|Desktop publishing and readers' expectations|
From its beginnings in the mid 1990s, our website has been regularly updated to suit both technological advances and the expansion of African women's writing and publishing. In this context, a reflective piece posted on the site in 2007  argued the prime importance of books published by small and independent publishers in Africa. These publications were critical, we contended, in order to counter the hegemony of large publishers that skewed African literary representation towards Western allegories defining African identities. Six years on, this issue is still of concern, but matters of form rather than content are now becoming an even bigger hindrance to the steady enlargement of women's literature about Africa. For better or for worse, the well-entrenched literary norms of Western literary genres are making no sign of abating and, irrespective of their origins, readers of French, wherever they live, remain in broad agreement with the level of spelling and grammatical correctness authors should provide in order to facilitate the smooth reading of their texts. Unfortunately, too many publications are now falling short of readers' expectations.
For the trail-blazing authors of the 1970s such as Mariama Bâ, Amina Sow Fall, Aoua Keita and others, conforming to French literary conventions was not an issue, nor was it for the bulk of the women authors who joined up in the following decade. Manuscripts were evaluated by reading committees and published by competent publishers, such as the Nouvelles Editions Africaines, Présence Africaine and some others, after careful revisions and proofreading. For African women writers of that era, the point at issue was not to conform to readers' expectations, but rather to avoid being relegated to the margin of the literary world and denied the status of fully-fledged authors by virtue of their origin and gender. The publication of Amina Sow Mbaye's and Delphine Zanga Tsogo's first manuscript in a well-known French collection aimed at children, for example, reduced to naught the chance of these novels ever to be considered mainstream literature. And Mame Younousse Dieng's excellent manuscript of L'Ombre en feu, accepted for publication in 1976 and only put to press twenty years later, shows that the impediment to publishing, at least in this case, was not due to style and content, but rather to the publisher's difficulties, financial or otherwise.
The onset of personal computers, digitisation of documents and desktop publishing opened new avenues in literary publishing full of promise. For a very small sum of money, it became possible to produce a nice looking book, ready to be sold or offered to family and friends. Publishing was no longer the preserve of a handful of cliquish and parochial publishers dictating their rules and timetables to hapless authors. Unfortunately, self-publishing soon revealed its drawbacks. The replacement of cumbersome linotypes by home computers and portable printers did indeed put typesetting and the production of printed materials within everyone's reach: but it also became increasingly clear that the formal rules and conventions that were widely accepted by the literary fraternity were the first casualty of this (r)evolution.
Devising a meaningful-producing device that would lead readers to nirvana requires not only the creative mind of an author, but also the know-how of a qualified editorial team led by an editor, who is not averse to reading manuscripts and telling authors what formal and structural changes are needed to make the grade; an editor well connected to distribution channels who also gives a great deal of importance to copyediting and proofreading. Meaning and enjoyment only materialise when the mind is allowed to forget the mechanisms of reading and begins to fly unfettered in the blissful spaces of readers' imagination. Writing a book can be a lonely pursuit, but publishing it, is not. Thus, the often disappointing result of self-publishing that rarely meets readers' expectations in terms of overall presentation, typographical conventions, syntax, grammar and spelling. There are a few notable exceptions, and not every self-edited book suffers all the ills mentioned above. Yet a large majority of them do, and, irrespective whether authors are fully fledged or beginners, all books can benefit from effectual adjustments made by experienced editorial teams.
To add insult to injury, desktop publishing has also led to a proliferation of pseudo-editors who neither read nor evaluate the manuscripts they are receiving "camera ready". They are not working on the manuscript with the author, nor taking responsibility for copyediting and proofreading. Interested in filthy lucre rather than excellence, they happily include sub-standard publications in their catalogue, charging extravagant fees to unwitting authors, and only printing a few copies of the work, usually sold to the author's family and friends by the author herself. *.
There is definitely room for a "cottage" publishing industry producing books whose value lies in their unassuming content and whose attraction to a specific readership cannot be improved by hard-nosed publishers. For example, the short memoirs of an elderly Uncle of mine, written in his nineties, provided much enjoyment when it was circulated among family and friends. The reception of the sweet little autobiography published by eight year-old Jessica Mandziya-Sathoud would have been the same; and it would also have been so for umpteen texts penned by writing enthusiasts of all ages who did not consider themselves as "literary authors". Writing is not the preserve of anyone, but readers of mainstream literature remain creatures of habit and the parameters that define the scope of "Literature" are quite distinct from those of many other forms of writing, useful and appreciated as they may be in a different context.
Respecting formal conventions is thus essential. It is, however, not sufficient to determine a text's literarity. While there is broad agreement about the golden rules of spelling, grammar and text formatting, the stuff that makes Literature is intuitive rather then evidence based, thus the room for debate in determining which books should be included in Literature's inner sanctum. For example, fifty years ago, the French literary establishment assumed that African women did not write anything of literary value and this fallacy was only exposed much later, when it became increasingly evident that a good number of women who attended Rufisque's Ecole Normale in the 1940s had acquired the little je ne sais quoi that allows an author to transform mundane writing into literary prose and poetry.
Although reluctantly at first, literary scholars and critics alike began to embrace the idea that Marie-Charlotte Mbarga Kouma's play (1967), Clémentine Nzuji's poetry (1969), Aoua Kéita's autobiography (1975), Mariama Bâ's So long a letter (1979), and the books published by many women writers of that generation qualified as "Literature". One of the aims of our website Lire les femmes écrivains et les littératures africaines was to document this protracted ascent of women's writing and to follow its evolution. To that effect, a large number of books of fiction pertaining to the African continent has been assembled over the years and our desire to be all-inclusive led us to put the emphasis on the diversity of the materials collected, its originality, its socio-cultural engagement, its denunciation of gender inequalities, its expression of belonging, etc..
In the early day of African women's literary publishing, books that did not conform to the rules laid down by mainstream publishers were few and far between: even many self-published novels such as D'un Fouta-Djalloo à l'autre by retired teacher Sirah Baldé de Labé (1985) and a few others, abided by the rules. Twenty years on, the double-edged sword of desktop publishing has profoundly altered book production and distribution in Africa. On the one hand, it has given authors a much better opportunity to have their manuscripts published, either by themselves under their own logo, or by small African publishers who did not need to print and sell a large number of copies to recoup their costs; but, on the other hand, it has swept away much of the skill and know-how of the "old-fashioned" copyeditors and proofreaders who used to be the backbone of the industry. Electronic dictionaries cannot replace "real" proofreaders, and computers cannot reshape manuscripts in the way editors with a nose for things literary could make a novel attractive to "mainstream readers". Thus the exponential number of books published every year that do not make the grade; not because the author does not have something interesting to say, but because she did not get the editorial feedback and guidance she needed.
Upon reading some English novels translated into French, one can often marvel at the outstanding skill of the translator; thus getting the heterodox idea that a novel, unappealing in one language can indeed become a little gem in another by means of a skilled and creative translation. And what a translator can do, many publishers have done for years. The bullish correction and revision of a manuscript, later published under the title Doellé by the editor Bernard Grasset in 1950 is but one famous example (see Christine Garnier's autobiography) . This hands-on editorial intervention, salutary when it is done with the assent of the author and does not run contrary to her advantage, has not been abandoned, even if it is not always openly acknowledged. And like a creative translation, the heavy editing of a manuscript by a skilled hand can sometimes transform a text, improper for publication, into a fascinating reading experience. The comparison between two editions of the same novel I recently read is a case in point. The initial publication by a pseudo-editor, whose main skill was switching on a printer attached to his computer in order to print the manuscript he had received by email, did not do justice to a novel poorly written but full of potential. By contrast, the person who bettered the style and narrative structure of the second edition did a great favour to both potential readers and the author who can now be judged on the strength of her story, instead of being dismissed offhand because of her poor writing skills.
The cooperation of a shrewd editor, a skilful writer and an outgoing personality with a good story to tell can indeed lead to very enjoyable and entertaining reading. Enthralling literature can embrace many genres, from the ghost-written autobiographies of famous individuals to the life-story of "ordinary" women at the beginning of the 21st century. But whatever the social status of the author, her origin and the reasons that prompted her to share her stories and experience with anonymous readers, she has to meet the latter's expectations if she wants to be read.
What is decisive in regard to "ordinary" readers is twice as important to teachers of literature on the lookout for interesting texts to include in their teaching activities. For example, when Professor Ormerod was in charge of Caribbean and African literatures at the University of Western Australia, shortly before this site went online, she had no hesitation in adding Mariama Bâ to the syllabus together with other African authors. But a decade later, notwithstanding the difficulty of ordering books from African publishers, many new titles could not be recommended to students because too many typos and grammatical errors were spoiling their otherwise interesting plot and content. And this was also hurting progressive Arts Faculties and Lecturers in Africa. Many were often prevented from including locally published women authors in their reading lists for the same reasons. The issue was consequential; it still is a matter of concern today, in spite of the renewed efforts of an increasing number of small African and metropolitan publishers to guide their authors and ensure that manuscripts that need revision are not published in their crude and unedited state.
One of the main aims of this website has been to provide a wide and non-judgemental overview of the evolution of women's writing about Africa, available in French. This pursuit will continue and a wide range of publications will continue to be included, irrespective of their literary merit, but the short biographical notes presenting the authors will be progressively archived. When this site was put online, very little information was available on African women authors and their books, thus the usefulness of our small bio-bibliographies outlining the life and literary output of the people mentioned on the site. Today, all major authors and publishing houses have their own websites, and search engines provides a huge amount of information about African women authors, making these pages redundant.
Conjointly, the literary value rather than numerical increase of African women writers will be stressed, if only because Lire les femmes écrivains et les littératures africaines is a resource widely used by students and teachers alike. A better distinction between the books recommended by the site's editor and those whose literary value is left to the appreciation of the readers should be spelled out. For example, the books listed on the page "L'Afrique écrite au féminin depuis les années 1960"  bear witness to the depth and quality of women's contribution to African literature written in, or translated into French. Although selective, and thus incomplete, this listing may answer better the demand of teachers and a general readership for quality literary publications than the extensive list of books published in any given year over the past decade. Similarly, the broad selection of books set forth under the heading "Not to be missed"  is a representative sample of little and often ignored treasures. Some of the books analysed in this subdivision of the site belong to a bygone era, but many others are recent titles that have eluded the deleterious effects of desktop publishing and, entrusted to reputable publishers, have been widely acclaimed by academia and the literary community at large. The excellent translations into French of some prominent English-speaking women authors who have been included, add to the breadth of a corpus which has to be judged according to its readability and literary strength rather than geographical origins. "African" literatures are appealing to a wide array of readers for an even wider range of reasons and the growing corpus of works written in French does not draw its popularity from essentialist expressions of African identity, but rather from evocative articulations of people's interaction with the continent. Moreover, the fate of literary publication is no longer left to a small but influential group of critics and specialists. It is also decided by the masses as websites' interactivity has now developed well beyond hypertext and allows unmoderated readers' comments, reviews and articles.
In order to acknowledge the fascinating exchanges taking place between literary enthusiasts scattered around the world commenting on African women's literature, a new sub-section titled "Notes de lecture" has been included . It includes reprints of interesting book reviews proposed on the Web by a wide variety of readers. Beside enlarging the scope of literary criticism, this addition to the site is also an acknowledgement that, despite and also thanks to its stringent rules and unbending watchdogs literature can please both lay and professional readerships in providing everyone with the enjoyment of "a good read".
An interesting book review published in the African scholarly journal Ethiopiques  reminded readers that, for centuries French spelling was left to the fickleness of the scribes and that broad consensual spelling was not only recent, but also continually challenged by users. This is certainly true, but it stands to reason that when authors conform to the conventions of the day they facilitate readers' reception. That, of course, begs the questions elegantly formulated by Ken Bugul in her article titled "Questions, enjeux, défis" [Questions, stakes, challenges] : Writing, yes, but to whom? writing what? why? how? and for what purpose? and in what language? ... All these questions are of course inter-related. When Senegalese author Mame Younousse Dieng wrote "Aawo bi", one of the first Senegalese novels in Wolof, she clearly had in mind her Senegalese compatriots, even if she appropriated a literary genre that did not belong to traditional Senegalese narratives.  The belated publication of her second novel  in French was also aimed at a Senegalese readership, but by virtue of the language chosen, it also became a kind of champion of Senegalese arts and culture that any French-speaking reader could appreciate, not only in Dakar, but also in Montreal, Yaoundé, Brussels, Abidjan or Geneva. The success of the story lies not only with its themes and content, but also with its fine style that allows readers to empathise with the main character and to share her plight.
In 2007, the dearth of well-established and reliable publishing houses in francophone Africa threw African women authors to the mercy of French publishers, skewing African literary representation to suit Western expectations. Globalisation, neo-colonial style, we then argued, did not favour a meaningful expression of authors' singularity and a reciprocal exchange between cultures. Six years on, the hegemony of the West on African publishing is receding somewhat as self-publishing and small independent publishers across Africa have opened new avenues for aspiring authors. The main issue now facing the latter is the want of support that would allow them to put their thoughts into a form that measures up to the expectations of their readers. As Ahmadou Kourouma and indeed many other authors showed many years ago, transgressing linguistic conventions and adapting the French language to suit one's environment and cultural background has merit, but unorthodox structures can only appeal to readers if the bulk of the narrative conforms to consensual rules.
Some enlightening pages extracted from Liss Kihindou's novel, Chêne de Bambou (Paris: Editions Anibwe, 2013, pp.282-285), evoke the confusion of a young woman writer seeking to publish her first novel as she falls prey to an extortionist parading as a publisher: "... au cri de joie a succédé un cri d'effroi. En effet, on me disait, après m'avoir déclaré qu'on était heureux de m'annoncer que mon manuscrit avait été retenu pour publication, qu'il fallait "juste" que je participe aux frais de publication, que je prenne notemment en charge la maquette du livre! Tu n'imagineras jamais combien on me demandait. C'est tellement énorme par rapport à mes moyens que je n'ose même pas te dire le montant. [...] J'avais la nette impression qu'il s'en foutait presque de mon manuscrit, pourvu que je paye...". [Note added in October 2013]