Tiwa Savage signing a 30 million naira deal with MTN

Corporate endorsement, a literary celebrity lifestyle, and the emphasis on novels with high entertainment value could save the literary and publishing industry in Africa from being cash-strapped and stunted.

Thanks to Moet and Chandon, Lagos litteratti could come together in a classy event last year in honor of the late Chinua Achebe while sipping on premium champagne. {See photo HereNoViolet Bulawayo just won the first ever pan-African literary prize sponsored by the telecommunications company, Etisalat

It is normal for literary prizes, book festivals, and literary events to court corporate love. But should big corporations be offered the chance to endorse individual writers?

One way to make people do good work that speaks to a popular audience  is high financial stakes. It worked for Nollywood. It worked for the Nigerian music industry. Music videos have become exponentially better. Production quality has improved. Why? Because good music means good money.

I  understand why Chimamanda Adichie or Teju Cole may not want to be a Pepsi ambassador. They can’t be overtly pro-corporation. It goes against their brand as high-brow, socially-conscious, and ethically-minded writers. They also fall into that well-known caste of writers for whom money is “not supposed” to matter.

The Adichies and Coles of the world are being groomed to become canonical authors. No one judges Virginia Woolf on the basis of her book sales.

What Things Fall Apart sold in 50 years, Fifty Shades of Grey sold in 7 months. But there’s no shame in that since what makes Things Fall Apart a significant work has little to do with sales figures.

The writers I have in mind are those who are open to thinking of writing purely as a commodity and not as a literary ego-trip. The idea would be to sell novels like music albums, to have readers enjoy stories the way they enjoy their favorite tracks. 

Ditch the impulse to educate, edify, enlighten, and all that illusion of grandeur that feed into a certain kind of African literary persona. Write stories that would get you the instant celebrity power that interests corporate entities. What’s so wrong in having a novelist be the next Tiwa Savage, racking up endorsements like they are going out of style.  

All this is, of course, tied to a literary industry aggressively driven by mass-market forces and high-financial stakes. 

When P Square sets out to produce a track, the goal is to end up with a club banger. African writers could very well approach their work with the logic of the club-banger.

These would be stories tailored to the African literary market, stories that tap into the pulse of African contemporary life. These stories would capture how Africans love to feel, the kinds of pleasures they crave, the fears and fantasies that structure their reality.

For many of the Nigerian writers I know, writing is a side hustle. They are mostly in professions—medicine, banking, law—that require considerable commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect their hustle, but we can’t build a viable literary culture if writers are not committed hundred percent to the literary hustle.

We need authors writing greedily and hungrily because they know there’s a good chance of making it big with their work. With the right amount of financial reward, we can get African authors writing more aggressively for a literary market that is hungry for delectable and easily consumable stories.