How Not to Write a Review: On Tope Folarin’s Genesis and the Caine Prize

Modified on August 2nd, 2016 at 11:06 am

Days after the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist was released, the literary blog Brittle Paper made an announcement. It will get critics to review the five stories over a few weeks. One of these stories was ‘Genesis’ by Tope Folarin. Published by the journal Callaloo, it was reviewed by Kola Tubosun. The review focused on the story’s autobiographical nature. Proclaiming it “nakedly autobiographical,” Tubosun wrote that the piece should not have been allowed into a competition for fiction.

He writes,

There are, I now realise, elements of autobiography in Miracle, [Folarin’s 2013 Caine Prize winning story] hiding in plain sight all along.

the trouble here is that many people knew this already. And if they didn’t, it is information unnecessary to enjoying the story. The review continues, and at some point offers the briefest glimpse of literary illumination:

The autobiographical elements [of Miracle] were either ignored or tolerated in the understanding that fiction is sometimes truer than reality, or that the fact didn’t remove from the universality and beauty of that story, which is a fact.

This self-evident sentence raises a question: If this was true then, what has changed—have the rules for writing fiction altered from 2013 to 2016? Who knows? So on we go to this passive-aggressive assertion:

But it is non-fiction, which doesn’t make it any less brilliant, but just unqualified for a competition judging the best short story, defined as a piece of prose fiction.

If those are quibbles, the big one is in the last paragraph:

Maybe the Caine Prize should explicitly begin to reward African writers who write non-fiction memoirs and autobiographies. Call it The Caine Prize for African Literature, if you will. (If not, then it should explicitly say so and exclude erring entries). But since “Miracle” won the prize in 2013 and “Genesis” is on the short list today, maybe it already does!

That phoney exclamation mark aside—Fitzgerald called it laughing at your own joke—the piece was at its best tangential to what ‘Genesis’ contained. At its worst, the piece was needless.

Of course, Folarin has baggage: when he was nominated in 2013, he was said to be too American to show up on the list. His wife reminded us about this on Twitter, adding that now his writing is said to be too autobiographical. She is asking: How can this man please Nigerians?

She can relax. We don’t all think so. If a review must mention that a story has some autobiography, it must also do more. If a writer says his work is fiction, the critic treats it as such. No matter what else he thinks, the critic must engage the text. Give that great autobiographical reveal a paragraph or two, and then give readers more. What is on offer with the ‘Genesis’ review, instead, is a piece of apprentice journalism of about a thousand and half words, with over a thousand of those words spent chasing an extra-textual concern.

Social media offers an eloquent shorthand for the appropriate response to this approach: SMH.

It so happens that the gods have a way of working these things out: Nobody said anything about the review, good or bad. No doubt, the wider African literati read the contribution but no one pointed out that the reviewer shirked his duty by not engaging with the text and story of ‘Genesis’. But the writer, Folarin, lives in the US; he is not like the rest of us who know and love Tubosun, who will meet him at the next Afropolitan Vibes concert. Also, he is the one who has had his work written about. So in a tragi-comic move, Folarin blocked Tubosun on Facebook.

Tragic because the review is not good (or bad) enough to earn that level of spite. Comic because the review revealed more about the critic than the writer. If a reviewer’s only quarrel with a fiction story is that it is based on fact, then there’s only one fact: that reviewer has not been reading either criticism or fiction very much. What the ‘review’ provided was something other critical engagement. And if we are to strip the world of autobiographical fiction, we would have few novels and short stories. Neither Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys nor Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises will exist. If we are to wag our fingers at writers who have taken part of their lives for fiction, then every writer is suspect.

The gods were working, but the devil was working overtime. No one knew about the social media blocking until Tubosun announced it on social media. Two things followed the announcement: the review that had been ignored received new life and a needless argument on Folarin’s thin skin turned up.

This last thing is unfortunate. Writers have thin skins; that is a given. But the argument should be about the review’s failure.

I believe the Caine Prize should take the argument for the nonsense that it is. It already did a great job back in 2002, honouring one of the best stories (I think it is the best) to win the prize: Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘Discovering Home’—an excellent piece of writing with seeds in the author’s lived life. From the ruins of life is art made. This ought to be general knowledge.

I worry that some random foreigner is shaking his/her head at the quality of argument the literarily enlightened people of Nigeria are having. I should worry for Callaloo. Everyone seems to forget that if this ludicrous argument is taken seriously, the publishing methods of a highly respected publication can be questioned. But Callaloo knows better. They are likely to unlook the needless noise.

Unfortunately, Brittle Paper has publicised the social media argument, failing to screen capture the quality arguments on Facebook and sticking more to the 140-character gibber of Twitter, framing the argument wrongly by focusing on something called the ‘authenticity of fiction’. A sad development. As a way of correcting this, I write this in bold: The issue surrounding Tope Folarin’s 2016 Caine Prize story, Genesis, has nothing to do with the story itself and everything to do with a misleading piece published as a review.

**

Hours after Folarin’s Crime became public on Facebook, a friend sent a message saying the reviewer should stick to his day job. I won’t go that far. Everyone has an off-day.

Instead, it’s important that one considers the qualities of a review. To quote three qualities I stand by—as mentioned in a review by the London Review of Books on ‘Hugging the Shore’, John Updike’s award winning collection of criticism–“depth…textual attentiveness and literary grace”. Judging the first and last qualities may depend on the reader; one man’s meat and so on. The critic, however, owes the writer the second quality. After all, what is a writer without his text, his words, his sentences? Tubosun’s piece may have some literary grace, if plodding on occasion. But its complete lack of textual awareness negates that grace, making the ‘review’ unworthy of “Genesis”, whatever the story’s virtues or shortcomings.

Mind you—this hoopla might have been ignored, but it is pertinent to show that a reviewer’s persecution isn’t necessarily proof of the quality of his work. In this case, Folarin blocked his reviewer but the review in question has only a little more than an iota of critical value. For the sake of the Nigerian literary culture, it is hoped that somewhere someone isn’t imbibing the wrong doctrine from reading that piece, thinking that reviewing or criticism is the same thing as amateur investigative journalism. Or mere gossip with grammar.

7 COMMENTS

  1. When did drawing influences from our lives
    become such a grievous crime? When I write
    about the Market women of Ogbete and their
    motheaten wrappers in my stories; is it not
    fiction? But they are real characters. Is there
    anything like a fictionometer that dictates the
    proportion of nonfiction that disqualifies it as
    fiction. Say, fiction must make up 50%. Lol. Even
    in autobiographies, why do authors make
    themselves quintessential and heroic; a bit of
    fiction. If writers want to get nominated for Caine
    Prize, tearing down Tope’s story is not a sure
    way. When I read Genesis, I took ownership of
    that story. I melted into the world Tope has
    weaved for me and me alone. If that is not fiction,
    then tell me what is fiction?

  2. Lol. Metacriticism be like hit job contracted to a qualified assasin by the collective Olisa Staff.

    The autobiographical nature of Tope’s piece did have an influence on the enjoyment of the piece, and it’s just paining me that the botched review has stymied any proper consideration of this.

    The autobiographical details of Genesis can be gleamed from the other already-published parts of this body of work—a to-be-released fictionalised account of the authors childhood, per his own admission.

    So, why should we pay attention to Genesis? What does it try to do that the other published parts have not done? These should have been the questions top-critics (re: brittle paper’s editorial assessment) would have been expected to address, instead, we’re now treated to critical analysis of what is essentially petty lit-chat. Na wa.

    And I’m not sure Caine Prize should be let off the hook as easily as this piece suggests. Hundreds of entries and this piece by Tope Folarin is what we get? Last year it was Afolabi. Someone should be asking them to reaccess their criteria. This is not so strange in the world of lit awards. Are we to expect that an essay from Teju Cole’s collection would make the shortlist next year (if Boda Teju’s publisher decides to be mischievous) and we’ll all be singing kumbaya? I hope no one is thinking that oft-peddled ‘we should be grateful’. Caine prize needs criticism as much as anyone else. Don’t they need our rabble-rousing to justify their relevance and source for funds?

    Anyway sha, we needn’t worry if the rest of the literary world is laughing at us. That they pay that kind of attention to out petty lit-chat at all would be the joke in itself.

  3. Reading a review before reading the reviewed work is often misleading. If one had read Tubosun’s review of Genesis before reading the story, we’d be guided with the reviewer’s own idea rather than the author’s.

    Folarin has written a story he terms fiction, who are we to peer into his personal life and decide which part of the story is autobiographical? That isn’t only judgmental, but also attacking.

  4. Who wrote this piece ? We want to know.

    Not to skin or give them blows
    To give them a place in the Caine Prize show.

    Who wrote this piece?
    We want to know.

  5. Claim your byline, my friend. You will still enjoy pepper soup and beer on Kola’s bill at Freedom Park. He is that thick-skinned. You may even rewrite that sentence ‘Everyone has an off-day’. That was Kola at his best; can’t do any better–witness the glee with which he took to social media to claim as trophy the fact that Tope Folarin kindly unfriended him and that his wife so magnanimously tried to correct the error of that unashamedly terrible review. Another person with some acumen and self-awareness would have taken some time to reconsider the matter. But not my Kola. As you rightly observe, he is the first to applaud, and often with that exclamation mark, any feat he accomplishes, even if it is only successfully jumping over a gutter in his street with his long legs(another accomplishment of his).

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