I have fallen in and out of love with many writers of many different genres from different parts of the world since I was a kid including J.M.Coetzee, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, K Sello Duiker, Zoe Wicomb, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pumla Gqola, Teju Cole, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Eric Dyson, George Orwell…and a longer list that is frankly impossible to do justice in a single column.
Good writers have lots of differences between them. They also have things in common.
Two important traits that are more prevalent in good writers than in the average citizen or in mediocre writers are a deep sense of curiosity, and an admirable generosity of spirit.
Known And Strange Things by Teju Cole, for example, is a blueprint for what it means to be truly other-regarding as a writer. When Cole writes about the work of someone like Ivan Vladislavic, he observes so closely, so patiently, so analytically, that you wonder how on earth you had ever passed a comprehension test at school.
The critical trait at work here is a deep and genuine curiosity about others. That is a trait particularly in short supply in a time of self-regarding obsessiveness in much contemporary life. Cole is able to set his ego aside, dig deep, read slowly, and make sense of someone else’s ideas, craftsmanship, and their place in the world. He does not rush to insert himself gratuitously into every piece of writing.
Our rock star academic and author Professor Pumla Gqola has the same skill. Whether she writes about journalists, activists, poets, musicians, academics or just friends and family, Gqola has an enviable level of generosity that allows her to observe others more closely than many of us are willing or seemingly capable of doing. You are forced to re-think your appreciation of the work of someone like Simphiwe Dana after Gqola has made you see depths in the person and artistic output of Dana that had passed you by.
Other local writers like Zukiswa Wanner and Niq Mhlonqo have the same traits. These two, in fact, also expand the manifestations of curiosity and generosity with the incredible amount time they spend reading, promoting, and interacting with the work of fellow writers.
Many good writers appear to be solipsists, selfish and even competitive, and some are also unkind. These writers will remain good but will never be great.
To be capable of breaking from the ‘good’ category, and become great, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition is that you possess plentiful curiosity and generosity.
Nadine Gordimer delighted me once with a defence of eavesdropping. She made the point, playfully but seriously, that a love of eavesdropping is crucial if you want to be a good storyteller. She used to eavesdrop as a child when the adults were talking. She never stopped eavesdropping.
She could also have made the point by saying that curiosity about, and generosity towards, others are preconditions for compelling storytelling.
These thoughts about curiosity and generosity struck me recently for two reasons. The one reason is simply that I was moved by just how generous Gqola is in her new book, Reflecting Rogue, in her exposition of the ideas of other humans she has met or engaged.
The second reason, however, connects with my own ongoing curiosity about the state of public discussions, debate and discourse in our country. Social media platforms remain poisonous spaces where people troll each other with an insane amount of ill-will or affirm each other uncritically in echo chambers of like-minded cool cats.
Letters pages of newspapers, and online comment sections and blogs, seem to be spaces where people rush to trot out the least generous interpretations and observations about each other, and to exhibit a willingness to suspend curiosity about the internal logic of ideas, and the motives, of those who hold views that are in conflict with our own.
There are exceptions. The exceptions are not enough. Sometimes I think that one reason for this state of affairs is that there is a certain kind of literacy, specific to reading closely, that many people, including people with advanced degrees, lack. It takes practise, and some teaching, to learn how to read like Teju Cole and Pumla Gqola.
Some writers, like Bongani Madondo and Richard Pithouse, are particularly exemplary readers. They role-model for us all how to read with greater charity (not to be confused with reading uncritically).
When I have moments of despair, however, I fear the worst: That emotions like jealousy, and a penchant for malice, are in far greater supply in us humans than we own up to when we want to construct and desperately believe more generous depictions of human nature. No doubt the truth is messy and murky and somewhere between this dichotomous choice.
What’s surely not controversial – or so I hope – is that our social and political debate, and the possibility of living more comfortably with others who are very different to ourselves, would be enhanced enormously if we all learned to be more curious and more generous. A good starting point is to grapple with the lives and ideas of others rather than to dismiss them, waspishly.