And talking (as we were) about the problems that writers face locally and elsewhere, a friend (thanks Jes!) very kindly posted me photocopy of an article about Singapore's Literary Scene. It's called Writer's Block by Elaine Meyers, but I'm not sure of the title of the magazine is appeared in (I-S?) I couldn't find an online link to it, so what follows is just selected highlights. I'm posting this because I think that there are interesting parallels with the situation for writers in English in Malaysia. (If you find it a bit boring, save it to read before bed!)
Meyers begins by saying that Singapore is nowhere on the world's literary map and at least "the neighbours to the north" have Tash Aw. (See, Malaysia boleh!)
Then she talks about the various reasons for this beginning with publication. Marshall Cavendish (formerly Times Publishing) is the largest publisher in Singpaore but only publish two to six manuscripts a year. There are only a handful of other publishers who publish local writing. Ethos used to be a key publisher of Singaporean fiction but today does not publish new titles. Goh Eck Kheng of Landmark Books says it has been a long time since he received a manuscript that he wanted to publish. (So are Singaporean authors just not making the grade?)
The only publisher which seems to be thriving and publishing new stuff at the moment is First Fruits which focuses on poetry. Poetry apparently attracts the largest number of new, young and active writers in Singapore. (If you want to know about the poetry scene in Singapore, this article by Alvin Pang is a very good introduction.)
Singaporean literature does not sell well. An average print run is only 2,000 copies (500 for poetry).
The only publisher which appears to have an international outlook is Monsoon Books which published Gerrie Lim's bestseller Invisible Trades. (Non-fiction though.)
Meyers says that Singaporean writers tend to look outside of Singapore for inspiration, both in style and content.
The most common themes are: "A sense of losing something, modernization, a migrant culture and claustrophobia."
Meyer says that Singapore lit is in a woeful state because literature is not a compulsory subject in school and don't grow up to be literary adults. Alvin Pang says "Include local writers in syllabi and everything will change." (The question of the role of literature teaching in schools is one that interests me greatly.)
The article ends on a positive note as Meyer highlights some of the most important recent developments.
The National Arts Council "is pulling its weight". The National Book Development Council has resurrected the Singapore Literature Prize. It also provides support for writers in the form of mentorship, courses, writing grants and scholarships.
Alvin Pang and Toh Hsien Min, started The Literary Centre in 2003, a non-profit centre that promotes the literary arts. Their main activity is the biennnial literature festival, Wordfeast.
Toh also founded and is editor-in chief of Singapore's online literary magazine, the excellent Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (QLRS).
Meyer concludes: ... the heart of the matter is this: No matter how much money or how many resources we throw at Singaporean literature, we won't cut it unless we understand the value of literature, and make it part of our lives and our education."
I rather think she's right!