Why we tell stories: The Writer's Dilemma

As a recent article from the New York review of Books points out, the idea of what it means to be a writer has changed over time.

In ancient times, writers were much like other skilled artisans. But the romantic era introduced the idea of the writer as a personality whose talent gave him the right to question society, giving birth to the cult of the genius.

The west has largely embraced the romantic vision of the writer as a personality rather then the artisanal of the ancients.  It has even professionalised the writer’s career path with academic degrees. But in Nigeria, being a writer is still no different from being a skilled artisan – much like the griots or praise-singers along the West African coast.

In Nigeria, many of those who are able to sustain themselves solely through their craft can do so precisely because they seek out the patronage of the more powerful. They ghost-write hagiographies for the wealthy political and business class, or they write copy for advertisers, newspapers, NGOs and large corporate bodies. Because there isn’t much infrastructure to support them, these writers are forced to hustle for a living.

Granted, this is no different from any writer anywhere in the world. However, the reality of this different mindset shows up in the concept of royalties. For a lot of Nigerian writers, the idea of royalties is often an abstract one – with writers preferring to be paid up front for a manuscript. Craft is a cash-in-hand affair, and who can blame them in a climate where there is such low patronage for creative books?

Thus, those who can, will write, edit and self-publish their books so that they can sell them and pocket the dividends immediately. Others will look West, knowing that everything – from the advances to the fame – is bigger “over there” and where they acknowledged more than at home.

This has bred something of a conflict in the world of Nigerian letters. A previous generation of writers who came of age through education systems that mirrored those of the European colonisers, share the romantic idea that those who have the skill must write as part of their social duty and responsibility  – something one must do for the greater good. Thus, many of them used their words to help fight colonialism and encourage African nationalism. However, a new generation of writers, bred on the nepotistic paternalism that many African states fell into after independence see their ability to tell a story as a commercial skill for which they expect to be paid.

Those writers who publically endorse the view of writing being a commercial skill are vilified by those who view writing as a social duty as mercenary and lacking integrity. There is a sense that they will do anything for money. While those for whom it is a commercial skill view the other side as naive, disingenuous about their real motives and overly idealistic – unable to see the world as it really is.

Who is to say which side is right? Great writing has come from both camps and as long as good stories continue to be told, does it really matter why they were written in the first place?


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