Michele Magwood 'should be declared a national literary treasure trove'

02 March 2020 - 11:23
Celebrated literary critic Michele Magwood has said farewell to the Sunday Times, and many involved in the world of books have heaped praise upon her.
Celebrated literary critic Michele Magwood has said farewell to the Sunday Times, and many involved in the world of books have heaped praise upon her.
Image: Supplied

Compiled by Mila de Villiers 

After close to two decades, literary critic par excellence Michele Magwood has bid the Sunday Times adieu. 

Her wit, wisdom and dexterity with the written word made for features which were both insightful and captivating, with the added bonus of being a proper jol to read - a rare gift to which any nascent writer can only aspire. Merci, Michele.  

As tribute to Her Royal Magness we asked the most eloquent among us to share a few words on what made the doyenne of South Africa's literary scene such a remarkable book critic.

Their recognition did her justice. 

Ken Barris, novelist, poet:

I got to know Michele during two years of judging the Alan Paton prize recently. She played a facilitating role, and did not take any direct part in the process. However, her experience and judgment were invaluable to us at key points of the discussion, when at just the right time she might remind us again of the criteria, or of the broader background of a particular novel. She is subtle and incisive, and has a gracious presence. It was very rewarding to work with her.

Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi, editor, prolific tweeter:

In a piece for the Guardian, titled Dance Lessons for Writers, author Zadie Smith describes the dancer/actor Fred Astaire: “He is surreal in the sense of surpassing the real. He is transcendent. When he dances a question proposes itself: what if a body moved like this through the world?”

When asked to share some words about Michele’s impact on the literary and journalistic worlds, one of the first things that danced across my mind was the Smith piece. Anyone who has read even a paragraph written by Michele would know her words gracefully float from the page and gently grab you by the throat.

She, like Astaire in the spotlight, makes it look easy. She makes it look easy when she sits on stages and interviews authors (as she did with her legendary Magwood & Twiggs book salons). She makes composing achingly beautiful sentences seem effortless. But anyone who has been privileged enough to work with her also knows that, even after all these years, she puts in the work, effort, time and energy to deliver what looks like something so natural it required no exertion on her part.

Writing is both an art and a science. But if you’re Michele, it’s also magic. It’s so good, it “surpasses the real”.

Thank you for everything, Michele. 

Edwin Cameron, former Constitutional High Court judge:

Michele was a savvy, knowledgeable, extremely well-read and insightful critic.  Her shepherding of the Sunday Times Literary Awards was tactful but also remorselessly skillful. I doubt her committees of judges ever made an award that didn't reflect an outcome she endorsed. She was also enormous fun to work with - a sometimes caustic tongue, and one of those people who with just a lifted eyebrow could puncture pomposity in a meeting.

Russell Clarke, editorial and production manager at Bookstorm:

When the news hit of Michele’s imminent departure from the Sunday Times, my heart skipped a beat. The doyenne of all things bookish in South Africa, no longer? I relaxed as I read that Mrs M would still be a feature in our book world, and my mind skipped immediately to the first time I encountered Michele.

As a young, green publisher starting out in my first publishing job in South Africa, my boss, Mike Martin, told me that if I wanted to understand the book ecosystem in the country, Magwood was the person to talk to. Which of course immediately made me nervous – until I met Michele.

Her warmth and vital energy immediately struck a chord in my soul. Michele’s contribution to literature in South Africa must never be underestimated – her astonishingly intelligent reviews and interviews, and firm but gentle critique, reflect Michele’s personality. Late night WhatsApps about books that made us cry, chats about the ups and downs of a crazy industry – and above all, an inclusivity that everyone who encounters Michele feels.

Halala Lady M, halala!

Paddi Clay, journalist:

Michele is above all a very good listener, which is why she is such a magnificently deft interviewer of writers of all genres, artfully and naturally drawing out their anecdotes, thoughts and feelings whether they are neophytes, rosy with achievement and nerves or intimidatingly prolific celebrities such as Salman Rushdie.

Her eclectic knowledge, her lack of pretentiousness, her good ear and eye for the tone and style of a book and her own easy writing style, astute observations, passion and wicked sense of humour make her reviews and articles about books and the book world an elucidating delight for readers.

Steve Connolly, CEO Penguin Random House:

Michele’s departure is the end of an era. In her South Africa has a world class literary interviewer who was on a par with anyone in London or New York. She combined insight and perception with an easy grace and warmth and an articulate voice that was a joy to read.

Maggie Davey, publishing director Jacana Media: 

Intimacy. That’s what Michele brought to her coverage of books, to her interviewing of authors, to her consideration of the world of books. Not for her the long arm of worldly wise surveying. Rather, Michele took the route of immersion in the subject and in the author. It led to fascinating reviews and author interviews that reliably took the reader into the orbit of the writer. Oh, and Michele always had time for publishers.

Sue de Groot, deputy features editor Sunday Times:

A haiku for Mags

It would take more than
Seventeen syllables to
Say how sad we are

Ann Donald, former director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival:

Michele has made a profound contribution to literary life in South Africa, as a critic, an interviewer, an editor and a mentor. Her ability to engage with the written word so effectively starts with her love for story, is intellectually stringent, and is driven by her deep humanity and care for the place books hold in the heart of a nation. Her professional generosity has touched all of us – authors, journalists, colleagues and mentees. Her influence will continue to be felt for years to come.

Shelagh Foster, director Franschhoek Literary Festival:

Michele is the most generous of book critics. Not that she holds back on alluding to any weaknesses, but that she treats both book and writer with a gentle yet magnificently intelligent respect. But to me, Michele’s greatest – and most rare – gift is that she doesn’t insert herself into her reviews. In fact, through some wondrous literary alchemy, her writing becomes an extension of that of the author as she explores the varied layers of text, context and content, offering the reader a true taste of what is to come. She is a beautiful writer and a beautiful person.

Pippa Green, SA press ombudsman:

I had the honour of serving for two consecutive years on the Alan Paton literary awards committee for non-fiction, having been invited by Michele.

Michele was much more convener and chief organiser. She was a quiet, inspiring presence, who advised on guidelines and eligibility, without ever imposing her own opinion about the books under consideration. For someone so knowledgeable, and with such a depth of feeling about South African writing, this takes enormous discipline and commitment.

Her breadth of knowledge and her commitment to South African literature, both fiction and non-fiction, is without equal in newspapers in the country. She has moulded and guided the books page and the Alan Paton awards to reflect the very best the country has to offer. She has been a torchlight for literature here, in spite of the tight margins and economic challenges that face publishers and book sellers. She has played a huge part in nurturing the art of reading and the role that books can play in spanning divisions and promoting empathy in a fractured society.

I will miss her presence in the Sunday Times – her thoughtful reviews, her leadership, her insights.

With all this, she has been constantly warm, courteous and respectful to the range of people she has encountered through both the Alan Paton awards and through the bridge she has built between authors and the public.

Craig Higginson, novelist, playwright:

Michele leaves a huge legacy of authors she has identified and celebrated while to other critics they remained invisible – and of readers who have had whole new worlds opened up to them because Michele’s reviews have fired their imagination. She combines a vast knowledge and perspective on literature, both local and international, with an appetite and openness towards the most contemporary and innovative of voices. It is very rare to have these qualities combined in one person - and rarer still to have them in someone with Michele’s generosity, humanity, humour and kindness. As South African writers, we owe her a great debt of gratitude. I wish you well, Michele, even as I know our conversation is far from ended.

Jenny Hobbs, author, second director, Franschhoek Literary Festival:

Michele has been a shining beacon in my reading and writing life. Her perceptive book reviews and features were must-reads long before we met, and her staunch support of the Franschhoek Literary Festival was invaluable. She contributed advice about books and writers, many of whom she knew or had interviewed, and chaired events with her unique blend of deep knowledge and calm authority sparked with humour. Hamba kahle, Michele, as you sink back onto your chaise lounge to read for your own pleasure, knowing your insights and encouragement will be greatly missed.

Jacqui L'Ange, journalist, author:

I worked with Michele when I first entered the magazine world in the early 1990s, long before we both became book journos. She was a mentor and a friend - smart, funny, and always fair. She brought that same open mind and worldly curiosity to her book reviews, and to the author interviews that brought her up close and personal with some of the world's finest writers. She brought their words and worlds into so many homes, spreading her love of quality literature. I wish her all the best on her next chapter, secure in the knowledge that there will always be a good book (or 10) on her bedside table.

Jennifer Malec, editor Johannesburg Review of Books:

I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with Michele. Her seemingly limitless literary and cultural knowledge and her sense of calm authority can't be matched. Her writing has an effortless sparkle – she produces brilliance with consistency. But it’s Michele’s strong journalistic principles and her kindness that really set her apart. I will miss reading her work in the Sunday Times, but I’m interested to hear what new projects she has up her sleeve.

Prof Tinyiko Maluleke, senior research fellow, University of Pretoria Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship:

Michele was the co-ordinator and resource person on the three occasions when I was invited to be a member of the panel of judges for the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. I have found her to be a person of enormous wealth in literary knowledge, especially South African literature. Such is the breadth and depth of her knowledge I remain convinced that she eats novels for breakfast, gobbles non-fiction for lunch, has short stories for supper, while nibbling on prose and poetry all day long. Michele should be declared a national literary treasure trove.

Terry Morris, managing director Pan Macmillan SA:

Michele has been a constant champion of authors, the written word and publishers in South Africa over so many years. We, at Pan Macmillan, will miss her calm and erudite presence, not only on the page but at award ceremonies, festivals and launches. On a personal note I hope to continue the many conversations with Michele about books that resonate, move, intrigue and inspire.

Prof Bill Nasson, historian, author: 

I would say a shrewd graciousness - in Michele's limpid use of language, in her even temperament, and in her probing insights into writers and their work. Whether it's been reading those sparkling interviews in the books section of the Sunday Times, watching from the wings as she herded some of the more wayward literary cats at those Franschhoek Literary Festival functions, being kept on one's toes in a radio book discussion, or experiencing the consummate professionalism of her discriminating impartiality in servicing the Alan Paton awards procedure, Michele has truly been the critic for all seasons.

Exceptionally knowledgeable in whatever she tackled, her vivid treatment of her subjects always transported one right into the heart of the matter - she made you share her curiosity and appreciation time after time. There are times when I've thought of Michele as a kind of Dorothy Parker opposite - mild rather than malicious, sanguine rather than spiteful, empathetic rather than evil.

Still, given this sad moment, it's hard to resist quoting from a 1928 Parker book review in The New Yorker: 'Any minute, now, I am going to become one of The Great Unemployed. I am about to leave literature flat on its face. I don't want to review books any more. It cuts in too much on my reading'.

As a no-nonsense literary woman, Michele would recognise that as nonsense. But she'd also grin at the truth beneath the floorboards. 

Nancy Richards, journalist: 

I had an English teacher once who breathed such a life into a sentence that it all but danced across the classroom. When I first encountered Michele on air, for me she slotted right into that sentence-breathing mould. She was one of a number of regular book reviewers for the woman’s programme I presented. I looked forward to her reviews especially - not just to bag a new title, but for the quality of her content and relaxed humour of her delivery.  ‘It’s so badly written,’ I remember her saying of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, ‘I just threw it across the room – but then I had to go and pick it up to finish it.’ Code was written in 2003 – so that’s how far back we go.

We’ve spoken on and shared airspace several times since then, coincided at festivals and other gatherings – the book biz is a well-bound and bonded tribe – and I’ve read and listened to her interviews with admiration and the confidence that comes from knowing that whatever the material, it will be well-researched, sound and sensitive.

We connected again last year over the Sunday Times Literary Awards. At her invitation I was privileged to be on the judging panel for the Barry Ronge prize for fiction. When the time came for the panel to conclude its verdict in Cape Town, on the other side of the conference call, Michele was invisible. She spoke little, rather making encouraging noises. On hearing her final assessment, I discovered she doesn’t just breathe life into sentences, she absorbs, digests and processes them with a listening skill usually reserved for psychologists and counsellors.

In moving on, she says:‘The book world needs new eyes and new voices’.

She leaves a high bar and a strong team, but I suspect Michele has new heights of her own ahead.

Bontle Senne, author, literacy advocate: 

In every interaction with Michele, it was her joy that captivated me. Whether in person at a book event or online in one of her countless reviews, she retained a spirit of curiosity about writers and books - old and new. Sometimes a critical and cerebral curiosity, sometimes something much lighter. Through it all, she loved this industry. She loved our literature and her approach to it, her joyful celebration of it, has lifted all of us and the standard of our endeavours as writers, reviewers, and readers.

Kate Sidley, writer, columnist, author:

Michele's work shows a great love and respect for books, writing, writers and readers. In her reviews and in conversation with authors she is always well-prepared, thoughtful, insightful and generous - a pleasure to hear or read. She has made a great contribution to the South African literary scene, to our writers and readers and awards and festivals. Thank you, Michele.

Steven Sidley, novelist, columnist:

Michele galloped into this world like a warrior astride a literary stallion, and ruled without fear or favour for as long as I have been writing novels. She has kick-started many a writing career (including mine) with judicious public praise, and her encyclopaedic critical range will be missed. I doubt whether she will go off into that good night, so here's to you, Michele.

Gus Silber, journalist, editor, author:

Hooray for Michele, who has quite literally influenced and bettered the lives of so many readers with her love of books, her erudite reviews and podcasts, and her tireless championing of South African authors. Go well, Michele, and long may you carry on spreading the word.

Nkanyezi Tshabalala, publisher Jonathan Ball:

I have been lucky to work with Michele for many years in her capacity as Contributing Books Editor for the Sunday Times. She is graceful, a supreme professional and one of the most deeply knowledgeable experts the industry has had the honour of claiming. I have huge admiration for her love of literature and the outstanding work she’s done for books and authors these past two decades. Though we will miss her passion at the Sunday Times, I’m delighted she’ll still be involved with books. I wish her all the very best for this new and exciting journey.

Prof Charles van Onselen, historian, author:

Blessed with a fine historical imagination in her own right, much admired for her insights and widely read, Michele has been a great friend to South African publishers and writers of fiction and non-fiction over many decades. She provided readers in a largely benighted country with an invaluable, unerringly intelligent and well-written guide to good writing by focusing on works that explored the many rich themes arising from what was, and is, a very strange and tortured society. Generous with her time to a fault in her support of new and young or established authors alike, Michele helped launch and sustain several literary careers. All those who work with words and play with ideas in the dying days of the Era of Ink and Book Reviews of Substance are in her debt. She has widened the small worlds we inhabit.

Amanda van Rhyn, national marketing and publicity manager Penguin Random House:

Michele has a sensitivity and an understanding of literature that is hard to find, and her incredible knowledge of books and writers clearly stems from her love for it.

Her reviews were always honest, and although you never felt you were being told to read a specific book (a skill in itself), you almost always wanted to get hold of a copy immediately after reading her review.

She never wrote about what she thought people would be interested in. Instead she wrote about what she felt passionate about, to educate and entertain. And her expertise and authority allowed her to do this.

Hamilton Wende, author:

Michele has been a bundle of enthusiasm and energy on the South African literary scene for so many years, it’s hard to imagine her not being around – but I suspect she still will be, in her own way.She has such a broad understanding of what makes a book good, or interesting or controversial, and, often, all three. She worked tirelessly to find space for both South African and international books in a shrinking public and media space for literature, and that really was her greatest gift to us all,

Eloise Wessels, managing director Media24 Books:

Michele has made an invaluable contribution to the South African literary scene over the years. Widely respected and admired for her skillful and thoughtful reviews of books from all genres, she is also good company at literary events, a sound judge on literary prize panels and has set a high standard of literary reviews in South Africa. Michele generously supported and offered guidance and advice to authors, booksellers and publishers while at the same time maintaining her editorial and professional integrity. The doyenne of SA’s literary scene indeed. 

Ben Williams, publisher Johannesburg Review of Books:

I first became aware of Michele when I overheard her interviewing the actor Richard E Grant at the inaugural Cape Town Book Fair in 2006. I'll never forget the moment: I was drawn to the crowd by her voice and the laughter of her audience and eventually sat practically at her feet, spellbound. What a revelation: I saw for the first time how books journalism could be done – properly done. From that moment, I wanted to work with her, and was lucky enough to have this privilege when I joined the Sunday Times books team many years later.

Michele, as we know, writes like an angel: she pulls reviews, interviews and features from the absolute top drawer. She's also deeply invested in books culture in South Africa, having steered many initiatives – including the mighty Sunday Times Literary Awards – into safe harbour, year after year.

The thing I admire most about Michele is that she lives so courageously by journalism's fundamental rule: you're only as good as your last piece. Face this stomach-curdling truth day in and day out and consistent excellence is the result - but very few can do it.

Dear Michele, you’re world-class and I and everyone in the books world will miss you terribly.

Now - onwards!