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Has the “Great Nigerian Novel” Been Written?

Has the “Great Nigerian Novel” Been Written?

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We all have our individual canons, and it is only upon this basis that different tastes can converge. The Great Nigerian Novel, if it is not a myth, is what we make of it as a people…

By Chimezie Chika

What is the Measure of Greatness?

“Greatness” is a word that is never too far from literary discussions. There is often an intimation that the ultimate purpose — the end product of the entire literary and artistic enterprise — is built on the beams of greatness, or a dream of it. Many writers can pretend to pursue a noble cause, but they always have that star-crossed ambition, if at times muted, to create literary works and names that live through the ages. We want to be remembered, to penetrate the consciousness of history, in the same way that classics such as Don Quixote or Hamlet have endured for centuries, continuing in its enrichment of the idioms and culture of contemporary life.

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Greatness is, in general terms, the quality of having achieved eminent longevity, distinction or superiority in something. In literary terms, it is something more than mere endurance; it is a piece of work representative of humanity or identity in the most strikingly life-changing way; it is the type of work that charts a new direction for the perception of a human truth. Great art, we are often told, reveals a universal truth. But then, again, this may simply not be the parameters. Contrary to what may be generally perceived, the idea of greatness may be more subjective and private than democratic and universal. On the ambiguity of determining greatness, TS Eliot wrote: “The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.”

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Source: Fable

Our perception of greatness is often the result of what is already regarded as such. Our opinion seems to not matter. A group of critics come together and decide what is great in a canon and what is not, based on their own perception of the authority they possess on the subject. I honestly wonder why the subjective opinions of certain persons should be taken as representative of the general taste of readers all over the world. The fact is that, within cultural corridors, what we call ‘great’ may be the result of our silent acquiescence rather than what we have accessed in-depth.

What is a great book, then? Is it judged on the basis of subject matter, style, or philosophical heft? Greatness has been purveyed by critics of literature from the classical period in history. We are told that this or that book, play, author, or playwright is “great,” “monumental,” or “magisterial” and represents all that humanity can aspire to. The subject of these ascriptions, the writers, may not necessarily see themselves as embodying a larger-than-life character within their own immediate sphere; they are bestowed with this aura — if we are to call  greatness an ‘aura’ — by individuals who, having seen their works, are sufficiently overwhelmed and convinced of their importance to humanity by ascribing greatness to them.

In Poetics, Aristotle attempted to itemise the works of great artists and thinkers of his age, an experiment in measuring the relevance of their artistic creations, the effectiveness of their techniques, and ultimately their greatness, on his own terms. In essence, he is standing as an unimpeachable judge of what is great or not in ancient Greek literature. Aristotle’s technique, essentially prescriptive, was to devise a series of painstaking narrative tools — a line of literary laser-light purification — including hubris, hamartia, catharsis, and others, which he called poetic technique, under which every classical drama is examined and judged. For Aristotle, greatness is morality. Only works with the appropriate moral reach and heft could truly be called ‘great.’ On that basis, he identifies the three greatest Greek dramatists as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the first being, in his opinion, the greatest.

Of Sophocles (famous for Oedipus Rex), Aristotle writes, “Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be.” Sophocles, in Aristotle’s view, produced a perfect work of drama in Oedipus Rex by building a tragic ‘mythos’ around a central ‘ethos’ locked in the greatest of moral dilemmas; man therefore learns his greatest lesson in tragedy. Aristotle tells us that a great moral work is a tragic one and that in our experience of it pity and fear is aroused — a feeling, he writes, which comes from wonder, a buoyant state, which in itself is a spontaneous response to the imitated events of life playing out before us.

In what is now referred to as the neoclassical period in the 18th century, the venerable Dr. Johnson appraised Shakespeare’s work as a quintessence of classic literature. Although he did not comment on some of the most iconic passages of Shakespeare’s work, he was sufficiently immersed in others to warrant him conferring greatness upon Shakespeare, especially as a worthy successor to the classical Greeks in his fidelity to the “facts of nature.” Dr. Johnson’s method of appraisal was quite straightforward. In a notation on Macbeth, he writes that “in order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merits of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries.” Here, then, is how Dr. Johnson reaches his verdict of what constitutes great literature.

By the 19th century, a number of European critics seems to have concluded that a number of works from centuries before were the indisputable “Great” treasures of world literature. A certain nationalistic sensibility began to creep into these appraisals in England and America, a consciousness that there should be a singular work of great achievement that represents the ideals of a nation. In 1868, John William de Forest coined the term, “Great American Novel,” which in his definition is a single work that embodies the essence and character of America. But such labels are difficult to pin on any one book, for a lot of particulars must be clearly defined. For instance, what is the character and essence of America? While some works within the American canon — including Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, and many others — have been touted as potential Great American Novels, there is no general consensus on which it is.

De Forest himself listed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the potential Great American Novel. In his 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin disagreed, arguing that Stowe’s novel was at best a caricature that only worsened the racial situation in America. In his work, The Western Canon, American critic, Harold Bloom, singles out twenty-six writers he considers as representing greatness in the canon of western literature. While Bloom’s canonisation of twenty-six writers was praised in many quarters, it was not generally accepted. Piotr Wilczek and Adam Czerniawski criticised Bloom’s work as “narrow,” tending to ignore works from countries he was not familiar with. This is the truth of issuing authoritative labels of greatness on certain works and not on others that may be equally deserving: such exercises will always be individualistic, however noble the motive.

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Source: Rakuten Kobo

This is what we immediately see in FR Leavis’ attempt to name the Great English Novel in his work, The Great Tradition. It is not that we do not acknowledge the greatness of the three writers he names, but naming only three writers in a tradition that stretches beyond the shores of Britain is obviously exclusionary. If we can come down to it, we will find that the conversation around great works of literature tends to relegate works from other regions of the world. The entire effort is to centralise the West at the expense of Africa, Asia, South America, and the rest of the world.

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Lists and Their Lessons

The origins of lists can perhaps be traced to literature departments in European universities in the 19th century, where professors recommended what they considered great literature to their students. It is also in the ivory towers that a series of parameters were created and used in judging novels, detecting what is good or bad. In the 20th century, we became privy to many such lists, made for reference and prescriptive purposes, finally culminating in the famous ones we know today: TIME’s 100 Best Novels of All Time (1923 to 2005), The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels of in the English Language, Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. Some of the lists exclusively claim to capture the ‘100 best novels in the English Language’ — surely, there are other such lists within the confines of other languages across the world — while others are limited by time, such TIME’s.

Many novels in these lists overlap, but there are others that contain books that cannot be in other lists. These lists tilt overwhelmingly towards Europe and America. The implication is that if you don’t like it, you create yours. The implication, too, is that reading tastes will always differ, and so will what novels are considered great. I personally do not understand what the fuss around Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is exactly, and this is a novel that has been featured consistently in the lists. As a war novel on a list of my own, I would certainly replace it with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. But this is just me and my preferences, for I have seen many who consider it one of the best novels they have ever read.

It is also true that greatness may be the result of a zeitgeist, the prevailing norms and attractions of a period in time. In that sense, any novel that does not confront the social tastes and sensibilities of that time will be considered inferior. One prime example of such subjectivity is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which was widely panned by reviewers in America and Britain upon its publication in 1851. (One reviewer in the London Literary Gazette called it “wantonly eccentric.” For another reviewer, “Mr Melville’s vanity is immeasurable.”) The book sold poorly and quickly went out of print, trashed and forgotten. More than 60 years later, in 1919, on the occasion of the centennial of the author’s birth, Raymond Weaver wrote an article, which sparked a change in opinion about the book, “the Melville revival,” as it is known. By the mid-twentieth century, it was widely regarded as the Great American Novel, with an author like William Faulkner wishing he had written it, and DH Lawrence calling it a “strange and wondrous” book.

There are many other instances in which some books are completely ignored in their time only to be resurrected decades later and considered a classic. This is what happened to John Williams’ Stoner. Some ascriptions of greatness seem to be based on numbers, on how many times a book has been read. This is clearly flawed, since social tastes could be swayed by propaganda, which is a way of saying that people can be forced to consider something good because of a barrage of unrelenting information about that thing.

Can the greatness of a novel be put down to the prizes its author has won? If such superficial considerations matter, then many authors will feature. In Africa, we will surely factor all our Nobel laureates, Booker Prize winners, Women’s Prize winners, and other prize winners, into the equation. Of course Soyinka, Mahfouz, Gordimer, Coetzee, and Gurnah, have all written what I consider great novels, but it doesn’t end with them. While some of them have books in some Western-curated lists, others are curiously missing. Some Western authors end up with more than one novel on these lists; no African author does (in some lists only Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart appear). If Hemingway can have two books in a list, why not Achebe? The truth is that no list will ever be enough, for what we consider great will not always converge.

What is the Great Nigerian Novel?

What is the Great Nigerian Novel? In a 1995 essay titled, “Visions of the Nigerian Writer on the Nigerian Civil War,” Nigerian critic, Ernest Emenyonu, seems to consider this question as meaning a novel that confronts the major conflicts of the country with great artistic insight. He observes that many works that have been written on the Nigerian Civil War lack artistic excellence. “The Nigerian writer,” he writes, “must allow a reasonable period of time to elapse before he can objectively write about the war, no longer as active participants . . . but as writers who bring their imaginative vision to bear on the important events in the history of their people. Such works are likely to be more esthetically pleasing and artistically rewarding . . . the great Nigerian war novel is yet to be written.”

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What are we looking for in a Nigerian novel that would warrant the ascription of greatness? Social insight? Artistic excellence? Each of these criteria would produce an abundance of novels fighting for that title. If we are to take De Forest’s labelling (that is, a book that captures the ‘essence’ and ‘character’ of a nation) into consideration, then we will be prescribing potentially elitist tastes to millions of readers who have their own subjective response to certain works of literature. No one novel can completely represent the history, capture the experiences, and the sensibilities of a people or a nation; it can only capture aspects of that experience. Greatness can be built on democratic appraisal, not subjective prescription.

After reading one of the certified great novels, one may begin to ask, did I find that ‘best’ or ‘great’ book great? For, given the immense prestige around these books, one may approach them with a certain level of prejudice and expectation, which they may fall short of. We may consider that readers all over the world, coming from different cultural backgrounds, may experience these books differently. The conclusion is that the compilations of best books within a period (Observer’s 100 Best Novels of All Time; Modern Library’s 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century) are all exercises in subjectivity. Do we disprove a list that does not properly represent novels by Africans, Arabs and Asians? We can do so if such a list claims to represent the entire world. If Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great novel, then surely, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm is one, too.

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There are many great books by Nigerian authors published over the past sixty years. Many have gone on to make their name in the world. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Arrow of God; Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus, and Americanah; Ben Okri’s The Famished Road; Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters; Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, are some of the Nigerian books I consider truly great (with a caveat that my idea of great books are not necessarily ‘perfect’; they can be flawed but impactful). All these books capture, in some way, the essence and character of Nigeria, but are they singularly representative of the gamut of Nigerian identity? That would be too lofty. There are people who may disagree with some of these novels I have listed, but that may not discredit the validity of their own choices. We all have our individual canons, and it is only upon this basis that different tastes can converge. The Great Nigerian Novel, if it is not a myth, is what we make of it as a people. Greatness or not, it is the striving for it, for the elixir of perfection, that makes the production of literature meaningful.

The truth, though, is that all good readers will be able to detect what is good or bad literature. A novel, regardless of its origins, will find its reader and great champion anywhere in the world, for it will have spoken deeply to the reader’s private world and experience. Greatness will come, not from accepting what has already been prescribed, but from a universal acknowledgement of the visceral experience of the impact of a book. Such a book will then be truly great.


Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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