‘A country where you couldn’t make this shit up’?

Literary non-fiction in South Africa


In the last few years, several critics have suggested that the most significant contemporary writing in South Africais emerging in non-fictional modes.  The work of authors like Antony Altbeker, Peter Harris, Antjie Krog, Jonny Steinberg and Ivan Vladislavić ‘almost convinces one’, in the words of one acclaimed novelist, ‘that fiction has become redundant in this country’.  This piece sets out to ask why such claims are being made now, and what they can tell us about the status of the literary in contemporary South Africa. What, after all, does the word signify in a phrase like ‘literary non-fiction’, and how can one trace appropriate lineages for the array of non-fictional modes that are simultaneously drawn on, refashioned and blurred into each other in contemporary South African writing: investigative journalism, the prison memoir, the diary, autobiography, urban studies, microhistory and archival reconstruction.

From Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism (1973) to J. M. Coetzee’s ‘The Novel Today’ (1988) – and, more recently, David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2010) – the relation between ambitious non-fiction and the serious novel has often been portrayed as one of antagonism and rivalry. Yet while not wanting to dismantle the different kinds of truth-claim made by fictive and documentary modes, I suggest that instances of fiction and non-fiction from South Africa have in fact for a long time been in an unusually intense, intimate and one might even say constitutive dialogue with each other. I probe this relation by examining two encounters: the first a panel on non-fiction at the 2010 Cape Town International Book Fair (from which this piece takes its name), and the second a revealing reading, or as I will argue, misreading, of Coetzee’s Disgrace by Steinberg.

Hedley Twidle, 2011.