Thursday, February 15, 2007

Where Novels Thrive

(Novels) require a book world which can review, alert, display and advertise to the consumer, and dispose of and renew its stock several times a year. They require diverse network delivery systems to the end users (libraries, bookshops, book clubs). Those end users have to be habituated and habitual consumers - good for innumerable repeated orders. The consumer of fiction needs to be educated and literate. The advent of the novel, it is fair to say required a more sophisticated creation, distribution, reception and consumption apparatus than any other cultural form until the arrival in the 1890's, of the cinema. ... The novel is the product of a developed, institutionalised, and commercially advanced society. The abiltity to read a novel intelligently, I would maintain, is the mark of a mature personal culture.
I post this extract from John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide as a sort of postscript to the previous entry about the growth of the Indian writing community.

I think that when we ask ourselves why so few novels are emerging from Malaysia and Singapore, we tend to focus narrowly only on the writer and publisher, not on all the rest of the complicated machinery that needs to be in place to make writing a novel a viable proposition. And the fact that we need to have an intelligent readership.

Sutherland makes the point that the novel (as opposed to the poem, play, or short story) is a product of an industrialised society, which is a slant that hadn't occured to me before.

It's a whole ecosystem, as I've already said, and pondering how the parts of it might be put in place giving me much happy mental exercise.


ruhayat said...

"I am not trying to say that the novel 'caused' imperialism, but the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other. Imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other."

Edward Said was writing about the role of novels in reaffirming Western colonialisation, of course, but I do wonder how this statement stands in today's world.

The bit about the novel being an artefact of the bourgeois, I think, is still valid and is significant, and seems to be echoed in Sutherland's writing you quoted above.

ruhayat said...

Which is to say, Sharon, that our "project" to propagate the novel in our environment requires the presence/creation of a burgeoning middle-class freed from the daily nitty-gritty of making a living.

Do we have such a middle class in Malaysia today? There is a sizeable middle class, I think, but the bulk of which is caught in the throes of consumerism. When the base of the pyramid is ever-expanding, there will never be time for "leisurely" pursuits such as sitting down and reading a book.

Sufian said...

>>>I think that when we ask ourselves why so few novels are emerging from Malaysia and Singapore

Only if you meant novels in english.

dreamer idiot said...

What insightful comments from ruhayat! I think ruhayat pins it down correctly on the nature of consumerism in Malaysia, especially one than doesn't include the buying and reading of books as something pleasurably 'consumed', so to speak.

What's more, books are being relegated further in a culture of instant gratifications, one that is inadvertently fostered through the 'meshing' of various media into increasingly obiquitous gadgets like IPod phones and other similar 'communica-tertainment' devices. (Not that I'm blaming tecnology)

The point of middle-class readership is very much relevant, when one comes to think of writers needing readers as people to write to and for... but I would also like to point to our education system which very much privileges the sci to the arts and the humanities (ala sci stream is considered superior to the arts,).

tunku halim said...

There are too many distractions in Malaysian society: shopping, eating, movies, Astro, more shopping, more eating... and, of course, the big one making money!

In a society that places too much priority on wealth creation, we there is little focus on the arts, especially on writers and their novels.

Kenny Mah said...

Recently, when I was having dinner with another blogger, she was lamenting how her friends saw reading as a chore. While books were a source of pleasure for her, the same could not be said of her friends; indeed, the first image that came to mind when books were mentioned was none other than that of cramming for exams!

Our education system may appear to exhort our children to read more, but read what exactly? Books have become vehicles for rote-memorization, later reminders of their least favourite part of their school years, to be abandoned as soon as they can. Here comes my iPod, my Astro!

And so it goes...

Burhan said...

maybe poetry is less bangsar...oops, I meant bourgeois, because it has been around longer and has existed in 'poorer' societies since God knows when.

then again, maybe the difference between novels and poetry, and between poetry and prose is really vacuous.

a question i think is just as interesting is whether the language, rhythm, structure, form and inner consciousness of the novel is essentially bourgeois.

i forgot which blog that said that in more capitalist and consumerist societies (such as Singapore) people are more prone to write poems and short stories because they don't have the time, stamina and attention span to work on something longer.

ruhayat said...

My personal opinion regarding the popularity of poetry is that it's because a lot of people think poetry is (a) short and (b) its meaning is "easy" to "get". All you need is a "mata hati". Something to do with the perception that poetry and romanticism being inseparable. Something like that.

Then again, who's to say that such a reading is wrong? Leave it to the Enlightened ones to bring complex layers into what used to be simply a common way of expressing love and affection. Can't a nelayan have his intricately-carved perahu without it meaning something else, fer heaven's sake.

ruhayat said...

Kenny, your friend's friends have a point. The written word is tiring because deciphering it requires complex, on-the-fly translation in our brains to turn it from an abstract form into something that holds meaning.

Television and film, on the other hand, are a readily-apparent visual format that consists of dialogue which you can skip or skim through, as you would in real life, yet still reasonably understand what is being presented.

You won't find alphabets hanging in the air in the natural world, but speech is an everyday thing. That's why TV/film can easily become an entertainment - an escape from the real world - medium but books can't.

bibliobibuli said...

some v. interesting arguments here ...

i wouldn't say that reading novels is necessarily "bourgeois" ... it's interesting that the malay novel is doing fine here and who are the readers?

but the framework to support the launching of a novel on the world can only be there in an industrialised society

not so as you point out poetry or even drama or the oral short story

ruhayat said...

"Novels are not necessarily bourgeois".

Maybe not, Sharon, but the kind of reading that Sutherland talks about above is, essentially, bourgeois.

"The Malay novel is doing fine here."

Yes, but what kind of novel? And what kind of reader? The typical reader of popular Malay novels, I'd argue - just by personal observation and experience, mind - approach the book not as a form of literature but rather entertainment.

Of the "serious readers", outside of academia, many of them still do not approach it critically. Just as in the suraus and majids, it is still fixatedly a one-way street. If you peruse the comments in discussions of, for example, Faisal Tehrani's novels, you can see this point quite easily.

bibliobibuli said...

"Yes, but what kind of novel? And what kind of reader? The typical reader of popular Malay novels, I'd argue"

good point. but whatever the quality of the reader, they aren't necessarily "bourgeouis".