Friday, October 20, 2006

The Writing Ecosystem

I might have got the whole thing wrong but here are my ideas.

There are two factors that will contribute to the growth of a writing community and they are diametrically opposed to each other but entirely complementary.

The first factor is encouragement. You need to get a community of writers up and running. You need courses, workshops, small press publication, readings, dialogue to make this happen. You create a pool of writers, the larger the better.

Some of those writers will seek to be published. Many others will derive happiness from personal writing and perhaps the occasional piece in the newspaper or a magazine or an anthology.

The first responsibility of the encourager is to the writer. We have some great encouragers in the writing community right now and hopefully this will produce shoals and shoals of writers, working hard to improve their skills. They do, though, owe it to the writers to temper encouragement with a dose of realism.

But a writing community will amount to nothing in the end (although it may well be happy in its self-congratulationariness) with the second factor.

The second factor is selectiveness. The gate-keeping of high standards in print and the necessity of rejecting all but very best of the best for quality publication. This is the role of agent and the editor, and their first responsibility has to be to what will sell, not to the individual writer.

In Malaysia we have no agents. The fishtank is too small, not lucrative enough. Writers have to deal directly with editors. (Unless they decide they want to swim out into the ocean. Some do, and thrive.)

An editor selects the content for publication, rejects the rest. There's necessarily a very high wastage. An editor guides the shaping of the finished work in collaboration with the writer.

There aren't enough editors here, though, and of the ones we have, some are better than others. If an editor does his/her job badly, substandard material gets through. It muddies the water for the rest - because readers lose faith in the local product entirely if they feel they have wasted their money on substandard editons.

I would include on this side of the divide, the critics, the groundfeeders of the publishing ecosystem. The first responsibilty of the critic is to the reader.

A critic gives feedback through the pages of a newspaper or magazine. Hopefully they write objectively and fairly, kindly but firmly. We don't have enough good critics. We don't have enough space for critics to do their stuff. Local work often doesn't get reviewed. It's a real problem.

So there you have it: without encouragement, nothing will grow and thrive: without selectiveness, nothing of quality will be produced.

A lot of thoughts spin off for me from this central thesis.

First, where am I in this system? I am a writer, but seem to have drifted away from fiction which I consider (for myself) the real challenge. Partly that's because fiction is tough to write. Partly that's because I'm finding a lot of satisfaction in writing features and articles and I have no problem getting published. Partly because others seem to want to be published more than me and I think, why not let them? A writer needs to be hungry, and I don't think I'm hungry enough.

I am an encourager though my creative writing courses, and the teacher in me thoroughly enjoys this role and takes great satisfaction from seeing writers grow.

I'm not an agent but if I spot something good, I give advice and suggest a place to send it.

I can edit. Have edited a short story collection. Loved doing that because it gave me the chance to encourage new talent. Don't enjoy working with bad manuscripts. Could never do what Eric does.

I can be a critic. Am a critic. But feel guilty because I should be making more effort to write about local publications, but becomes hard to be critical when those writers are my friends, so I guess I run away from this task. No excuse. And if on the one hand I'm keen to be an encourager, does it help if morph occasionally into the sharp-toothed critic lurking among the rocks?

But multiple roles are a symptom of the smallness of the fishtank, I guess, and we have to live with that.

Related Posts:

The Gentle Cycle (20/5/06)
From the Lips of an Editor (19/5/06)
Those Who Can, Write: Those Who Can't Edit (6/8/05)
Giving Writers A Chance (18/5/06)


sympozium said...

Thanks. A lucid and well-thought out piece. Thought-provoking as well. There seems to be a thread of sadness running through it though...?

Other factors I can think of:
-a thriving reading culture would help
-an environment free from social and legal persecution if you write about certain topics
-fewer 'artistic' prima-donnas (but that's impossible as they're everywhere!)

Lydia Teh said...

Sharon, great analogy and well written. Yes, we need to encourage realistically without giving false hopes. I emphathize with you about critiquing friends' work - it's not easy. I too think that fiction is tough to write. May visit that novel I wrote and work on it again but am quite reluctant to do it because it's such a drawn out process. Really admire those who can knock out a novel in 1 month or two. If I become a hermit for three months and have no contact with family and friends during that period, and no internet access, maybe I'd be able to.

lil ms d said...

great piece SB!

how's our toyboy?

Ted Mahsun said...

There's also the role of the reader. If a community of writers is to thrive, readers HAVE to read what writers write. And writers must take up the role of reader if they are to write.

Have to agree with Symposium about being free to write without fear of prosecution. (But then again, some of the best works were created under an oppressive regime...)

starlight said...

excellent post! thank you for playing the role of encourager. i too prefer writing features for magazines right now, but i hope that my hunger will grow so i can one day call upon your editing services. and you're a great critic! you made a huge difference during the pitching night at 95%. that book will be out next month and you're included in the acknowledgement. but of course! will send you a copy.

lil ms d said...


saya mau angpow :D

Anonymous said...

IMHO, fiction is easy to write. Good fiction is not. Pulp fiction is very, very easy, but not frighteningly profitable -- the time spent is not really worth the money. I can turn out a novel in a month easy, but then again what would be the point ?

amir said...

Readers don't HAVE to do anything, Ted. They have freedom of choice.

I am of the opinion that the relationship between readers and writers in this country should evolve naturally, with certain people and organisations serving as catalysts or providing the right atmosphere/infrastructure.

The consumer will vote through the market. No matter how good you think a piece of writing is, if people don't like it, then they won't like it. And they won't buy it.

In my opinion, the most important thing is to get more and more stuff out there and let the readers have more choice as time comes along.

If a Malaysian reader were to walk into a bookshop with over 200 shelves filled with books and find a local (English fiction) book section with only three rows filled - and the book lineup has not changed much for the past five years - are we looking at a stampede to grab these works?

Like it or not, the market is the most valuable critic.

Ted Mahsun said...

You're right, Amir. Readers don't have to read. They can listen to music or watch movies or play video games. But then they won't be readers anymore.

But I agree with you. Readers should read what they enjoy reading. But first they have to *start* reading.

The Visitor said...

sorry, beg to differ, but the market is not the best critic.

if it were, then John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown would be Nobel laureates by now.

amir said...

Certainly not the best, Visitor. But the most valuable.

Otherwise, we wouldn't even know about John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon or Dan Brown.

And JK Rowling would still be an Enid Blyton wannabe.

You can have a potential Nobel Laureate, loved by critics and whatnot. But if the second or third book didn't do as well, there is a possibility of him or her falling back to things other than writing.

And sustained by the market, Grisham came up with A Painted House (I think) - his best work to date, IMO. And possibly better things.

Disregarding the market is ignoring readers. Ignoring people. The writers whose work I respect most do not ignore their readers.

Not to say that we have to pander to market forces and come up with crowd-pleasing works.

But the best writers, IMO, manage to find something which they themselves like and present it to the people in a successful way.

Anonymous said...

I guess the best is not always the most valuable (in monetary terms). Jack London does a great discussion in "The Sea Wolf" in which two characters argue exactly that.

Alex Tang said...

Sharon, thank you for your interesting post on the writing ecosytem with encouragers, selectiveness and crtics. It has elicted some good responses which I have enjoyed reading.

sympozium- I agree with you about the importance of a thriving reading culture, freedom of print and 'prima donnas' in the eco system. These are also important components.

The market is important but what is more important is the marketing. You may have written the greatest book in the world but if it is shelved at the right hand corner of the bottom bookshelf at the back of the bookstore, it means nothing.

If it is displayed prominently at the front entrance, in the window display with big letters saying "This is the greatest book since manking learnt to write", then it will sell.

Many of our readers are not too selective. They will buy the flavor of the month. Marketing is what cause them to buy.

That's why medicore writers like Brown, Grisham, Sheldon or Rowlings get all the shelf space. And why they sell and remain on the New York Times bestseller list. Marketing, book promotion tours, fanstastic writeups in the trade journals and papers. A movie helps too. Will their books be remembered 10 years from now?

Anonymous said...

Alex, that;s why I read mostly classics. They're cheap, and you;ll never find that kind of writing these days. Most of the writing these days is very dumbed down -- I think as a world, humans are getting progressively dumber :) our ancestors knew how to wash clothes and entertain themselves -- we have washing machines, TV sets... :)

Ten years from now Shakespeare will still sell.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks so much for your responses. as alex says - they really make good reading.

sympozium - agree with you totally about the reading culture. it's a prerequisite. i don't think we will ever have an environment free from social and legal persecution here and i think there have to be writers courageous enough to write in spite of that difficulty - which is asking a heck of a lot of them. artisitic prima donnas - i don't think anyone has the right to be one. i'm actually pleased to find most of the arts people i come across here are really friendly and helpful - i guess prima donnaishness is a sign of insecurity.

thread of sadness? actually i'm glad i wrote this because i wanted to clarify my thoughts and also create a framework to build other arguments on. but i do feel a certain amount of guilt - that i'm not writing fiction, and that i'm not writing enough reviews of local books. but i plan to do something about both of these.

lydia - yes, for sure fiction is tougher. i enjoy your non-fiction stuff though and you seem to be on a roll with the book coming out and a lot of articles published.

ms d - thanks. out toyboy is as sweet as usual. he has passed me the lovely picture book for you to review but i am reading it first. don't tell him but my cat has decided she wants to sleep in the box.

ted - books need readers. we need local readers for local books but that will only happen if the books are good in the first place. as amir says, you can't force that, it has to happen naturally. but what must happen is that books get reviewed and publicised.

starlight - many thanks. i'm happy to hear about your book and glad my comments helped a bit. there again i felt a bit awkward offering critical comments - particularly as i didn't know you then

anon - yes, let's talk about good fiction. i'm certainly not intersted in just any old crap

amir - agree with what you've said. but is the market always the best critic? it's certainly a consideration but i think with literary fiction, at least, there is also the opinion of the writing community, the academic community, the international community which may place much greater value on a text than a local community does. i'd rather be respected by those whose writing i respect than i would have fame and fortune.

anon- i must look out for "sea wolf" then

alex - very true

Xeus said...

Wonderful piece, Sharon. You are certainly the greatest encourager of us all. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Sharon -- I have The Sea Wolf if you want to borrow it :)