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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Ordeal of
the African Writer

Charles R. Larson

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To purchase The Ordeal of the African Writer

Title: The Ordeal of the African Writer
Author: Charles Larson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 158 pages
Availability: The Ordeal of the African Writer - US
The Ordeal of the African Writer - UK
The Ordeal of the African Writer - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : useful and interesting overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Mail & Guardian . 13/2/2002 Chris Dunton
Le Monde diplomatique . 4/2002 A. A. Waberi
TLS . 7/2/2003 Sousa Jamba

  From the Reviews:
  • "All in all, The Ordeal of the African Writer is a valuable manual documenting burning issues that confront the African writer." - Chris Dunton, Mail & Guardian

  • "Charles Larson a fait ici oeuvre utile." - Abdourahman A. Waberi, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "Larson explores these issues through highly engaging profiles of writers (.....) Do African politicians ever come across books such as this ? (...) The emphasis in Larson's book is on anglophone writers." - Sousa Jamba, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Charles Larson's book is a survey of literature and publishing in Africa. Much of it is based on questionnaires Larson sent to African writers and publishers, asking about the conditions they found, as well as their personal experiences. Providing also an historic overview of modern African literature, The Ordeal of the African Writer makes for an interesting book.
       Larson begins with a chapter on "The Example of Amos Tutuola", whose own curious publishing-history makes him a perfect case-study in African publishing. Tutuola's first published book was The Palm Wine Drinkard, which managed to come to the attention of Faber & Faber, who published it in 1952. It became the first work of African fiction to reach a larger international audience. Acclaimed in Europe and then America, its reception was a bit more chilly in Africa, where Tutuola's story seemed far less original. Larson's analysis of Tutuola's successes and failures is very good, a fascinating (and quite depressing) story of the difficulties African writers face both domestically and abroad.
       The second chapter looks at the rise of an indigenous literature adapted to the conditions in Africa, specifically around the Onitsha market. (See also Emmanuel Obiechina's classic survey of An African Popular Literature (see our review) and the anthology, Life Turns Man Up and Down (see our review).) Larson tackles questions such as those concerning reader-economics, as well as the choices of language writers make. The Onitsha market literature showed that under certain circumstances a thriving literary culture can easily arise, and that there is a receptive audience for local fiction -- but conditions since that time across most of the continent have been anything but conducive.
       The third chapter looks at the difficulties African writers face in getting published, especially in Africa itself. Here Larson uses the publishing-history of a number of writers to illustrate the difficulties writers generally face, as well as how some have found some measure of success. He introduces readers a useful cross-section of authors, including well known figures such as Cyprian Ekwensi and Yvonne Vera (whose relationship with publisher Baobab Books Larson holds up as exemplary).
       The fourth chapter focusses specifically on the publishing and bookselling industry in Africa. Throughout the book Larson notes that the state of African publishing is largely deplorable, suggesting a variety of reasons for it (as well as some possible remedies). He provides a good overview of many of the hurdles faced by writers, publishers, and readers.
       The fifth chapter focusses on the political pressures that make writing difficult for African authors. Many have seen their work banned in their native countries, and have been jailed or live in exile.
       Larson balances his many examples nicely with a much broader overview. Africa is a huge continent, and the situation for writers varies from place to place -- though there are a number of dismal common woes writers face. Writing from personal experience, and drawing on responses from many working authors, he offers a good summary of the sad state of publishing in AFrica.
       Among his suggestions is the creation of a pan-African publishing house. He also hopes that further efforts will be made to foster a literary culture in Africa, with accessible libraries, more affordable books (of better quality), and a more supportive environment for the writer.
       As is, the situation is a fairly sad one -- though the continuing appearance of new, worthwhile fiction from the continent (hard though it often is to find) suggests at least some promise for the future.

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The Ordeal of the African Writer:
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About the Author:

       Charles R. Larson teaches literature at American University.

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© 2002-2022 the complete review

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