Is professional literary criticism on its deathbed?

At the recently concluded 17th  Nairobi International Book Fair, professor Henry Indangasi stood up and declared that  professional literary criticism is on its deathbed.

He made the comments during an open literary discussion between intellectuals , editors, publishers and writers. The session, moderated by University of Nairobi’s  Dr. Tom Odhiambo  saw the audience  seek answers from the panelists comprising Professors’  Chris Wanjala,  Henry Indangasi  and Kithaka wa Mberia, Writer David Maillu and Publisher Lawrence Njagi.

One reader asked why it is that lately, intellectuals seem to be engaged in newspapers  battles instead of focusing on constructive discourses that will propel literature forward.

To answer this, Professor Kithaka wondered if Kenyan critics wrote because of intellectual inspiration or because they have a personal thing against a particular author. He further asked whether critics  even read the books they review.

In defense of critics, Professor Wanjala stated that diversity is for journalists and that literary critics, just like eye specialists, have a right to specialize in one thing. Professor Wanjala’s argument however, didn’t seem to go well with professor Indangasi who said that much as intellectuals specialize in particular fields, it is also their moral obligation to carry out in-depth studies on popular literature, analyze it and offer intelligible argument on them.

It is at this point that professor Indangasi declared that professional literary criticism, as he understood it, was on its deathbed because the new breed of critics did synopsis summaries instead of informed criticism.

As a book lover and avid follower of the literary discourses, I couldn’t agree with professor Indangasi more. Lately we have seen  critics who instead of focusing on the issues in books,  waste  ink  either showing how better they are than their colleagues or  reminiscing over how great Ngugi was and how  no modern writer will ever fit into his shoes.  And yet so many new writers have come up and are winning international awards.

In his autobiography There Was a Country, author Chinua Achebe tells of the premise on which he and his colleagues (Soyinka, Okigbo and Clarke) began to write.’ As young intellects in a new country, we didn’t know what we were up against, however, it was clear that our major objective was to challenge the stereotypes, myths and the image of ourselves and our continent, it is then that we decided to ‘write back ‘to the west so that we could reshape the dialogue between the colonizer and the colonized (paraphrased).

Evidently, Achebe and his counterparts had a clear objective when they set out to become writers and critics. They therefore didn’t waste time chest thumping  and names-calling and thus  greatly succeeded in reshaping literary dialogues, condemning social ills and   chiming for positive change.

This is, in fact, what the Kenyan critics urgently need to do to prove that they are indeed, serious intellectuals bent on propelling Kenya forward and not empty Debes which are, infact, known to make a lot of noise.


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