social commentary. Social commentary is good but it is cheap and can nauseate in its hypocrisy. All of us become experts not so much with the correction as in knowing what is wrong. It becomes so much better to reserve your compunctions for the man in the mirror. The reality-fiction warp that is choking literary criticism may be a carry-over from Nollywood. Much of the cheesy offering at its beginning had to do with elders’ councils and how they go about playing gods over village disputes. Playing elder comes with a whole baggage of stereotypes from the entitlement to others’ salutations to the first refusal in inheriting widows. As custodians of the cultures and mores of the people, their cinematic portrayal was often a throwback to the past with its compost pits as well as its lofty heights.
Whether it be literary or cinematic, the danger in taking portrayals too serious is that you get trapped in a reality-fiction warp in which you know you are watching/reading a construct but nevertheless judging it as if it were reality. So, a maiden stands ramrod erect to hand over the bowl of kolanut to her uncle and critics of the school of social correctness go: “Our culture respects elders.” “The director is guilty of poor research.” Who says you are watching a historical documentary? Not even the fact that a creator of art had researched it makes him liable to maintain fidelity with his research. Research can be carried out entirely for the purpose of embellishment or subversion.
If not for the uncouth manner the sociology school seeks to rework art to make it say what they want, the entire enterprise would have been funny; funny in its compensation. Here are anti-religionists who would not be preached to seeking redemption in a work of art. Or perhaps it is because they resent the faith-based homily that makes them seek out its poor imitation. Nature, indeed abhors a vacuum, even a homiletic one, and, be careful what you don’t wish, for you may get it.
It is tempting as the creator of a work of art to cozy up to new garments dumped on your work by its admirers of the sociology school. Societies are full of social ills and any writer would glory in the false garments of a messiah. However, in prescribing for society, we should not forget that it is first and foremost about having fun. Society has scores whose remit lie in diagnosis and prescriptions. While art for art’s sake might be taking it to the extreme, creative pieces are the better for social commentary if the in-filling of the message is sandwiched by the aesthetic ingredients of wit, irony, harmony and dissonance, imageries, rhyme and rhythm. Now may the congregation rise!
Bio: Mike is published in over a couple dozen literary journals including The First Line, Crack the Spine, Gambling the Aisle, Hamilton Stone Review, Ebedi Review, The African Roar Anthology, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Dugwe, Dark Matter Journal, EXPOUND, Nigeria Monthly, bioStories, Storymoja and Bullet Pen – the last two coming with wins at continental contests.
Mike looks for beauty to relieve a difficult world and is a massive fan of ABBA. He volunteers with the bible college of Champions Royal Assembly where he teaches Rhetoric. He is a freelance book editor and ghost biographer
Photo by Kevin Curtis on Unsplash