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Beyond Social Commitment, Meaning and Audience: Towards the Soyinkanisation of Nigerian Literature

Language is the greatest pitfall of the upcoming generation – Titi Adepitan

I begin by explaining the semanticisation of the coinage, “Soyinkanisation”. I do not mean that Nigerian literature should entirely assume the shape of Wole Soyinka’s writing. I do not mean that Soyinka is the best model for writers in Nigeria. Nor do I mean that he has the most ideal style of writing that every body should emulate. Indeed, the recent projection of Soyinka’s success would draw sneer from several Chinweizus around, whose focal point of anti-Soyinka criticisms is the so-called modernist complexity. However, whichever way we like or hate Soyinka’s writings, we must recognise that the man has craft. To ignore this fact or give it a backhanded dismissal is to expose our ignorance of what real craft is. Soyinka, even in his ordinary essays, exudes tautened literary craft and, in this gift from Muse, only few persons can be named to have descended from the same line: Niyi Osundare, Adebayo Williams, Ben Okri, Maik Nwosu and a few others. That craft which regrettably eludes several writers (both known and unknown) from the beginning of our literature till today, is the tropological ability the writer has to invent a personal idiom with literary language.

The recently held international colloquium in honour of Soyinka (its theme not withstanding) turned out to be a formidable junction at which Nigerian literature needed to be graded, with a look at the past, the present and the future. The speakers at the four-day event variously did such grading. The usual generational rhyme was repeated: writers of this generation gloat in mediocrity and have failed to measure up to the writers of the past generations. To a large extent, this has become axiomatic in the intergenerational discourse in our literature, in spite of Nduka Otiono’s self- and friends-glorifying effort captured in a highly contestable misnomer: Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria. Nothing captures this phenomenon more than Biodun Jeyifo’s choice of title, beginning with this paradox: “The Unfortunate Children of Fortunate Parents”. I intend to project my long-held opinion that whatever is seen as the failure of our writers today is rooted in watery language, which is, to call a spade a spade, not peculiar to our generation. In fact, it began as the failure of the previous generation and leprously infected our generation, which, regrettably, is unable to wean itself from the tutelage of the previous generation. This failure of literary language has ever since been occasioned by the undue subordination of our literature to social commitment, meaning and audience.

Perhaps the basic inadequacy of our literature today may not be the purported haste or prolificity that characterises it, but the inability of the writers to match craft with social commitment. Most Nigerian writers take it as a gospel that the sources of what they write must be from their immediate societies and, more than that, must demonstrate their distaste and disapproval for the socio-political shortcomings of the land. Obviously, other writers from other lands have this attitude that, we may accept, is congenital to those with the calling of writing. As valid as this assertion seems, it has, to me, constituted a distraction from the business of good writing in Nigeria. Maybe because we are overdoing it. Every human being in the society is as politically conscious as the writer. In fact, those who are not writers may be more politically conscious, especially those who are closely affected by the inhuman gestures of political leaders. The writer, for instance, cannot claim to be more politically conscious than the student or the journalist. The difference between the writer and the journalist, however, is that, whatever the level of his consciousness, the writer must adopt a personal trope, an engaging craft, through which he can indirectly state his distaste towards the inhuman policies in the society. The craft is what the writer presents to his readers, first, for the purpose of pleasure and thereafter the readers can make any meaning for themselves of whatever social or ideological standing the writer belongs.

Literature fails when it attempts to speak directly. It also fails when, in the doctrine of the Luckasian socialist realism, it sets to depict the society vividly. I do rather agree with Theodor Ardono that art should be set apart from society, i.e. the contact between literature and reality should be indirect and it is this indirectness that confers significance and power on literature. The eagerness of our literature to speak directly to our society is what has given rise to the poverty of literary language.

All of Soyinka’s poems, dramas and novels are, no doubt, socially committed. His very complex Madmen and Specialists is no less socially committed. Even the early Okigbo, adjudged too complex for human comprehension by those who choose to debase artistry with the “myth” of simpleness, is socially committed. But the social commitment, with these writers, is underneath the bustling craft largely manifested in their creatively electrifying literary language. Soyinka and Okigbo are outstanding peculiarities in our literature. When they came upon the scene, each adopted his personal trope, which other people did not like. Their utterances about their writings – such as Okigbo’s poetry-for-poets identity and Soyinka’s tigritude slap on Negritude – were considered outrageous in a literature that was in desperate need of social commitment and audience patronage. In their obduracy, they pursued their personal tropes; especially Soyinka, with unsurpassing vigour, (despite that his purported descent from complexity to near-simpleness is unduly drummed about with the intent of literary moralising). Today, while Soyinka stands as the most influential dramatist, a dramatist whose strength lies largely in the discursive idiomatisation of the blend resulting from the fusion of English and Yoruba rhetoric or speech wisdom, Okigbo is being celebrated (even by the descendants of those who find Okigbo’s complexity repulsive) as the most influential poet in Nigerian literature.

Recently, at ANA reading, I raised the question that why should Nigerian female writers write mostly about the condition of women in the society and shy away from venturing into other aspects of life. The answer (always) is that a writer should write about her immediate problem, what bothers her, and ought to do so with a sense of condemnation and correction. Maria Ajima says the woman is always with pots, plates and spoons and should not avoid writing about them (even though the woman has learnt to sing anti-domestic melody). This, in its crudest sense, is social commitment. A woman eager to lend her voice to the unending condition of women in her society – often swollen-headed with the idea of reaching her fellow women in the society, even those who do not appreciate metaphors – easily abandons the potency of metaphorisation because it is theorised that the importance of the message alone can and do really make literature. It is this syndrome that is responsible for the deficiency of craft in the Nigerian feminist novel. When a woman publishes a novel, she is praised for upholding the course of the woman, not for any remarkable craft; and any contrary criticism is conveniently branded as phallocentric.

Since the writer eagerly commits himself to sociopolitical issues, he is set out, in his writing, to essentially mean something. He establishes an intention and this intention erroneously takes the place of craft. Meaning, which ordinarily should be the construction of the reader (which is why a literary work is susceptible to multi-interpretations) becomes the construction of the writer. One uncreative way our writers do it today is the imposition of prefaces and the purchase of forewords as egoistic prefixes to their literary works. What need is there for a volume of poetry or a novel or a play to have a preface (in which the writer explains his intention) and foreword(s)? A writer must not set out to mean, but to create; for when he does that he will ultimately fail to mean what he intends to mean. It is the reader who makes meaning from what the writer has created. And a literary language should hypnotise the reader with its fresh beauty before it means something to him. A writer’s creation should be a free work of imagination artistically baked in a sublime abstraction that, at its apogee, does not take cognizance of any such economics and social studies as commitment. Since a writer is a product of society or belongs to humanity, his metaphorisation will certainly find contexts in his relationship with his society. But his first duty is the business of perfecting metaphorisation and creating a personal and peculiar idiom for himself.

Where is the heap of our socially committed writings through which the authors’ have intended to make meanings to the ordinary masses of the society today? At a Faculty Seminar, I presented a paper on Femi Osofisan’s dramas, reading them, of course, from the broadest path through which they can be read: Marxism. An issue that preoccupied the audience after my presentation could be summed up in one question: “When Osofisan found himself as Director of National Theatre, what revolution did he bring to it, since most of his dramas directly preach revolution?” To me, such questions are post-Marxist questions that should veer our minds away from the latest commitment sensation: Postcolonialism. When our writers (instead of critics) become conscious of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism, a risk to our literature emerges which is that except such writers possess passionate artistry like Soyinka, Osundare, Okri, Nwosu Akachi-Adimora Ezeigbo, Chiedu Ezeana, Uche Nduka, Remi Raji and a few others, the literary craft will be mortgaged for the so-called urgent messages of the writers that those theories sermonize.

Writers like Kole Omotoso, Osofisan, Festus Iyayi, Bode Sowande, Funso Aiyejina, Tanure Ojaide, Ezenwa-Ohaeto and others, fascinated by socialist realism and consequently debase the language of literature by softening the metaphors, by surrendering aesthetics to bare folklore (where vernacular clichés and proverbs are presented as literary language, unrefined by creative tempers), and by insisting that literature must be made simple for the common man when, indeed, the common man is in need of sublime profundity of literature, create a literary precedence bereft of aesthetics but impregnated with impotent ideologies . This is the path the new writer woefully treads. To the common man, literature is naturally an intellectualised domain and he often wants to escape into it to test the metre of his intellectualism. The issue of gaining access into a work of literature by the common man is elastic, by the way. And to say a work of art has to be quite simple to be enjoyed results in the kind of fallacy that is associated with mediocrity. Each time I teach Osundare, my students have always disagreed with the general view that Osundare’s poetry is simple (or deceptively simple, as some apostles of simpleness would put it) and yet they crow about that it is the poetry they enjoy most. Osundare’s poetry certainly has complexity manifested in the profundity of his metaphors and startling diction largely picked from nature. Apart from his rare gift of eloquence (another poet with this gift is Remi Raji), Osundare it is who can match Soyinka in humourous coinages and very fresh turns of phrases. Nwosu is an emerging maverick in this latitude.

I do think that it is the simplistic (sorry, simple) literary language of the self-acclaimed Marxists in our literature that has sown the seed that we are reaping today in the expansive watery language that writers and critics lyricise and condemn at the same time. It has been preached in several quarters that simpleness is a literary virtue and complexity or profundity is a vice. Most writers have thus chosen to be simple: if you pick a passage from recent fiction, you will find the sentences mostly simple in the order of S + V + O. The words are usually plain and what we call figures of speech are becoming enemies to straightforward comprehension, as part of the preachment today is that a literary work has to be understood at a single reading, even if it is a poem. Combined with the inevitable grammatical and typographical errors, the plainness of the language becomes repulsive and today everyone rises at every occasion to frown at the language of the younger generation.

Indeed, there is a modicum of truth Ojaide’s paradox that writers of the new generation are not doing anything different from his generation. I take this to be the summation of the untautened artistry and weak literary language that the new generation has inherited from his generation and has refused to let go. With the exception of few writers – I have mentioned here – the writers of today, like those before them, deviate from the kind of craft that has made Soyinka great because they have desperate messages for an audience illusorily constructed in their minds. Do you realise that quotable lines have eluded our literature today?There must be something metaphorical or paradoxical about a line that can stick to your memory. The depth of language is what differentiates literature from other kinds of writing just as the profundity of speech (proverbialised) distinguishes an elder from a young person.

If the poet, as Ofeimun says, in an interview, ought to be in the enterprise of moving language forward, i.e. reinventing language, then the audience should be poised to learn language from the poet and, indeed, any creative writer. What will the audience learn when the poet reduces literary language to banality because he wants to mean, he wants to reach, or he wants to raise consciousness? What else could be more disappointing than when the poet comes out, at the peak of his audience-patronising orgy, to say that he resorts to the use of clichés or pidgin English in order to reach the audience? Our literature has suffered too much from the art of audience patronising. Writers should rise and aim at the peak of their imagination with intense creativity instead of worrying about the audience who may not be able to operate in the same height of imagination with the writer. Indeed if Okigbo and Soyinka had not ascended the height of their imaginations, no one would be celebrating them today.

The beatification of Area BoyI strongly suggest that a writer must not forego the sublimity of art for his lazy audience. Otherwise our poems will “metamorphose” into children rhymes, especially with the poor standards of education and consequent poor performance in English language. This audience (of common people) is usually not even there. Most literary works today are read by writers (themselves) and scholars. Our students only read when they are compelled. We know what has happened to reading culture in spite of the fact that the post-Soyinkan disciples of simpleness have brought literary language low to accommodate general readership.

Every work of art must have a level of complexity manifested in the profundity of the language and the uniqueness of the style. There is nothing in storyline or theme that can strike a critical reader. Even in the dramaturgy. Ahmed Yerima’s plays, for instance, have certain arresting dramaturgy, but the shallowness of his language will dwarf his dramas in the presence of Soyinka’s dramas. If not for Soyinka’s craft (and had it been it were written by those whose language must mean to the ordinary people), The Beatification of Area Boys, a play about the street people, would have been a poor sensation. Another writer will reason that since it is a play about the poor people, the language has to be very simple, bereft of metaphors, so that the poor people can understand it.

I totally agree with those who say language is the major failure of our generation. But, as Jeyifo said in his keynote address at the colloquium, it is the failure of all generations. The damage reflects more in our time. To arrest this, our writers must mask their social commitment in artistic garb that should be a chosen personal trope. It is the reader’s duty to make out meanings from that garb, and the writer’s audience is constituted by the acceptability of that garb. A writer worthy of his craft does not reach out for audience; rather it is his work that will draw audience unto itself. Great novels, dramas and poems have constant and large audience because of their intrinsic values. The audience is not only fascinated by the idiom of such great works, it also sources wisdom of speech from such works.

I conclude this essay with a word on what many people see as prescriptive criticism. Someone has argued passionately somewhere that nobody should tell another person how to write or what to write. No one should tell anybody what is good or bad literature. This is taken as a prescriptive howler. Sure, a writer has the liberty to write what he wants to write – like a woman who chooses to write about women – and he can choose his language, as some of us write poems in Pidgin English. But prescriptive criticism sets in when a critic or, even, an ordinary reader reads works of art and naturally, instinctively grades them. He praises a work with literary accomplishment and dismisses a work with literary deficiency. (And somebody hollers: Who sets the standards?). If the critical reader does not dismiss that with deficiency, then he has lost his critical mind; he has helped to sink literature into mediocrity. In this age of literary narcissism, critics and reviewers praise their friends’ works at the expense of literary standards. We cannot avoid and must not undermine prescriptive criticism when it is obvious that literature thrives on artistic standards. Indeed now we need prescriptive criticism to arrest our literature from the un-Soyinkan pitfall that Titi Adepitan, as well as other people, has identified. In a reaction to my essay, “Literary Language and Recent Nigerian Fiction”, a young self-important Nigerian professor of literature living outside Nigeria dismissed my prescriptive, formalistic tendencies about literary language as the kind of talk that is only valid in an Ajengule bus. Why should I talk about language when I should be spending my energy on Postcolonialism and the other isms? But my honest contention is that in literature, isms are not the first things, but the craft in the language. I enjoy Arrows of Rain and Invisible Chapters not for their socio-political messages, but for the unique metaphors and fresh language of the novelists. That is what has made Shakespeare great; that is what has made Soyinka great; that is what has made Nardine Gordimer great (oh yes, she doesn’t write: “That girl is strong”; she writes: “That girl is a lioness”!).

E. E. Sule
E. E. Sule
E. E. Sule is the pen name of Sule E. Egya, a professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies at Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University. He is a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and of the African Humanities Program. Besides academic work, Egya also writes poetry and fiction. His poetry volume What the Sea Told Me won the 2009 ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara Poetry Prize, and the AWF/Anthony Agbo Prize for Poetry. His novel Sterile Sky was long-listed for NLNG Prize for Nigerian Literature in 2012, and won the 2013 Commonwealth Prize, Africa Region.


  1. This article hits a nail on the head of present day literature. Writers are thrust in between standing true to the hard work required by their craft and ‘drawing in a wider audience’.
    It is noticeable that authors in the UK are more inclined to hone their craft of writing. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Andrea Levy’s Small Island are testament to this.
    Lines like, ‘But Gilbert’s hands surrendered into the air and that wretched ugly extremity began deflating, sagging, drooping, until it dangled, flip-flopping like a dead bird in a tree'(105, Small Island) are so fresh you want to read them again and again. You imagine the thought that went into the prose and syntax by the writer.
    I hope to write serious fiction one day and face criticism squarely in the face.

  2. An excellent essay on the current perspectives of contemporary Nigerian Literature. With highlights of the sparks in the dim light.

    The best examples of works of genius are yet to be published since the leading publishing houses Longman and Heinemann Educational Books became dormant from the late 1980s to date.

    Most of the unpublished classic novels given to Longman and Heinemann Educational Books have not been published. My “Man of the Earth” and seven other novels are still not published. Also included are volumes of plays and poems and I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of self-publishers on rampage in Nigeria.

    Olu Oguibe is ignorant and since he left the shores of Nigeria, he is yet to excel as a writer. The only person who has impressed me is Ben Okri and also coming up fast is Chris Abani who wrote “Graceland”. Sola Osofisan and Akin Adesokan are higly gifted writers. But, most people are ignorant of this fact. The next Nigerian writer who will likely win the Nobel Prize is Ben Okri for his genius is not questionable. And after Ben Okri, who is next Sola, Osofisan, Akin Adesokan, Chris Abani and Helon Habila will excel.

    I will not mention my name until two or three of my novels are published. My worth should prove my genius and not my mouth.

  3. Have you read Sola Osofisan, Akin Adesokan, Chris Ebani, Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima, Adeleke Adeyemi and others Go and read all the unpublished masterpieces with Longman and Heinemann Educational Books.

    The next Nigerian who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature is Ben Okri.

  4. Every piece of creative endeavour will attract certain degree of criticism.This is ths case if we take cognisance of the fact that creative works are mixture of entertainment and plotlines.It is impossible to entertain and entrench the plot without language.The works which you have dragged through the mud have some things of interest in them. So, at times I wonder if criticsm is not a subjective exercise.

  5. I understand the angst of the author of this piece, but at the same time, I do think the literary community takes itself too seriously. Books serve many different purposes. Some provide us a way to study and appreciate the beauty of language, and others exist just to entertain us, plain and simple. I don’t know about you, but I like to be entertained. Only a select few really appreciate literary fiction. I am fairly certain that the majority of the people who have read Shakespear did so because they were mandated in school, and very of them actually fall in love with the prose enough to go looking to read it on their own. So are the rest of us barbarians? Perhaps in the eyes of the literary community, yes. But when I am sitting on the beach on a hot summer day looking to relieve some of the stress in my life, I pick up a Sydney Sheldon, and I thank God for commercial fiction!

  6. This is an excellent dance in the square, which should draw coins to the sweaty face of the dancer. I, therefore, place several. I also thank the writer for reminding us about the need to tell stories with the language of our African forebears. A language that dances with the story and tickles the ears.
    If I recall right, African night entertainments put a lot of emphasis on 1. audience understanding of the story, 2. Sustaining the interest of listeners and but not limited to using language that will make the story easily memorable.
    Above all these, is the moral lessons a well strung tale is teaches.
    It is a little bit unfair to believe that it is only writers who pay less attention to the beautiful art of story-telling (creating intrigues) and more on the vehicle which is the language that make good writers. I think that a good African writer must not sound like a classical English writer like Okri, to be the best we can give to our people. Our audience are Africans and the key elements of African story telling must be African. Unless you believe that it is only writers who write to tickle the ears of white people that write good literature. African literature must not be interpreted with the style of our colonial masters but clearly with style of our forefathers who invented and passed on the rites to us. Thanks.

  7. Very few African intellectuals of the literary arts dwell on the language of literature;it is still a relatively new field here, which is enough reason why E.E. Sule`s effort should be praised.He has really delved deep into the subject and has whetted the appetite of those of us in the literary field. Writing on language, it is encouraging that he has himself demonstrated good command of the queen`s language.I urge him to keep talking about fiction.

  8. I have always thought that Nigerian writing is pompous, especially amongst its writers in reportage and critiquing. Journalists flood their stories with grandiloquence, essayists clog intelligent point-making with periphrasis. I find that there are valid ideas in this piece. It is certainly important that writers should leave their audience with memorable images and thought-provoking expressions that give colour to the fabric of the narrative. However, your disdain for the reader is wrong. Writers everywhere realise that first and foremost your reader should not be left in the dark. Writing, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed, is a strange calling because it needs validation, and if you cannot make your readers understand you, your writing is effectively worthless. I have read most of the writers that you have castigated and I think it must be a matter of personal opinion that you are not moved by their metaphors because I find that, though Helon Habila makes striking use of language, Miss Adichie’s prose is quite often meatier.

    Again, on the issue of American writing, this waylaying of American stylisation as generically unsuitable is, I think, unfair. Anybody who’s read a John Updike or a Jack Kerouac novel knows that these are geniuses of the turn-of-phrase. Looking into the startling works of Toni Morrison will always unearth gems of imagery that are unsurpassed anywhere. I think it might be beneficial to read more American writers before consigning them all to the wastebin. Similarly, this attempt to classify what constitutes ‘African’ writing will always fail because of the diversity of history and heritage in Africa. Perhaps you should have stuck with the term ‘Nigerian’ writing. As for South African writers, even a cursory inspection of Nadine Gordimer’s oeuvre will show that apartheid is not the only concern of storytelling.

    Writing should be difficult, that is T.S. Eliot’s view. And he might concur with you on some observations. At the same time, writing should not alienate readers, that is the perspective more often celebrated. I think you might benefit from learning to appreciate both viewpoints, Sir.

    ‘Namdi Awa-Kalu (please email me if you disagree- n.u.awakalu@gmail.com)

    PS If “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” is the foundation of your argument I can definitely see where you’re coming from. Armah’s description of the overflowing receptacle of rubbish at the start of that novel and his relation of this to the failed promises of Ghanaian government is very satisfying for any reader.

  9. This article is superb.You really illuminated the literary landscape for young writers.Being your Fomer Student at Nasarawa State University Keffi, I am
    really anointed with your intellectual sermon.

  10. I must commend you for this thoughtful, insightful and stimulating article. Without doubt, Soyinka is an enigma worthy of emulation. He has without doubt raised the consciousness of Nigerian Literature to the global scale and we are happy for that. However, I would also like you to look at some of the limiting factors, hindrances and unique challenges faced by contemporary writers which the older generations were fortunate not have experienced. These challenges have their direct and indirect relationship to the kind of ‘popular writing’ that are found in modern day literary spheres. Again, I need to state that I am not making apology for mediocrity but I want to direct your article to sociological exigencies. I do not believe that the language of a work of art must be discrete, difficult, obscure or packed in figurative innuendos to be classified as master piece nor should a work be directed towards simplistic tactic to please the audience but a work of art must communicate, relate and inspire. To canonize a particular form is to debased art and become selective.

  11. I have been saying quite the same thing about Nigerian writers. Most of them are not quotable, because they fail to create new lines of thoughts,or use language masterfully. I think a writer should learn to be (not necessarily become) a philosopher first,then a writer. Aren’t we tired of “Our ancestors say”…?

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