Books in South Africa don’t often make headline news. But a controversial subject, protests and disruptions at a book launch, and threats of book burning are sufficient to get South Africans talking about the place of books in society once again.
“Gangster State” is an exposé of current African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule’s alleged murky dealings as premier of the Free State province, and his rise to one of the governing party’s most influential positions. The book has stirred up passionate reactions, both for and against its contents.
This last happened in late 2017 when another investigative reporter Jacques Pauw published a similar book, “The President’s Keepers”. That book dealt with South Africa’s previous head of state, Jacob Zuma, who’s been closely linked to massive corruption. Zuma denies the allegations.
Clearly, this kind of book touches a certain chord in South African society. A quick glance through the top-selling books in the past few years shows that non-fiction, and particularly political non-fiction dealing with very topical events, is the most popular genre.
The trend can be traced back through a number of years, with nonfiction consistently dominating the Nielsen’s BookScan sales charts – the most comprehensive figures collected on book sales through commercial booksellers. This raises the question: why do political books do so well in South Africa?
This isn’t a uniquely South Africa phenomenon. Nonfiction is popular around the world. Celebrities’ memoirs or biographies, as well as history titles, are more likely to become bestsellers than any other kinds of nonfiction. Indeed, Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” caused a paper shortage in the US towards the end of 2018, as it was reprinted in such large quantities and at short notice to keep up with audience demand. This title has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Where South Africa differs is in the balance of sales between nonfiction and fiction. In most of the largest publishing markets, fiction is bought at much higher rates than nonfiction. In the US, for instance, average sales for fiction titles are between 4 000 and 8 000 copies, while the nonfiction average is lower, at 2 000 to 6 000 copies.
In South Africa, it’s the reverse. Nonfiction outsells fiction. This is not a new trend, either: political books found a ready audience throughout the apartheid period.
There are a few categories of nonfiction that do particularly well: political nonfiction, South African history (especially political history), religious books – and the ubiquitous cookbooks. The authors that have the edge tend to be journalists rather than academics, probably because their writing is so much more accessible.
Statistically, too, men write more nonfiction than women in South Africa, and so are more likely to produce top-selling titles, as was found by one of my post-graduate students, Kelly Ansara, in her Master’s study of the gender balance in SA publishing.
South African trends
In analysing the publishing lists and sales figures of the local nonfiction publishers – Pan Macmillan, Jonathan Ball, Penguin SA, Tafelberg and Jacana, on the whole – another difference becomes apparent. Books by and about celebrities are not as popular in South Africa as in the US and UK. Their sales are thus less predictable.
For instance, while former Springbok rugby coach Jake White’s “In Black and White” sold more than 60 000 copies in a week in 2008, star rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen’s “Man in the Mirror” was less successful. Comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime”, has been extremely successful, but titles by local musicians and actors such as Bonang Matheba and Somizi Mhlongo have sold comparatively few copies.
The raft of competing titles that hit the shelves after the murder conviction of former Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius did not take off as well as expected. Excellent titles on topics as diverse as climate change and South African art sell a respectable number, but don’t make the bestseller list.
Many of the country’s nonfiction titles sell several thousand copies very quickly, but few of them have staying power. Current interest is intense in topics like state capture and corruption scandals. But it fades quickly, leading to a short shelf-life for a number of political books. Only a few gain the perennial interest and staying power of a title like “I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko or Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”.
Many commentators suggest that the interest in political and current affairs titles reflects a nation trying to make sense of its tumultuous political environment. The huge political and social shifts of the past 20 to 30 years are still influencing South Africans’ daily lives. With one corruption scandal following another, trust in the authorities is low. But citizens still seek authoritative overviews and answers – in the nonfiction titles that line our shelves.
There is little reason to predict that the trend will change. However, if the threats mount, then we may see authors and publishers shifting to less controversial topics. For now, it’s great to see books in the news again.
Like Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” it portrays President Donald Trump as an “emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader,” whose senior staff struggle to contain his most dangerous impulses.
This same view of Trump was reiterated in a Sept. 5 anonymous New York Times op-ed, which, as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse observed, is “just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.”
But whether “Fear” tells us something new matters less than the fact that the book is yet another broadside against Trump’s image. It adds more fuel to the suspicions many have about the president’s behind-the-scenes behavior.
In fact, Woodward’s “Fear” – together with Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Omarosa Manigault’s “Unhinged” and the anonymous op-ed – is part of a long tradition of political “secret histories,” a genre that recounts salacious and scandalous details about the dealings, relationships and temperaments of those in power. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and it’s one that my co-editor and I explore in our book “The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820.”
Secret histories tend to take two forms. There is the plain-spoken, just-the-facts approach, similar to Woodward’s “Fear.” Then there are novelistic accounts with major figures depicted using pseudonyms, as in “Primary Colors,” a lightly fictionalized dramatization of the Clinton White House.
But the secrets unveiled in these works usually don’t come out of nowhere. Instead, they contain anecdotes that have long been whispered or suspected. The goal of secret histories is to emphasize embarrassing stories about a ruler or government – to propel the drumbeat of negative coverage in order to strengthen the opposition and, in some instances, to even topple governments.
Secret histories date back at least to the sixth century, when the military historian Procopius wrote down sordid anecdotes about Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, in a work that became known as “Anekdota,” which translates to “unpublishable things.” Ten centuries later, it appeared in Latin as “Historia Arcana,” or “Secret History.”
As a military historian, Procopius had helped create the myth of Justinian’s greatness in his eight-book treatise “The Wars of Justinian.” But in his “Anekdota,” Procopius finally told the ugly backstory of Justinian’s reign: his lust, his seizure of others’ property, his petty vengefulness and his persecution of non-Christians. The work was almost certainly circulated in manuscript scroll among Justinian’s enemies. While it probably damaged his standing, Justinian was nonetheless able to retain his grip on power.
After French and English translations of Procopius’ “Anekdota” appeared in 1669 and 1674, secret histories in the same style began to appear about King Charles II of England.
These tended to focus on his mistresses – particularly the infamous Duchess of Cleveland, who manipulated Charles for over a decade, persuading him to grant her land and money and bestow titles of nobility on their illegitimate children.
These reports, which read like tabloid-style gossip, were never just about sex.
Readers of one account, titled “The Amours of the King of Tamaran,” likely realized that if the king could be duped and controlled by his powerful mistress, he was also susceptible to being influenced by England’s adversaries.
These publications didn’t bring down the politically skilled Charles II, who was glad to take Louis XIV’s money but savvy enough to decide against changing his country’s religion.
They did, however, sow suspicion towards Charles II and his family. After Charles II’s death, his openly Catholic younger brother, James, ascended the throne in 1685, instilling fear that England would return to Catholicism. Seven Englishmen wrote to Prince William of Orange – who was a Protestant – pleading that he invade England. In the Glorious Revolution that ensued, James II fled to France, and Parliament declared William and his wife, Mary, joint monarchs of England.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 helped inspire American colonists to rebel against another British monarch, with the not-so-secret history of George’s III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
Some might disparage Woodward’s book as “anonymously-sourced gossip.”
But gossip has always been important to humankind. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes in “Sapiens,” his best-selling account of early human history:
“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”
Those who dismiss Woodward’s book underestimate the power that gossip and behind-the-scenes revelations wield over politics – and the way it has shaped the course of human history.