Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Post on Kindness and Criticism Written in Horribly Clashing Metaphors

I love having my friend Guat Chuah Eng back and now in the literary conversation in our Malaysian blogosphere, and now she's turning over the stones and debating whether there is a future for Malaysian literature in English.

While the larger question might now seem passe (and surely can only be answered with a *yawn* of course lah!? seeing as how a number of Malaysian authors are producing work of quality both locally and on the world stage) some of the other questions she is asking are very pertinent.

And I've nothing better to do at the moment (no need to cook dinner tonight) so I'm up for a good argue.

In her latest post she writes:
I found particularly depressing the comments on our aspiring writers' poor command of the English language and their lack of writing skills. Depressing, not because it is untrue or because it is all too true, but because--dear oh dear--haven't we been through all this before?

Where, I ask myself, would Amos Tutuola's classic, The Palmwine Drinkard, be today if the editor who received his manuscript had returned it to him for corrections? Where, indeed, would e. e. cummings be if his editor had told him he shouldn't write until he had learned how to punctuate? Wasn't it in 1963, if not earlier, that Raja Rao said, "We cannot write like the English. We should not." (Should there be a question mark here? And where should it be placed? Damned if I know--or care!) And right here in Malaysia, as long ago as 1976, novelist Lloyd Fernando, then Head of the English Department, University of Malaya, reminded us that for local literature to develop, "for some time at least, it would be more profitable for critics and scholars to confine themselves to the less spectacular role of recorders concerned to nurture, rather than critics giving evidence of their perception and integrity."

Are Malaysian writers in English so thin on the ground? Or is the ground in fact thick with writers dead and dying under the weight of hopes dashed and dreams shattered by their critics?
The balance between encouragement and criticism is crucial in a writing community as I've argued before. (My famous fishtank metaphor!) And I've been concerned with the question of when and how to criticise emergent writers since I started the blog and I'm only too aware (as someone who's been a beginning fiction writer, and as a writing teacher) that they need a safety zone and that confidence can be destroyed with harsh criticism too early on.

The dilemma is that (to use a botanical metaphor) with too much early criticism, the tender little plant will wilt and possibly die. But at the same time, without the right kind of criticism at the right point, the plant will grow straggly and no-one will want to look at it.

Where exactly does that right point for criticism come? The best first criticism is from a writing teacher and fellow writers. Possibly from friends you can trust. It should be kind and supportive and stress the positives and help you see the direction you might move your work in. It shouldn't jump up and down on your work wearing jackboots and waving it's own aren't-I-clever flag. (World War II metaphor.)

But I would say that it comes when your work is put between the covers of a book and start to charge the public for it, you have to be ready for critical open season. If you aren't, sit on your manuscript, hide it in a drawer, keep it in a file on the computer that only you know the password for. Being published is the point of no turning back.

This post I wrote on "the gentle cycle" (washing metaphor) says it all I think, and I hope that if you write, you will take a moment to go back to it.

I haven't commented on this blog about the stories in some collections by local writers I've read, and one reason is that I feel that new writers need space to try things out and yes, make their mistakes.

(As a little aside. The Silverfish collection I edited got reviewed very fairly, I thought, in the NST. Just one of the contributors got totally slammed in the piece. She happened to be the youngest writer and one I thought was promising ... but not yet arrived. I never told her about the review and I don't think she saw it. I just didn't want her to be discouraged. Now, years on, I can laugh about it with her because she is proving to be a very successful and in demand writer. Would she have given up if she'd seen the review? Or was she made of far tougher stuff from the beginning?)

I did review the Silverfish collection News From Home the other day (and honestly with trepidation) largely because it was interesting to see how Mr. Raman's new venture was working. Raman (who asked if I would review the book on my blog) felt the comments were fair, but I hope that I haven't stepped too hard on the toes of the writers in question who all have promise ... but like all writers are on a journey.

A good editor will not put out work that is rough around the edges, and will gatekeep so that the writers who are published are ready for public scrutiny and are in that sense protected. And the editor as I've said before has a responsibility not to put crap work before a public paying good cash for their copy. (Remember - a locally produced book generally costs only a bit less than an imported mass market paperback of a top international author which the reader could be enjoying instead!)

Now as a book-buyer, I don't want to see books with a multitude of typos and tense mistakes. It isn't necessary. And this is how painful the reader finds it.

Now about the two authors, Guat mentions:

E.E Cummings' lack of capitalisation (in his poetry though, not his own name) was a deliberate stylistic choice, much like Cormac McCarthy's annoying trickiness with apostrophes.

I love Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard which is written in West African pidgin English as I have loved other books, comics and poems written in that dialect. A good editor will see immediately whether it does or does not work.

So encouragment and criticism - where should one end, the other begin?

I think you do everything possible to encourage the writer, but only publish, in the end, the very best.

Over to you, Guat.


I've put together an index of all my posts about building a writing community in Malaysia, which you can find here.


Alex Tang said...

So encouragment and criticism - where should one end, the other begin?

This is a very pertinent question and as with all such questions, there is no one correct answer.
This is because many factors are involved; what type of writing, how serious does the writer wants to improve, how much perserverance has the writer, and how hungry is the writer.

One of the primary requirement of being a writer (unless you want to keep your writing to yourself) is to develop a thick skin. There will always be criticisms and no piece of work will ever be perfect. If one is willing to take criticisms, roll with them and learn from them, then there is hope.

One other point I do want to make about local writers giving criticism and encouragement is that there is not enough critical thinking done before criticism or encouragement are given. I believe there are enough thinkers around to offer more than the 'boleh-lah' variety.

guat said...

Wonderful, Sharon, two responses in two days after weeks of non-response to my deliberately provocative blog! I shall return to the subject on my blog--but first I must get ready to go to the Reading at Seksan's. See you shortly.

Anonymous said...

One of the things which puts me off reading Malaysian-published books is the inherent crappy quality: editorial, content, layout, typsetting, cover, blurb (a recent 'horror' anthology being a
great example)...and if readers have to accept such low standards (because oohh, the writers
are sooooooo fragile and must be mollycoddled) then they're never going to improve, as you so rightly pointed out.

I'm not forking out RM30 and more for a substandard product just so we can 'encourage' new writers. And if writers want to be respected they damn well better come up with the goods or else don't write. Go do something where their fragile egos aren't in the way.

- Poppadumdum