A Writer’s Dilemma: Soyinkaism Or Plain, Simple Prose?

Writers are sensitive souls.  Anytime we cudgel our brains on what to write and our muse goes into its natural mode and words begin to rain down like grenades on enemy hideout, we are torn between two important paradigms. The first concern is our imagined readers. The second is the right choice of words for that imagined audience. We may probably smuggle in a third factor which is the editorial orientation or intellectual temper of the newspaper, magazine, blog or medium that we write for. I have been faced with this dilemma for many years. It is a dilemma that is so powerful in its ravishment and quite frontal in its demand for immediate answers.

Before I go into the undercurrent game of writing and audiences, permit me to drop a sortie into the fortified bunker of past masters of the craft. I will name and pay deserved homage to our blessed geniuses of yore. In my younger days, I made an altar of Ray Ekpu and Dele Giwa’s Parallax Snaps in the then flagship and trendsetter, Newswatch. Equally, I savoured every word of late Andy Akporugo of the Daily Times and also followed the footprint of anarchic writings of the irrepressible Tola Adeniyi of the Sunday Tribune. The old sage is now Abba Saheed, our resident oracle in the Compass Newspaper. He was then one of Nigeria’s angriest writers closely followed by Ebino Topsy aka Ebenezer Babatope also of Sunday Tribune. He is now capped with a chieftaincy title and has been embracing the quiet life ever since. Babatope’s enfant terrible credential went into a serious moral somersault the very moment he supped with late Sani Abacha as one of his Ministers. God knows why he did it? This is Nigeria!!!

Before this collection of wordsmiths we have giants of the game in the persons of Pa Alade Odunewu (Allah Dey), Anthony Enahoro, Peter Pan, Sam Amuka, Chris Okoli, Abiodun Aloba and Gbolabo Ogunsanwo with his famous pensive mood and his distinctive late 70’s sideburns. I was learning under them and drawing the much needed life line of the craft. Like life, in spite of all its rolling uncertainties, also lurks excitement and boredom. Writing is like that to me. It is an eclectic mix of the serious and the simple. If we say that the journalism of the late 70’s and early 80’s were a dilution of the cerebral and the dead easy to read, then the arrival of the flagship, The Guardian in 1983, redefined the usage of words as it came boldly to embrace a new genre of serious writings.

With all humility, I was one of those contrarian writers who populated its op-ed highways with real cerebral contributions. I must say that we have settled for less in terms of the intellectual demand of today’s writing and journalism. Op-ed, which was an American journalism import, became popular and ‘Kongi’ but stylised writers littered The Guardian’s pages week after enjoyable weeks. There was the formidable assemblage of Dr. Stanley Macebuh, Lade Bonuola who is now a consultant to the Compass Newspaper, Eddie Iroh, Mokwugo Okoye, Professor Biodun Jeyifo now of Harvard University, Professor Femi Osofisan,  Professor Niyi Osundare, my teacher, Professor Adebayo Williams, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, Professor G G Darah, Professor Pat Utomi, Pini Jason, Odia Ofeimum, Kingsley Osadolor, Toyin Akinoso, who now publishes an oil and gas magazine, Dr. Edwin Madunagu, Dr. Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Dr. Asikiwe Adion-Egom, the motor park economist and many other greats whose name I cherish in my literary heart. Political, economic, cultural and social challenges of Nigeria were couched in beautifully crafted words that were fit for framing. Then to go through the intellectual minefield of The Guardian you must possess at least Advanced Level certificate. Journalism enterprise was taken very seriously by its practitioners and we could see the imprint of their tutelage on some of today’s finest writers in many of our media houses.

Nigeria’s sedate and contentment environment of the early 80’s had been replaced by a new and remorseless assault on the economy. Jobs have vanished in most of our broad streets and the industrial belts. An average householder is on an endless rat race to be like the Joneses. The old logic of bread and butter has made no room for reading and the search for the serious and formidable. Currently, education in Nigeria is in a terrible mess. Dotun Oladipo, my colleague in the Compass recently gave a panoramic rendering of the parlous state of our education in his article aptly titled, ‘Of teachers and heavenly reward’. New generation graduates are no better than ‘agberos’ along Apongbon in Lagos Island. Many of them are illiterate in scholastic pursuit, mind, character, and integrity. The old, committed teachers and professors of the 70’s and 80’s have all caught the ship called brain drain and are swelling the rank of intellectuals who are moored in the wilderness of Diaspora in their thousands.

In the UK, newspaper readership had always been bedevilled by a very interesting but self-created polarity. We have the mass-loving red top tabloid. And, on the other end of the spectrum, is the formidable and intellectually challenging broadsheet. For instance, the UK Sun and News of The World newspapers are the true kings of sleaze and junk journalism in its crudest form. The prose is simple, racy, sassy, short, unwinding, unpretentious and direct. And believe it or not, it is serving its own define public and reaping a harvest of its own readership. In a sense, there is a palpable hostility to Kongi or Soyinkaism writing genre in most of the UK tabloids.

In the heavily saturated UK publication market, there is no middle road or any third way. You either embrace newspaper which demands no special rigour from the reader or the deadpan, serious broadsheet like the Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and the Sunday Observer which require, shall we say, a kind of intellectual snobbery. These serious newspapers too are fulfilling their literary mandate to their admiring readers who, to be brutally frank, are better educated, have more disposable income and live in cleaner boroughs than the John Smith in the inner city of Hackney with his crumpled, salacious Sun.

The argument for polarity seems engaging. So, we have the humble and unpretentious readers who want a gobsmackingly simple, racy article as standard issue. Then, on the other side of the divide, we have the pretentious, snobbish reader who desires Kongi and Soyinkaism to show class, snobbery and high education.  Where do you fit in? As it is in heaven….sorry, I mean to say as it is with readers, so with the nations of the earth. We are polarised by unseen western powers into South and North. The poor South is populated with people who daily wrestle with poverty as their bedfellows. But the North is made up of the rich, the powerful and the arrogant controllers of our mind, science and the economy of the world.

In all this literary bipolarity which we hem our readers, who will then arbitrate in the impasse between had-hitting, intellectual-driven writing dubbed Soyinkaism and the simple, plain and racy prose? The answer is here and fast. Post-modern editors are creative geniuses. To know how much readership harvest their columnists are reaping through what they sow each week, a text number is smuggled underneath each write up as reality check on their creative efforts. The old hacks were lucky, there was no snoopy gadget in the form of texting responses to what Lade Bonuola, Andy Akporugo or Alade Odunewu wrote during their colourful writing days. So long.