“It’s 1594, and Romeo & Juliet is premiering; let’s take a look around to see what else is out there. It…sucks. There’s Christopher Marlowe (who might have given Shakespeare a run for his money if he hadn’t gone and gotten himself killed), and that’s about it (Ben Jonson hadn’t happened yet). Other than that, you’ve got a bunch of straggling morality plays and some stilted court masques and a handful of other dramatists’ whose work history has been very ok with forgetting. … And Shakespeare basically made it up as he went along. … The mistake that some people sometimes make is thinking of Shakespeare as some lofty, unapproachable font of profound art. He wasn’t. He was a guy who made his living from one play to the next, trying to write things that people would like. He was, a commercial artist trying to write things that would be marketable (another word he invented). Also, some of his plays were terrible — for every Hamlet or Macbeth, there’s a Pericles or a Henry VI that only the most die-hard fans would choose to suffer through today. … Your comparison to Stephen King is actually a good one — both men considered themselves to be storytellers first and artists second; the Author’s Notes in King’s Dark Tower books make really good points about the distinction there. But King is largely only possible because Shakespeare happened before him, because of our exposure (another Shakespeare-ism) to a manner of storytelling that is driven by the complexities of character, where the entire plot of a play or novel can consist of a flawed (that’s another one) character reaching a decision. That may not seem like a big deal now, but that’s only because it has been almost universally adopted into how we tell stories. But, when it happened, it changed everything. … But if you measure by looking at the impact of his work, upon culture and upon art, Shakespeare is the quote-unquote-greatest author who ever lived, and nobody else even comes close.”
“But this doesn’t explain why journalism from Africa looks and sounds as it does. For this, we blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. … For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.
Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label. Even stories that gesture toward something “positive” can’t escape the dominant narrative: “Africa isn’t a lost cause,” pleads one recent headline. The argument about journalism from Africa is often whittled into two camps, Afro-pessimists vs. Afro-optimists. But these binary camps, too, miss that Africa is many complex things, simultaneously. In our news broadcasts and our headlines, though, it’s usually framed by just one static thing: suffering.”
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. … Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care. … Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.”
“It seems like everyone wants to get on the Jonathan Franzen bandwagon of being a cranky contrarian about innocuous things people like. In unrelated news, my new book, Puppies and Kittens Are Giant Assholes is coming out soon. Enjoy the chapter about how butterflies are racist and don’t courtesy flush.”