Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Putting our fiction on the map

South Africa has long had a fine international reputation for literary fiction. Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee have both won the Nobel Prize for literature. Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice. Andre Brink has won a slew of international awards. And those are just the names that come immediately to mind.

What we have not had is an international reputation for popular fiction. Even within our own borders, overseas books overwhelmingly outsell local books. And internationally our fiction has not — until recently — made so much as a blip in the sales figures.

This started to change with the success of John van de Ruit’s Spud books. At first glance, Spud didn’t look very promising as either a local or an international hit. Back in 2005, young adult novels generally commanded a very small, niche audience. The book was also unapologetically local in both idiom and setting, and as such should have been of no interest to overseas readers. The fact that it took place in a boys’ boarding school meant it should only have appealed to a tiny minority of white, privileged, male readers who enjoyed the book primarily for its nostalgia value.

Instead the Spud series became a publishing phenomenon, enjoyed by children and adults alike, selling briskly overseas, and being turned into a series of films with John Cleese in a starring role.

And there, for a while, it rested. Spud was regarded as a once-off hit, unlikely ever to be duplicated. Within a couple of years, publishers had almost given up looking for the “next Spud“.

But it turned out that Spud was just the tip of an iceberg of popular South African fiction. In the thriller genre we have Deon Meyer, a writer who by all conventional wisdom should also not be as successful as he is. For one thing, he writes his books in Afrikaans, and while Afrikaans fiction has its own enthusiastic following, it is very unusual for an Afrikaans writer to make the jump over to the English market simply by being translated.

Meyer also sets his books in a determinedly South African locale, with no pandering to international readers. Nevertheless, his novels have been a huge hit both at home and overseas. The stories he writes are just that good. His narrative is so compelling that it loses nothing in translation and leaves the international reader utterly unbothered by the unfamiliar setting.

So dominant is Meyer in the genre that it has been said South African thriller writing has a glass ceiling with Meyer’s name on it.

Another writer making waves internationally is Lauren Beukes. Her second novel Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature. But it is her third novel The Shining Girls that seems set to turn her into a household name. It will be released on both sides of the Atlantic and in South Africa in 2013. Publisher Little, Brown featured it on the cover of its US Spring/Summer catalogue, an indication that The Shining Girls is the release it is most excited about and has the highest expectations of for that season.

The book is about a time-travelling serial killer who commits murders through time without being traced until one of the women he tries to kill survives and starts to unravel his mystery.

If there was a lot of buzz around Beukes at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011, it was another South African author who was making her presence felt at Frankfurt in 2012. Sarah Lotz is one of our most prolific local writers, having published several books under her own name, two YA novels in collaboration with her daughter, under the pseudonym Lily Herne, and two horror novels in collaboration with SA author Louis Greenberg under the pseudonym SL Grey.

Just days before the Frankfurt Book Fair, publisher Hodder and Stoughton had a major pre-emptive offer accepted for world rights in The Three and one other novel by Lotz. The offer was made on the strength of a 33-page partial manuscript.

The Three is what is known as a high concept novel, which is to say it can be sold on the strength of a single-sentence pitch. Here is the blurb as it is currently being circulated:

“The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

“Dubbed The Three by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioural problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival … ”

The Three will be published in February 2014 and seems set to become a runaway bestseller.

One gets the sense that South African popular fiction is a snowball about to roll out of control, taking the international market by storm in the same way as Irish fiction did 15 years ago. Even with the current economic downturn, there has never been a more exciting time to be a writer or a reader in this country.

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    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I can’t bear the Sestige writers – they are as dreary as the Russian writers of an earlier period. I gather Coetzee has written another “angst and drang” book (safely from exile of course) about some ancestor who was a slave owner. I won’t be reading it.

      But I did love the Spud books, and I might try some of these.

      If you have not read “There are Ants in my Sugar” then do so – it is a real treat to read. I heard it read on SAFM and then took it out from the library to read again.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      There seem to be some very interesting South African Cookbooks recently published. One is by Mandela’s ex housekeeper on his favourite foods, another a cookbook based on the Indonesian influence. I have only heard about them on the radio. Can you not get a selection from the publishers and review them for us?

    • david saks

      And our movies are not so bad either, these days. Good to see South Africans competing at the top level at last, and not just in rugby and cricket. One thing I continue to regret, though, is the failure of the wider world to recognise perhaps our most original literary genius, H C Bosman.

    • Mary Sadler

      It would seem, however, that getting published in SA is still very much a question of luck and contacts and one even gets the impression that most submitted manuscripts are simply not read. For instance, I write historical fiction and am invariable told that this genre does not sell and would be published at a loss so, thanks but no thanks and don’t even bother to send. I have self-published with great success, but obviously not with the exposure a conventional publishing house would be able to provide, more’s the pity.

    • Dave Harris

      You see Fiona the fact that Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee etc attained international recognition is because they focused the light on the darkness in human nature that flourished under the shadow of apartheid and not only because of these awards. Remember, Alfred Nobel was the guy that invented dynamite – that gave birth the cancer of colonialism that ravaged our world and continues to do so! Surely a special place in hell reserved for him.

      The substantial monetary rewards that follow these self-serving awards only contaminate the creative process of writing, to further corporate interests. There are many creative minds that create masterpieces all the time but are still unknown. The western art and movie industries also operate in the same manner – to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. Its delusional to think that these “fashion” awards are engineered to benefit society.

      Thankfully social media is breaking this stranglehold and creative people will now start to achieve recognition and rewards democratically, rather than being beholden to these powers that have the hubris to elect the best writer, singer, actor etc!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Can anyone Remember this author?

      There was a series of Detective Stories written during the Apartheid years which were very good and really showed SA society as it was then. The main characters were an Afrikaner Police Captain and his Zulu sidekick who was a Constable.

      The Afrikaner Captain was having an affair with “the Widow Fourie” who was a character in her own right. The Zulu constable had a virtuous middle class wife and family in the township. The Afrikaner cop interviewed the Whites, but the Zulu cop always found out what was really going on from the servants.

      Which reminded me so much of Romney ignoring the servants as described in the recent Bert Oliver post. I found that happened in Britain as well in my Aristocratic Family – and it horrified me back in the 1960s. Our servants were always part of the family and no-one would have been dumb enough to ignore them.