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A Critic Fails in His Critical Bidding: Nzube Nlebedim’s takedown of Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter

by Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè

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Obviously, the first question to ask here is: who died? Because the title—Onuzo’s “The Spider King’s Daughter” Fails Tragically in Its Literary Bidding—the critic, Nzube Nlebedim, slapped on his pretentious review of Chibundu Onuzo’s Spider King’s Daughter is overly dramatic. If there is anything that should provoke a requiem for a goat here, it is the critic who has slaughtered hermeneutics on the twin altar of incomprehension and exhibitionism sending up trails of choking arrogance.

Nlebedim’s review began as a post on his Facebook where he set up Chibundu Onuzo for trolling by putting his scathing verdict of her book and tagged her in it—actually, the second time he would subject the author to online vilification within the space of two months. As expected, it stirred some of his followers, including those who have not read the book, to add more insults to the writer. Buoyed on by his fans, or to use the language of the internet, “stans,” their likes and comments must have entertained and massaged his already bloated ego—well, what some people have come to understand as a close or exegetical reading of literary texts is a takedown of an author’s work. Probably, Niran Okewole might need to update his poem “The Hate Artist” to accommodate new meanings as these on worshippers of hate.

Nlebedim’s action shows someone lacking identity, who is seeking mere relevance on the social media; this shows us a critic without proper and adequate learning who only wears the hat just so he can be feared and pass off a faux air of an intellectual; of course, this points out his narcissistic agenda and toxic intentions brooked out of a mindless arrogance that he could teach the author on how to write—how absurd. Withal, this should not be a surprise to us from someone who uses a skewed analogy that an editor is a teacher in a classroom to an author: “The business of publishing transcends mere publishing; it is like being in a classroom where editors sit with contributors and explain to them how their works can be better.”

Let us emphasize here that the role of a critic is one that is clear: it is that of an interpreter. He conveys the vision and message of an author to the readers, he interprets and expands the meaning of a text. In short, a book review is essentially a reader having a dialogue with a book. This is why it is often humorous when a critic fails in this simple and privileged position and comes across as Black Camaru, the thuggish and quick-to-temper semi-literate interpreter in Nigerian comedy skits.

In any case, we are thankful for this review for it allows us to examine the poles—they are three essentially—and workings the criticisms of Nzube Nlebedim stand on to reach his conclusions that Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter failed tragically in its literary bidding.

Nlebedim’s first allegation is on didacticism and suggests that The Spider King’s Daughter is more like Onitsha market literature. One would then expect him to solidify his claim and break down the book to prove this but instead what he does is give an overview of Onitsha market literature, bringing a book by Charles Larson, The Emergence of African Fiction, to the table with an out of place quote to support his claim. Anyway, what we can glean from this dribbling is that characters are not well developed in this literature, and by extension, in Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter.

Literature has many functions, and one of them is that it teaches morals. Such works that exercise this functionality are thus described as didactic. And when a literary work is didactic, you don’t summarily dismiss it as children’s literature, as Nlebedim did. It is derogatory to the writers of children’s literature and an insult to the genre. Didn’t Jesus tell a parable that no one can enter the kingdom unless as a child? It should be added that no one can enter the realm of literature unless first as a child. And if you think children’s literature is cheap or less refined, you may want to ask why the NLNG Prize puts $100,000 on it every four years. You have to look at the form and content to determine what is children’s literature. For example, it would be misleading to categorize didactic works such as Everyman, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, SylvaNze Ifedigbo’s My Mind is No Longer Here,the various authors in Onitsha market literature or Littattafan Soyayya (also known as Kano market literature) as children’s literature. In fact, it would be interesting to ask which particular title from the Onitsha market literature Nlebedim has read to have a sweeping take on it. And if he cannot distinguish between children’s literature and literary fiction, then he has failed to identify the what (form) of the book and, therefore, cannot be trusted to understand its how (style).

In literature, as in life, there are diverse characters. For the novel form, this has been delineated into two types: flat and round characters. Flat characters are two dimensional, simple, usually having a singular quality; while a round character is more complex, both in temperament and outlook. Many child or teen-narrators in a work of fiction are flat characters, not requiring much complexities of an adult—for instance, the unnamed narrator in Camara Laye’s An African Child is flat. This said, what we have in Spider King’s Daughter is two unique narrators through which the story unfolds. Abikẹ is a round character and The Hawker is flat; one is named, while the other is unnamed. These two characters are from different social classes whose stories intersect. Still, Onuzo distinctly preserves their voices as they tell the same events in their own way or voice. The slight differences in the same events in their narrative is deliberate and intended to guide the readers on Abikẹ’s character development. It leaves the choice to the readers on whose version of events to believe. This narrative technique is what Nlebedim misconstrued as editorial lapses and inconsistencies in Onuzo’s novel.

From the explanation above, it makes sense that one of Onuzo’s characters is unnamed and flat. That Onuzo chose not to give a real name to her protagonist is a deliberate attempt to strike at the protagonist’s randomness—that it could be the story of any destitute teen in a similar situation—and equally nudge us towards the social disparity in the novel. It is not entirely an odd thing in fiction. (Another flat and nicknamed character in a recent Nigerian novel is Nene’s son in E C Osondu’s When the Sky is Ready the Stars Will Appear.) If Nlebedim paid enough attention, he would have learnt about the character’s other name, Boyo, which might be his real name or another nomenclature. So what is actually “appalling” is Nlebedim’s lack of understanding and deliberate attempt in resisting it. He desperately wants to read for style but has limited critical tools and understanding to do that. The question he should have asked is if not giving a proper name to the protagonist works or not in the story. And if it doesn’t, he has not sufficiently proved this.

To the second pole: How exactly and well the story in The Spider King’s Daughter is told, is the second basis of Nlebedim’s criticism against the novel. But he only gives us a quick summary of the book; and its plot line, which he says is similar with the author’s second novel in her vivid settings and social realism, and how she uncovers crevices of the well-known Lagos in her writing; then he slaps his verdict on its plot for being “too slim,” which she could have explored more. In essence, according to him, there “is no complexity in plots or events,” and that, “the book is run on funny coincidences.”

The peculiar thing about Nlebedim’s review is that he tells, but doesn’t show convincingly. Whereas, it is in showing a good critic is recognised. What exactly Onuzo could have explored more, he doesn’t tell us; what exactly she could have complicated in the plot structure, he doesn’t tell either; examples of the funny coincidences, we do not know. To quickly answer this, as we have already explained above, the plot is complex enough for having two narrators who slightly contradict each other in details of the same events. Also, you don’t necessarily need a long plot to achieve or realize a complex character as Nlebedim opines. While a book’s literary merits, surely, are not measured on its length, we have Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons, as examples of novels having a singular and short plot but, nevertheless, proven to be most profound, commanding multiple interpretations.

One of the supposed things wrong with the book, Nlebedim criticises, is that the author didn’t use “speech tags” in dialogues: “I was rather confused — initially, I must confess — as to why the author separated the voices with italics for Abikẹ, and normal text for Runner G when she could have made it easier to use simple labeling, or at least parse through separate chapters.” Good that he confesses his confusion here. The graphological implications of the dialogue or the side of Abikẹ’s story rendered in italics is manifold, one of which depicts her stream of consciousness.

And then with all these faulty premises, Nlebedim comes down mightily on the book with his imaginary gavel and pronounces the ipse dixit:

Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter had little linguistic nor literary merit to be deserving of a Faber & Faber imprint, to be deserving of any imprint at all. For an elite publishing house that has published works from Kazuo Ishiguro, Paul Muldoon, Philip Larkin, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and countless other reputable names, I expected better. The work should have been better edited and revised before going into print. The book attempts to toe the line between children’s literature and bad Nollywood drama from the 90s. It fails on both counts.

With unbelievably unnecessary, cheeky and predictable dialogues, to characters that are only as bland as water, to a plot too lean and contrived to be real, to language and creative complexity that can pass for a toddler’s, Chibundu Onuzo fails as a literary writer. The novel was expertly acupunctured with obvious mistakes that could have been sorted out pre-publication. The Spider King’s Daughter is a largely unimpressive novel, undeserving to be in the space on the shelf of any self-respecting, mature reader.

Just outrageous. Tell the acupuncturist of a critic to remove the needles that riddle his own criticism first. From the list of names he reels out to illustrate Faber and Faber’s long pedigree shows a neo-colonial mind that seems to say it is an anomaly for Faber and Faber to publish a Black author. The fact that his false sense of importance has gotten the better of him to appropriate a job for himself at Faber and Faber, and take the custodianship of readers’ libraries, is just outright absurd, to put it mildly. How silly. Actually, there is an antecedent. The first critics at home who castigated Amos Tutuola also questioned why his Palm-wine Drinkard was published by Faber and Faber.

It is easier to condemn a book because every book is first on a trial in the hands of a reader. But The Spider King’s Daughter is a novel that should pass this trial in the hands of serious readers. Because it is written with panacea and invested in symbols—let’s take for instance Runner G’s shoulder on which he carries his packet of ice cream and water, symbolizing his manly responsibility and burden at a young age. It is a novel that plumbs the insecurity and psychology of continued pilfering of resources by public officials and business moguls, and the basis of classism. Also, a complicated character like Abikẹ and the episodic format of the plot makes the plot fast paced. “My hawker” nomenclature which Abikẹ frequently uses to refer to Runner G shows her relationship with him that he is more like a pet project to her, reluctant to erase the social gap between them despite the intimacy they share. This sheds light into understanding her as a Machiavellian type. If the critic does not understand this about the character, then he can’t lay claim to understanding her at all.

What is “laughable harmatias” that Nlebedim speaks of is, in fact, a matter of stylistic preference. This is where it should have unraveled for him, why the author did away with conventional speech tags, why the language is simple, why some characters are flat, why the plot—well, according to him—is less complex, had he not read the novel with a closed mind. So much for his “studying” which yields nothing but yebu-yebu analysis. You wonder if he read the novel with chewing gum glued to his eyes, because the style he claims is nonexistent in the book, he identifies, but just doesn’t know it. So, as we can see, it just doesn’t wash; these are no criticisms but de minimis observations borne out of the incomprehension of a text. In the end, what we have here is a Black Camaru with a fit reveling in his own foolery. We must confess: we have been thoroughly entertained.

It is important to make this clear: we are equally of the opinion, as Dan Izevbaye believes, that “…in the study of literature the need for critical discrimination is important for the health of the literary culture.” However, before you can do that, you must demonstrate a good understanding of a text. Nzube Nlebedim has not demonstrated a sufficient understanding of Onuzo’s novel, nor are the poles his criticisms rest on solid enough to convince us. The onus remains on him to prove convincingly why the book is bad. But this might be a bad one for him because, having single-mindedness of what a good literature should be, he robs and prevents himself from discovering other ways of writing. While it is axiomatic that a mind that cannot understand a simple work cannot comprehend a complex one, this is the egg on his face. A kind suggestion to him: his critical practice will benefit a lot from the logical progression and clarity of Mathematics, if he can study the subject more and apply it to his literary criticism. It will help him in building sound thoughts or arguments block-by-block. And this may or may not be connected, but as the saying goes, there is a Beautiful Nubia song for every occasion. Perhaps, it might be helpful when next he wants to write, to listen to the song “Ese Odo” from Beautiful Nubia’s new album, Huru Hara. It may help stir his creative juices.◙

Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a literary critic from Ibadan, Nigeria.