REUBEN ABATI - ANOTHER CRASH COURSE NEEDED
Introduction:Of all the reviews I have read on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing around Your Neck (2009), Reuben Abati's “The Thing around Our Necks” falls far short. One thing tightly hangs around the neck of Abati's review in The Guardian of July 20, 2009: it is clichéd in language, inconsistent in organization, and dated in style.
The numerous faults of the review represent its writer as one who cares very little about the prevalent mechanics of the literary book review. One could not help but wonder that The Guardian, a once self-described “flagship” of Nigerian journalism, should fail to hold its editorial staff to the highest writing standard possible. There is now an urgent need, as I will show, for the paper to consider a refresher course for some of its staff writers on the current mechanics and style sheet of the book review in the print media. As columnist and chairman of editorial board of The Guardian for over a decade, Abati has become one of the most recognizable names in the Nigerian mass media. It is not enough, however, to be celebrated with a good reader followership since even an established writer sometimes becomes redundant. At the twilight of a great writing career Iris Murdock was accused of being “overindulged” and “under-edited” and John Updike have been accused of “compulsive overproduction.” The evidence of “The Thing around Our Necks” clearly points to a need for an immediate revamp in the writing of Reuben Abati.
This exercise is necessary for several reasons. The Guardian had, for many years, held a certain reputation among Nigerian readers of being the country's version of its London namesake and The New York Times. In other words, the paper was considered as the powerhouse of hardcore news dissemination. Many of Nigeria's university academic departments subscribed heavily to the paper's intellectual integrity as a model for their English composition and creative writing classes. As a student in the active contributing years of Chinweizu, Femi Osofisan, Stanley Macebuh, and Yemi Ogunbiyi (1980s to early 1990s), it was almost difficult for me to go through a day without reading The Guardian.. The late Professor Ayo Mamudu had a tradition of introducing topics from The Guardian for our graduate class seminars, with the students seated in a circle and contesting every issue. As a young lecturer in the same department I continued the Mamudian tradition with my own students often arguing over the spread pages of The Guardian in my classes and even at my home study. I published one of my early reviews, on “Ben Obumselu: The Responsible Critic” (June 19, 1993), in the fame Guardian Literary Series then under the editorship of the workaholic Jahman Anikulapo.
The inexcusable editorial standard of Abati's review of Adichie's short story collection exposes the intellectual risk in contemporary students' reliance on the literary pages of many Nigerian newspapers, and not just The Guardian. It has become urgent for students, scholars, libraries, institutions, and the general reader to question, contest, and exercise caution in what they accept or commend for literary consumption through the Nigerian media. Students and young readers especially need writers they can trust just as my own student-generation once trusted the Nigerian media. In the equivocatory parlance of the New York Yankees' baseball legend Yogi Berra, “The future ain't what it used to be.”Adichie's The Thing around Your Neck is a well-received, 218-page collection of twelve short stories, many of which had been previously published in anthologies, print, and online journals. Going by its online presence and at least fifteen well-placed reviews alone, the book could justifiably be considered one the more widely reviewed books of 2009. For purposes of context and comparison I have selected five of the reviews, including those by Bernardine Evaristo, Ikhide R. Ikheloa, Michiko Kakutani, and John Madera, based on the distinctions of both the writers and their publishers. By his years of service on the editorial board of The Guardian, Abati is arguably one of the most experienced of the five reviewers in journalistic praxis.
Abati declares in the first paragraph of his review that Adichie's collection “does both old and new things in an extraordinary manner that confirms her mastery of craft.” He also claims that the “collection is a triumph of form and content.” Reading through the lengthy “book review,” however, Abati makes no effort to provide a clear evidence of what he means by Adichie's “mastery of craft” or his so-called “triumph of form and content.” Instead, what we have is Abati's repetitive dropping of stock phrases like the above all through the essay. A few of these include “a technique that is further put to masterly use,” “well-shaped, real-life characters with whom we immediately empathize,” “universal relevance of the humanism of her stories,” “stories appear so well-chiseled,” “symbolic power of language and its varieties,” “stories ... bear the true marks of originality,” and “confirmation of Chimamanda's
superb literary skills.” Why would Abati feel such an overindulgent need to be superfluous and hyperbolic in a normal review of a collection short fiction that should be otherwise clear-eyed and distanced? Superfluity and hyperbole in writing is always already about impression. So, who is Abati trying to impress in his jargon-stuffed “review”?
Form and Content
Abati evidently makes his vague and verbose claims on the triumph of Adichie's “form,” “content,” “mastery” not through a consistent analytic discovery but out of sheer habit and impulse, or what could be described as “ritornelli” or “compulsion to repeat.” So, what is Abati's own style of repetition? “The Thing around Our Necks” is supposed to be a newspaper editor's review of a collection of short stories. For some inexplicable reason Abati manages to drag his “review” through some fourteen long and windy paragraphs. There is reason to believe that it could have taken him two whole days, or in fact one long weekend, to write his review. The first part of the review covers paragraphs one through nine. The second part covers paragraphs ten through fourteen. Abati constantly cites long passages and paginations of the stories covered in the first part, including “Imitation,” “A Private
Experience,” “Ghosts,” “On Monday of Last Week,” “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” “The Thing around Your Neck,” “Cell One,” “Jumping Monkey Hill,” and “The American Embassy.” By the time he could get to the second part of his review he is almost juiceless. Suddenly his quotationality fizzles, and his tone and language change. The impulsive or compulsive stock phrases become more frequent in the second part. He is in a hurry to finish but seems determined to fill a certain page quota. Unfortunately, he has three stories more to deal with, which include “The Shivering,” “The Arrangers of Marriage,” and “The Headstrong Historian.” The second part of the review has neither the preponderance of page citations nor the running stream of long quotationality. How could Abati so ably deal with the encumbrance of nine stories in nine paragraphs of profuse, if useless, citations and yet fall flat in handling only three stories in five more paragraphs? As it is often said three is a crowd, and so is five.
Contradiction and Contraindication
In paragraph three of his review Abati claims that the “author refrains from melodrama or abject moralizing.” Yet he contradicts himself in paragraph fourteen where he “contranpuntally” (to use Abati's own obsolete Italian, late Saidian word) claims that Adichie's writing is a “literature of relevance ... framed with subtle didacticism.” Perhaps Abati means to stress that Adichie's moralizing is not “abject” and her didacticism is “subtle,” but how does the author “refrain” from melodrama when that is exactly the object of stories like “The Arrangers of Marriage” and “Jumping Monkey Hill”?
Against his earlier claim about Adichie's “mastery of craft” and the collection's “triumph of form and content,” Abati avers in paragraph eight that the lead story “The Thing around Your Neck” is “a classic description of a Nigerian female immigrant's typical experience in America.” Yet in the last paragraph he claims again that the collection bears “the true mark of originality.” What exactly does Abati mean by the contradicting statements? Is Adichie's narrative “original” because she describes what the reader always already knows, which is “a classic description of a Nigerian female immigrant's experience in America”? What is “original” or “mastery of craft” in describing a “typical experience” that is a “classic” or common discourse of Nigerian-American immigrant community? For the avoidance of doubt, two other reviewers specifically cited the same lead story in voicing their displeasure with Adichie's “conventional storytelling craft.” In his own review, “These Things around Our Necks” (Next, July 17, 2009), Ikheloa posits that the story is “formulaic and improbable in parts.” In “Delightful Gumbo or Strange Brew?” (Open Letters, June 2009), Madera suggests that though the story breaks “form a little” it is nevertheless a “low-frequency drama” conceived out of a “cookbook.”
If Abati means to say what Ikheloa and Madera opine about the same story, why doesn't he clearly say so? How does he manage to turn his syntactic and semantic structures on their heads such that his syntax says one thing, while his semantics says the direct opposite? Of course, it is mostly true that the difference between syntactic meaning and semantic meaning is that they are not the same, but is that truly the contraindication that Abati means to convey in his discourse? Does he mean to advance some kind of “Abatease,” “Abatrick,” or “Abatickling,” to either seduce the (true) object of his literary gamesmanship through an obfuscating minimalization of intent or excite his audience (whoever it is) through an undue magnification of purpose? George Orwell says that good language is a window pane, but political language is like a prefabricated hen house. Abati's review suffers a “failure to launch” because it lacks a dependable clarity of thought.
Style and Editing
At the risk of being accused of nitpicking I am sorry to note that Abati's carelessness grates at commonsense. His sense of order, organization, punctuation, spelling, and authorial marker is atrocious. He is also insensitive to the material object of writing. It was not long ago that several Nigerian scholars and organizations in the United States received inquiries from Microsoft and other American institutions asking for the appropriate way to address the “Igbo” people. Everyone knew that they were looking for a way to get out of the embarrassing complaints against their use of the dated spelling, “Ibo.” Evaristo's review, “The Thing around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” (Times Online, April 17, 2009), uses the word “Igbo” twice in the third paragraph. Kakutani's “Out of Africa, Into a Strange America” (The New York Times, July 3, 2009) uses the word once in his fourth paragraph. Madera uses it
once in his first paragraph, and Abati likewise uses it once in his sixth paragraph. All the non-Nigerian reviewers, including Evaristo, Kakutani, and Madera, have no problem spelling the word right as “I-G-B-O.” The only reviewer who pitifully spells the word as “I-B-O” is the very “experienced” Nigerian chairman of The Guardian's editorial board Reuben Abati. The incurable Nigerian misspellers of the Igbo name have never been able to advance any other reason for their perpetuation of a national scandal beyond a shamelessly tongue-in-cheek apology, a passing of the blame to some “mistake” resulting from an imaginary ethnic “tonal interference,” and yet a repetition of the same pathological “mistake.” Perhaps, one should note that some Nigerian dialects (like the Nsukka and Onitsha) also have “interference,” since their tonality naturally substitutes “l” for “r” and vice versa. In spite of that, I am yet to see any well-educated literate who would spell “Yoruba” as “Y-o-l-u-b-a” on the very dumb excuse of ethnic “tonal interference.” Why would an American be conscious enough as to spell “Igbo” right, and a Nigerian so unconscious as to spell it wrong? The answer is anything but “tonal.”
Authorial and Punctuation Markers
Abati employs three proper names as authorial identifiers in his review. The first is “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”; the second is “Adichie”; and the third is “Chimamanda.” Abati uses the author's first name “Chimamanda” alone twice in the last sentences of his thirteenth and fourteenth paragraphs. As I have pointed out earlier, those two paragraphs are in the problematic second part of the review. Under what circumstances would any trained writer employ only the first name of an author as an identifying marker for a publication review in a cerebral newspaper? Abati also commits a related blunder in his punctuation markers. He habitually places his commas outside the quotation marks throughout the review. Even if one were to accept such a practice as The Guardian house rule, is it also the paper's house rule to end a sentence with two periods? Abati ends the last sentences of his first and second paragraphs with two periods each, the first period inside a closing quotation mark and the second period immediately after a parenthetical page citation.
It is easy to blame Abati's misspelling and mis-markers on the drudgery of a long review. The truth, however, is that the errors clearly point to poor or total absence of an editorial standard at The Guardian. The Guardian press ought to have set up an efficient mechanism for catching some of the more outrageous blunders at some point before the print run. It is the primary role of The Guardian press to observe, uphold, and execute uniform editorial standards for all its articles and publications whether they are from in-house writers or outside contributors. Abati is, after all, human and should be expected to be prone to normal foibles and frailties like the rest of us. Even then, I still hold him responsible for much of the blatant excesses that are directly attributable to him as an experienced editor, columnist, writer, and scholar.
It is baffling that Abati should want to write as much as three printed A4 pages, running through fourteen long paragraphs, as a newspaper review for a collection of only twelve short stories. How many pages would he write for a collection of fifty stories? What advice would he give to a reporter or an uncommissioned contributor who submits a three-page review of a small collection of stories to The Guardian? Why does Abati think it is necessary to pay close and detailed attention to each one of the twelve stories for a mere newspaper review? What does he think is the object or purpose of a newspaper review of creative writing? Is it the job of the book review to teach, theorize, and expound? In comparison, Evaristo's review is written in seven paragraphs over one and a quarter printed pages, with emphasis on eight stories. Kakutani's review is written in ten paragraphs over two pages, again with emphasis on eight stories.
Ikhide's review is written in fifteen paragraphs some of which are only one sentence long. Ikhide gives an overview of the whole collection, with closer attention to six stories in only one page. Like Ikhide, Madera gives an overview of the entire collection, with emphasis on five stories written over seven paragraphs in two pages. Abati is the only one who engages all the twelve stories which, perhaps, should be praiseworthy if it is well done. In Abati's handling, however, it is nothing but an avoidable incubus, an uneasy burden. No other reviewer has numeral page citation except Abati who has eleven page citations splashed across the first nine paragraphs. When will Abati and The Guardian be ready for a stylistic change that European, American, and many Nigerian writers have embraced even before the turn of the twenty-first century?
The book review by its name and practice is always already a reexamination and consistently selective, concise, and directional. No one goes to a book review to learn all about D. H. Lawrence's “one bright book of life.” The book review is precise to its limitation of discourse, time, and space. In the context of its painful editorial failings, and even in spite of them, Reuben Abati's so-called review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing around Your Neck does not just do a disservice to the purpose of its occasion it discountenances and vitiates literary taste and reason. Abati's “The Thing around Our Necks” is a magical wonder of fictional study and deserves academic attention in college classrooms as an instructive specimen on how not to write literary book reviews. Such a peculiar style which titillates above its scope and scintillates beyond its borders and teases aesthetic principle over the brink deserves recognition, and should henceforth be known as “Abatease.”