Literary prestige: The case of Eleanor Baker

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In this article the point of departure is that the concept literature is of a hypothetical nature and like the literary canon is dependent on many extraneous factors. This includes current literary norms and the (literary) taste of the so-called upper class: literary canons often reflect the dominant values of ruling classes, or social elites, as well as the leading figures (sometimes called tastemakers) within the literary field. Yet not all written texts have the same potential for aesthetic appreciation. Furthermore, some texts have a greater possibility of surviving their own time-of-production.

The term literary canon refers to a collection of texts within a specific space and timeframe which are regarded as valuable, worth preserving and widely seen as a point of reference. Literary gatekeepers fulfil an important role in establishing and preserving this canon. In this article the underlying hypothesis is that often in her long and prolific career the Afrikaans writer Eleanor Baker was excluded from the (classical) Afrikaans literary canon by male gatekeepers. Her work was seen as easily accessible and infused with "female" motives (marital problems, feminist issues) and was seldom seen as ideological. In the time when her earlier works were published political engagement was almost a sine qua non in the Afrikaans literary system.

While many prose texts written by women appeared in Afrikaans before the 1980s, a considerable number of these texts were marginalised and may be described as neglected works by neglected authors. These texts were not excluded from the literary canon, nor omitted from literary histories based on intrinsic shortcomings, but most probably due to the fact that the Afrikaans literary canon of the time was a construct of (white) male gatekeepers, rather than because of the differing literary values of the gatekeepers of that time.

This article argues that Baker was doubly marginalised. Her work was seen in the first instance as typical of popular (female) fiction. In the second instance her choice of topics, characters, etc. also contributed to her marginalisation. Seeing that Baker’s work was published from the 1970s onward, the reception of her works must be seen against the backdrop of, firstly, the then stereotypical perception of accessible text as popular fiction and, secondly, the fact that she almost completely omitted references to the then political situation in South Africa. This can most probably be attributed to the fact that her husband was a career diplomat in the service of the then apartheid government.

In the past few years Baker's work has been re-evaluated, also due to postmodern approaches to literary texts. Within this paradigm the "mixing" of low and high culture and the deconstruction of hierarchical patterns and the typical aspects of hermetically closed texts have been interpreted quite differently from before. This has put her at the centre of the current debate with regard to the literary prestige of literary works. The ensuing controversy over her work – whether it was primarily popular writing, or of a literary nature, a debate which was prevalent in the 1980s – explains why she preferred to use pseudonyms for those texts she did not regard as her serious literature. In contrast, those texts she considered as being part of her more serious literary work, Baker published under her own name.

This article is steered by the following question: Could Baker’s own choice to refrain from writing about the political and racial issues of the day be directly linked to her marginalisation in the Afrikaans literary canon? By means of a reception research methodology the authors set out to discover why and/or how it happened that Eleanor Baker’s work was underrated and also try to assess her place in the Afrikaans literary canon. With the focus on Baker's reception the possible flaws in critical reviews are scrutinised. In the process André P. Brink (at that time the most prominent gatekeeper in the Afrikaans literary system) receives special attention: at first vehemently opposed to stylistic traits in her work he later becomes an eloquent defender and appraiser of her work. Lastly, Baker's own thematic preferences are evaluated, because this could have had a direct bearing or her marginalised position in the Afrikaans literary system.

Our conclusions are as follows:

First, the main points of criticism regarding Baker's oeuvre focused on her texts, such as structural aspects, including poor characterisation; the use of language not necessarily suited to a specific context; and several, minor, publishing errors. Her experimental work also received negative reviews, because it was seen as belated: written in the mode of modernism as opposed to that of postmodernism, which was then the vogue.

Secondly the reception of Baker’s work was very divergent, both diachronically and synchronically speaking. In other words, judgments about her work shifted over time, and some individual texts were regarded both positively and negatively at different times. In retrospect the aspects that were negatively judged: the mix of registers, styles and genres common in postmodernist literature is now seen as positive. The humorous edge and highly popular traits in her novels under the name of Eleanor Baker led to prolonged misunderstandings by reviewers who equated the accessibility of a text with its so-called literary quality. The marginalisation of Baker was based on the fact that her writing was strangely at odds with typical trends in the literature of her time. As such, her work often fell outside the boundaries of what was considered as the Afrikaans literary canon.

Lastly, the fact that she created accessible texts with depth eventually counted in her favour. Furthermore, her work displayed unique psychological insights, especially on the part of female characters, which made the use of fairy tale elements and humour in her writing greatly successful. These last two aspects, namely the use of humour and fairy tale elements, contributed to the successful description of everyday relationships. Although the female perspective that Baker consistently applied is convincing, the typically "feminine" themes of homes and relationships most probably led directly to negative evaluations by male critics and were responsible for her marginalised position in the Afrikaans literary canon.

Keywords: canonisation; Eleanor Baker, literary judgment and evaluation; literary prestige; marginalisation; reception research


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Literêre prestige: Die geval Eleanor Baker

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  • Uiteindelik ! En vanselfsprekend deeglik nagevors. Sy sou jubelend hieroor gewees het. Baie dankie dat die skrywers dit gedoen het.

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