BUKENYA: Before you criticise, at least try to learn what literature is 

Saturday December 2 2017

Eager University students in a lecture hall.

Eager University students in a lecture hall. Our literary scholars are “no longer at ease” with the way the discipline of literature is currently handled and they are challenging us to rethink our approaches. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Austin Bukenya
More by this Author

Our literary scholars are “no longer at ease” with the way the discipline of literature is currently handled and they are challenging us to rethink our approaches.

This may be exemplified by the contributions of many literary professionals, like my friends, Dr Joyce Nyairo, Dr Godwin Siundu, Harry Mlama and Dr Remmy  Shiundu, to our own “Literary Dialogue” pages.

I was particularly struck by Dr Siundu’s recent demand (November 17, 2017) that we change tack from the way we teach literature grounded in the past and resolutely reorient it towards the future. Since there were several references to the digital age in Dr Siundu’s article, my fellow Mzee, Prof Peter Amuka of Moi, joked with us on Facebook that he, Wanjala and our rika-mates should seriously think of moving our analog literary mode to a digital one.

I was not going to enter the palaver until later. But two impressions about the debate made me feel that I should put in a suggestion or two for the improvement of the discourse. The two impressions are: personalisation and generalisation.


Personalisation is unacceptable. Polemics is not a viable aspect of scholarly discourse. It is a symptom of intellectual deficiency for a writer to personally attack, deride or cast aspersions on another in the name of evaluating their contribution to a discipline. The bole kaja (come we wrestle) tendency, as Professor Egara Kabaji calls it, alluding to our Nigerian relatives, does not augur well for our literary discourse.

By generalisation, I mean that we tend to speak in sweeping terms about our discipline, assuming that everyone knows what we are talking about. Literature, however, can mean different things to different people, even among professionals. When it comes to sharing our views with the public, as in a forum like this one, we must articulate exactly what we are talking about.

As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it in his book What is Literature, “If people are going to praise me or attack me in the name of literature, we might as well start by saying what exactly we mean by literature.” I quote from memory, and the translation from French is mine.

So, brethren and sistren in literature, do not assume that all our readers know all about poststructuralism, dialogism and magic realism. Let us start by plainly stating what literature is and how it works. Then we can explain how we are required to produce it, package it and deliver it to the consumer, and what good it can do him or her.

I, for example, like going to the basics by saying that literature is a way of sharing messages attractively through language. I might add that the technical name for literature in that sense is “poetics” and that poetics comprises two main areas: the actual production of these attractive messages and the reception and appreciation of these messages and how they are delivered.

The messages may be in the form of speeches, essays, verse, stories, songs, chants, proverbs, riddles, recitations or newsbytes. Did I say newsbytes? Yes, I did. Any piece of human communication through language can be regarded as literature, depending on the imaginativeness of the language used. We do not, prima facie, privilege some texts, like those of Ngugi, Shakespeare or Shaaban Robert, against others, like play-songs, personal letters or pop lyrics.

Okot p’Bitek says, in Africa’s Cultural Revolution, that literature is “all the creative works of [human beings] expressed in language”, whether written, spoken, sung or recited. The key word here is “creative”, meaning distinctive and standing out from the clichés of everyday language.

This creativeness is what we are concerned with in the second aspect of poetics: appreciation. In this process, we receive, consume and respond to a text, the message encoded in language, and also ask why we respond to it as we do. In other words, what is it in this text that makes it significant, attention-grabbing, engaging to read, enlightening to the reader’s or listener’s brain and touching to his or her feelings?

This is what is popularly known as literary criticism. It is not about “finding fault” and proceeding, bole kaja-style, to heckle, deride and pour scorn on writers and scholars under the guise of reviewing their work. True criticism is a balanced and systematic operation, relying on tried and tested tools, which helps to guide the consumer of texts in the exploration and discovery of their true worth.

Briefly, then, we can say that poetics or literature, in its production and consumption, comprises four interrelated components within which the practitioners operate. These are: creativity, practical criticism, literary history and literary theory. Literary history and literary theory are the storehouses of experience from which both the creative artist and the critic draw the expectations and principles that govern and guide their work.

Creativity is the actual composition and performance of texts, such as stories, plays, songs, poems or speeches. This should be explicitly taught to and practised by all students in a literature programme. My own opening gambit to every new creative writing class is: “All effective writing is creative writing.” We may not all be able produce Wizard of the Crow, Siku Njema or Song of Lawino, but, as trained literati, we should ensure that whatever we produce, whether an advertising jingle, a magazine editorial or a presidential speech, is adequate and effective for its purpose.

Practical criticism is the technical skill of evaluating texts in the specific terms of what they are about, what they emphasise, how they are structured and how the language in them is managed to produce the desired or intended effect. The trained text critic is a professional who can do this with competence and confidence. In this digital age of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, made “misquoted” and “denied” statements, the necessity of experts who can do this is obvious.

Incidentally, do you know that Jean-Paul Sartre refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964? You wait till it is offered me, in 2024!


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]