Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Case for Pessimism?

This month's Time Out has a piece (which Eric has put up on his blog) by S.H. Lim about the state of local writing. Lim interviews the guys who should know - senior editor of MPH Group Publishing, Eric Forbes, and bookshop owner and publisher Raman Krishnan.

Raman says that despite the successes of our overseas published authors :
... these successes are just here and there. Sporadic. Intermittent. There's no pattern to suggest that things are different now. In any case, these are writers who live overseas (most of the time and make occasional visits to our shores to press skin with local readers to promote their books or to have face-time with their families), and are published there. Not here.
Eric points to the need to put in place the right building blocks if you want publishing locally to thrive :
You need writers, literary agents, good editors and publishers and a reading public. When local works don't sell, publishers don't invest. After all, publishing is about ringgit and sen. About the bottom line. It's not about charity. Or, heaven forbid, the art of writing and the message delivered.
(I wrote on this here.)

He points to the fact that although he receives manuscripts, few of them are of publishable quality. Most local publishers want almost-ready-to-print scripts and just don't have the resources to work with a writer closely on rewriting, so that the authors themselves must learn to self-edit and/or employ the services of a freelance editor.

Raman talks about how :
There are thousands of stories that tell us who we are as Malaysians ... They need to be told. They need to be written. But we don't have enough writers. We don't have enough people writing. We need stories about ourselves. Our history.
and how his approach is not to find new writing but to nurture a group of writers and bring them up to publishable standard, as he did with the three authors of News from Home.

I must say that overall, I found the article more negative than it needed to be. There is plenty wrong, plenty that isn't happening yet, but I believe that things are improving, albeit slowly, and both Eric and Raman (among others) are playing a very necessary part in all that.

And despite what Raman says (I think he's unfairly dismissive) one of the biggest shots in the arm our local writing community has had is seeing other Malaysians doing so well on the international stage.

These authors too are major encouragers of local writers, sharing their thoughts about writing through articles for magazines and blog posts, and taking part in local writer events including Readings@Seksan. Perhaps the most important contribution they've made is to show Malaysian writers "Look this is possible" ... and of course they set the standard.

Nope, I won't be pessimistic yet.

60 comments:

Lydia Teh said...

Eric reproduced the article in his blog :

http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com/2008/08/write-stuff-sh-lim.html

A dose of optimism is always good for the soul, Sharon.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks lydia. eric sent me the article but i din't realise he had put it up. i'm hestitant to put up other people's articles in full without permission, but am glad i can link to it.

Lydia Teh said...

Sharon, I've been meaning to ask you about your bibliocomments. They're like magic. One minute you see them, the next they're gone. Do you know why? It's useful to have them as permanent fixtures so we can zoom in on the latest comments.

aeda frezzy said...

hi sharon,

my name is Aida. I've tried to send an email regarding creative writing class.But nonetheless, the email bounced back. Im really interested to know more about the class,please. This is my email address if you want to send the details; aezarea@gmail.com.Lots of thanks.

bibliobibuli said...

lydia - yes. sometimes they load and at other times they don't. not sure why. i find them useful when people post on long ago postings.

aeda - you can register with the british council. i should be starting a course sometime after raya. not sure how long the waiting list is already though (which is why i'm hesitant to advertise!). i will let you know as soon as i set some dates. btw i am also working with a friend who will be teaching my course too, so hopefully we can get more classes going.

bibliobibuli said...

sorry aeda - here's the link

Idris said...

Hasn't this Eric guy been talking about the ecosystem thingy since... I dunno... salamanders first began learning how to scratch their chins with their hind legs?

He's in the industry, working for a big time bookshop chain; why doesn't he do something about it already? Whine whine whine, bitch bitch bitch, and nothing gets done. Just like the PKR governments.

aeda frezzy said...

sharon....thanks a lot.check with them but not sure when they want to start the class...maybe end of the year.but please please let me know ya about it...thanks a lot sharon

Anonymous said...

It's unfair to single out Eric Forbes - or anyone - out for the ills of the industry. As an editor for a publishing company, he has to deal with the management, who only wants to see profits, and would only want an editor to take on sure-fire hits.

An editor who 'wastes' time grooming/cultivating potential talent is something a profit-driven company cannot copmrehend.

I think Eric and his team have already tried to change things, and one of the results we've seen is the publication of "Lions In Winter", which is an excellent collection of short stories.

Another thing publishers/editors face is the fact that so many Malaysian writers - unpublished, no less - act like divas, and refuse to allow an editor to correct their badly-written prose, or their fractured grammar. "My manuscript is already good enough, don't you DARE touch it" seems to be very common among Malaysian wannabe-writers.

- Poppadumdum

bibliobibuli said...

the ecosystem thingy is mine and mine alone. but yes, eric has talked about this before, inc in the star. what he says here is no less valid.

quite right Poppa. eric is one of the champs. actually doing something positive. and "lions in winter" shows just what can be achieved. the quality of the writing here has to catch up. the doors are opening.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post -- I'm curious, though, does Raman think that no Malaysian writer published abroad has produced "stories that tell us who we are as Malaysians.... stories about ourselves. Our history"? I suppose I'll have to ask him in person :-) . But you can probably tell from the way I'm asking the question that I feel it's an unfair and inaccurate opinion -- and I don't think I'm the only Malaysian writer living abroad who tries to write stories that tell us who we are as Malaysians.

To the accusations of whining above, I'd contend that both Raman and Eric have done and are doing everything they can to nurture local writing and publishing. But there are several serious handicaps:

1) The Malaysian education system still doesn't foster achievement in the arts and humanities the way it does in the sciences, so that frequently (not always, I admit, but FREQUENTLY) smart students are shunted into the sciences and only explore their aptitude for the arts abroad;

2) The majority of people writing in English are Chinese and Indian (again, there are of course many noteworthy exceptions), and those people have historically tended to leave Malaysia for their further education if they can afford it or manage to get funding. Look, for example, at Nic Wong -- outrageously talented, but how would he be able to develop that talent at home? And then once you leave home, going back is never easy. Life happens. Or, on your visits home you realise what the lack of freedom of speech can mean to a writer's career, and so you resign yourself to your expatriate status. This isn't going to change until the political system changes (and that wouldn't solve *everything*, but it would be a start). Sorry to be blunt, but I hear broaching "sensitive" subjects is the order of the day :-) .

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Agree, Sharon. I hope there's going to be a "Lions in Winter 2". I was privileged to know how hard the MPH editorial team worked on LIW, from combing through the manuscript, to sourcing for quotes from other writers, to the type of paper to be used, to the designs for the cover, The last two aren't strictly an editor's responsibility in an ideal world, but there you go...

- Poppdadudum

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out, though, that according to Raman's definition of "local" writing, the (exemplary) _Lions In Winter_ still doesn't count. Wena -- talented though she is -- is one of those who makes "occasional visits to our shores to press skin, etc. etc. etc."

Now I'm deliberately fanning the flames, I know, but Raman asked for it :-) .

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many local manuscripts Raman has rejected, which have then gone on to be published abroad, to acclaim? :-)
(I have a bigger fan! :-)) )

But doesn't Malaysia own Singapore? :-))) Or did it lose Singapore along with the other islands surrounding it?


- Poppadumdum

bibliobibuli said...

fan away, all of you. i knowingly provided you with the petrol and the matches.

Anonymous said...

You arse-onist, pyrexmaniac!

:-))))))))

Preeta is right about Malaysian education system - There will be a generation of students who will go around referring to Julius Caesar as Kye-sahr, because that's how some dumb history teacher pronounced his name in my history class.

Anonymous said...

The comment at 8.34p.m.'s mine -

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

Poppadumdum, if you want to play My Fan Is Bigger Than Your Fan, we shall have to take this OFFLINE!!!!

But first let me tell you all about a certain Form One teacher I had who insisted that the word "svelte" did not exist and that I had made it up. "No lah," she kept repeating. "*Slim* got, svelte where got?"
svg

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha!!! No time for offline...have to work...

Maybe your teacher thought the word was 'sveltering' as in a hot day hahahaha!!!!

:-)))

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

Poppadumdum, you're not far off from the truth :-) .

A very dear friend of mine recently reminisced about this teacher of ours on her blog (www.josephamily.blogspot.com -- it is only a coincidence that my friend is now also Mrs. Joseph, like the teacher -- no relation at all!). Full credit should go to my friend for preserving and revisiting the memory, but I'm sure she won't mind if I share part of her post here, including a poem we co-authored and privately dedicated to our not-so-loved English teacher:

"[Our teacher Mrs. Joseph] used to get very disgruntled with any expression, verbal or written, that was beyond her rather puny grasp. So all our work for her had to be kept simple and uncreative. I can't remember if we named this poem:

I like to sew, I like to cook,
I like to read some story book.
I see vindow, I go and look;
I see a very handsome crook!
I swim vith him along the brook,
He come and eat vhat I cook.
Then Mr Joseph come and look,
And he catch us by the hook;
I vill howl like a rook,
"Aiyo-yo, my handsome crook,
I think ve made a big mistook!"

ARE YOU LISTENING, MINISTRY OF EDUCATION?!?!?!?

-- PS

Anonymous said...

HAHAHAAHAHAHAHHAHA!!!!! That's hilarious! Put it in your next book :-)))))))

Subashini said...

Sharon, I too thought the article was excessively negative - or maybe it just seemed that way because it ended too soon. It was odd in that respect; I felt like a huge chunk of the article was missing and when I got to the end I was like, "Huh?" It could have been developed further - Raman and Eric both had valid things to say (fair or unfair, I'm not sure, but it was valid, I think) and it would have been nice if their key points were just fleshed out a bit more, and put into context. They could have interviewed other publishers, for instance. Well okay, so I guess we don't have more than two... or three...

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Eric Forbes did his best to be diplomatic and put a positive spin on the depressing scene in Malaysia...

If I were an editor, I'd also have high standards. Otherwise, what is the point?
-Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

What an anglophiliac slant to the article, I must say. Makes you think that English lit is the only kind worth publishing and worrying aboot.

Anonymous said...

>>1) The Malaysian education system still doesn't foster achievement in the arts and humanities the way it does in the sciences, so that frequently (not always, I admit, but FREQUENTLY) smart students are shunted into the sciences and only explore their aptitude for the arts abroad;<<

What a silly, shallow comment.

1. Same education system & situation exists in the UK. No shortage of good writers there?

2. Can you really teach creativity in the classroom? No, didn't think so.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 2:49:

What could be more silly and shallow than the cloak of anonymity? If you're going to call people silly and shallow, own up to your comments, or prepare to be dismissed as a troll.

I beg to differ, anyway -- the education system isn't quite the same in the UK, but since you're the one who's convinced that it is, I'll let you do your own research.

As for question number 2 -- what's the point of asking the question if you're already set on your answers? In fact most child psychologists would agree that there are ways to encourage creativity. Almost nothing can be "taught," after all. Facts can be taught. Everything else can only be nurtured, and creativity is one of those things. But, like I said, go and do your own research.

cheers
Preeta

Anonymous said...

Speaking only for myself, I consider the years of education in Malaysian schools a waste of time.
Whatever creativity I have is a result of my own curious mind, my liberal parents, and not because of the teachers.

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

...while creativity can't be taught in a classroom, I can say for sure that the teachers in my school days did their best to kill it.

- Poppadumdum

cycads said...

Hello,

I sit at the very end of the book writing/publishing chain - I'm the book buyer and reader. About the local writing scene; I only have pessimism. Last time I was in Malaysia I was desperate to find Malaysian talent in our bookshops, but there are so few. I've written about this in my blog: http://cycads. wordpress.com (yes, shameful self-promotion going on here).

To Anonymous at 2.46am: I agree with you. Bahasa Melayu is still an important language in Malaysia, and we're not doing enough to make it a respectable language. Maybe I sound a bit biased here, because I'm all for Malay writing over local literature in English. It's a beautiful language that's slowly dying.

~cycads

Anonymous said...

Poppadumdum -- you can speak for me, too, with those exact same comments :-) . And that's part of what I meant by the difference between the UK and Malaysia -- the standard of teaching in the arts and humanities in Malaysia is abysmal. The focus on the sciences to the exclusion of everything else is common to many developing nations, and partly a matter of necessity -- in the early days, we needed doctors and engineers and scientists urgently, so all our resources (human and otherwise) were poured into that quest. But you can't have it both ways; you can't devote everything to the sciences and then complain about the standard of local literature!

Anonymous and Cycads: I don't think anyone here is arguing that writing in Bahasa Malaysia should be ignored. It isn't just "*an* important language in Malaysia," it's *the* national language (I happen to think it should be one of four national languages, but that's another subject for another time). Still, except for a few enviable polyglots, most of us write in one language or another, not several. And again the division is primarily racial: Malays write in Malay, Chinese and Indians in English (even those who write in Chinese & Indian languages are a minority). You can't explain this division without once again taking racial politics, and the patterns of emigration that have arisen from those politics, into account. Too many talented Chinese and Indians have left, most of them for English-speaking countries, and once they're abroad, why would they write in Malay?

Feel free to disagree, but I'll only be responding to non-anonymous insults :-) .

peace
Preeta

Anonymous said...

P.S. I've also often thought that our *real* national language is Manglish. In absolute numbers, more people speak that than any other Malaysian language.

-- Preeta

cycads said...

I don't disagree with you, Preeta. I only wanted to point out the decay of the Malay language, despite being the national language. But perhaps this isn't the place to do it.

Yes, something had happened in our nation's political history and education that made Bahasa Melayu un-embraceable by those who are not Malay. But I owe my polyglotism to our education system, however imperfect it is.

Contrary to what you think, Preeta, I am one of those who now reside in an English-speaking country, and I'm still a crusader for the BM cause.

Hhmm... Manglish is a bit of an embarrassment - I don't need to elaborate further!

Anonymous said...

No, Cycads, you *should* be a crusader for the BM cause! Contrary to what *you* might think, I believe it's a very worthy cause even though I myself write in English. It's part of our nation's heritage and I'm always in favour of linguistic preservation. So good for you. Raman and Eric have their hands full with promoting English-language writing, but I don't think we need to be entirely pessimistic about BM writing either. There's a lot of great, innovative work going on there.

I don't think Manglish is an "embarrassment," though. I wasn't being facetious. I think it's a wonderful, vibrant, evocative, hybrid language, perhaps more reflective of the Malaysian national character than any other language. There are things that can be said in Manglish that cannot be translated into standard English, and they are things that are important to Malaysians.

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

wow! unbelievable. i go to bed for a few hours and find it's all been happening in my absence. this is why i love blogging!

preeta - the poem really cracked me up! please write a story round it.

jawakistani said...

wow a very heated up comment box!

Anonymous said...

This "outrageously talented Nic Wong", went through the art stream, did he? Couldn't have been from the science stream, shorely, given the above "conclusive" argument aboot art vs science streaming?

And I only said it was a silly and shallow comment because, well, it is silly and shallow.

From the BBC:
"Teachers are complaining about an over-emphasis on numeracy and literacy in the classroom, restricting outlets for children's other talents. Testing, targets and (league) tables have become the terrible Three Ts. Studies suggest children suffer psychological damage from the effects of pressure to achieve."

Guess: Malaysia or UK, was the article talking aboot?

Anonymous said...

"Malays write in Malay, Chinese and Indians in English..."

Oh, dears. Freudian. Whose the real racist? Oops. No good clever people, ha this Malay buggers? Only write in Malay, unlike Chinese and Indian smart people.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha I just remember joke. Old Malay man go to UK, come back he say wah UK people very clever! People ask, why you say that? Old man say wah there 5 year old can already speak English, not like here 5 year old!

Anonymous said...

Pssible but no profitable. This is a trading country, if it doesn't sell, then people won't do it. The only way to make money writing here is to be shamelessly commercial (ie. write about how to make more money, get stuff for free etc.)

And then market the heck out of it, and then maybe.

The idea of writing as an art form soudns strange in this country, like asking for coffee without sugar in this country (or asking a restaurant in the US whether they have meatloaf.)

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents worth about the state of education in this country: anecdotal evidence. My nephews, nieces and friends' children use one style for their English homework, compositions etc for school, simple, direct and literal because otherwise they get penalised. And give free rein to their imagination when they write (blogs!) beyond school. My son (science all the way)wrote to me from Germany:"For the first time, I'm so excited about Maths, Physics. Everything makes sense. It's so liberating."
I write English workbooks for schools and the comments from teachers seem mostly the same: "Please stick to the same old, same old ..." We (co-author and I) write according to the syllabus but try to make our work fun and interesting, different. Teachers seem to be uncomfortable with anything that deviates even slightly from the exam format. Sigh. It's the students who like the reading passages and activities in my books. And don't let me get started on the standard of grammar!Too many schools kill originality and creativity because these don't fit into the system.

saras

Chet said...

Didn't the outrageously talented Nic Wong go to school in Singapore?

Anonymous said...

Optimism is good, but it must be tempered with reality!

The Angel from Heaven

Anonymous said...

Is The Outrageously Talented title for Nic Wong something like the King of Pop title Michael Jackson gave himself? :-)))

- (King of)Pop-padumdum

Anonymous said...

Here're some facts:
1. Malaysian writers of all ages hate being edited.
2. Malaysians love being praised even for bad work.

The Angel from Heaven

Anonymous said...

Angel From Heaven (from where would an angel come from but Heaven?), those are wide, broomsticksweeping statements of facts :-)

I will differ:

1. I enjoy being edited, IF I know the editor's competent and experienced, and IF we discuss the edits in a mature, considered manner. Very often what comes out of the discussions is much better than what was originally written. The editor is, like the writer, keen to have the best product as the end result, and to ignore the comments and suggestions of an editor is a big folly for a writer, especially if he or she is just starting out. Even if I didn't like what an editor has suggested, I'd still try it out to see if it works. Very often it does. Sometimes it doesn't. But in trying to improve the MS, other ideas will come in, and this is what makes writing so wonderful.

A recent Booker Prize winner's original manuscript was over a thousand page long and no publisher in the US wanted to touch it. Then it was edited to 300pages or so...

2. I love being praised for good work, but I don't enjoy the same for bad work, because we all know, inside, if the work is bad. All good writers will have an built-in bullshit detector.

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Chet, for pointing out that very salient fact for us :-) .

I do want to REPOST my original comment because it's been quoted out of context above, without all the caveats, and I don't want anyone just reading the misquoted version and judging me for it, so here is what I actually said:

"Still, except for a few enviable polyglots, most of us write in one language or another, not several. And again the division is primarily racial: Malays write in Malay, Chinese and Indians in English (even those who write in Chinese & Indian languages are a minority)."

EXCEPT FOR and PRIMARILY are pretty important qualifications. These are generalisations and I presented them as such -- so no, there is nothing "Freudian" about any of it. It was all entirely conscious; you might not understand what "Freudian" means, so let me explain: if I'd been talking about race *without* realising it, now that *might* have been Freudian (though originally the term referred only to sex, not race). I was talking about race fully knowingly, because it's relevant here. Whether you like it or not, that's the reality. Most -- BUT NOT ALL (in caps so you notice it) -- Malaysians who are published in English are Chinese and Indian. One should be able to state that fact without being branded a racist, *particularly* when one doesn't believe English writing to be superior to Malay. They're both important and there is good work done in both languages, but there is a racial division.

Finally (and as an aside), I'd just like to emphasize that The O.T. Nic Wong would never call himself that -- that was all me, so (this is a *pre-emptive* defense, haha, because I know Poppadumdum is only joking above) NO FLAK FOR THE TITLE, anonymous or otherwise, okay?

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I WAS joking, Preeta! :-))))

Good points you've made.

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

Preeta: I love Evening Is the Whole Day. Keep up the good work! Can't wait to read more of your stuff.

The Fallen Angel from Heaven

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the kind words, Fallen Angel :-) .

I need to go actually live my non-internet life now (paltry as it is), but there was one last thing I wanted to offer for discussion: I know English was originally the colonial language and all, but I think it's a pity to think writing/ publishing in English is "anglophiliac" -- there are ways to make the English language our own (and this is part of why I love Manglish), so that loving the language doesn't necessitate worshipping English culture. I remember a particularly striking analogy I read in TIME or Newsweek or something when India celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence in 1997. The writer compared the work of Indians writing in English (like Rushdie and Roy) to what the British had done in India: the British took Indian cotton, spun it into fancy fabrics that they somehow managed to brand as "typically" English, and sold those back to India. Now look, the article said, Indian writers have taken the language, spun into something that is all their own, and are selling it back to the first world.

I loved that analogy, and I think it's a much more helpful one than just dismissing any use of English as "anglophiliac." The English language is a part of our heritage now, for better or for worse; we can't go back and change history. It's up to us to make it our own.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Oh, Preeta, I told a friend of mine about you and your novel, and she said she was your classmate
:-) Vasanthi R. is her name.

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

Yes I know Vasanthi! She's hilarious. Ask her about Missus J in Form One :-) . I *think* she was in that class but I'm not 100% sure now....

xo
P

Anonymous said...

Okay, will ask her :-))))

cycads said...

Manglish, however *wonderful* (pardon my sarcasm) it is, still doesn't have a place in local literature. It is uniquely Malaysian and Singaporean, but I don't think I know books and films made in pidgin Malaysian. It doesn't even have a place in this comment box, nor on this blog. I wonder whether we still retain some superiority of standard English above Manglish. What's so wonderful about a language that's almost exclusive to Malaysian urbanites, and does not produce creative work that we all can be proud of? Am I the only one who found 'I no stupid' unbearable?

On a side note, Tok Pisin language - an amalgamation English and indigenous languages spoken in Papua New Guinea has official status and is even taught at primary school level. Should we lobby for Manglish to be used in the local mass media the way Papua New Guinea does? That'll be the day!

cycads said...

Correction: It's Singlish for Singaporeans. But you get what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Cycads,

Manglish is frequently -- and to great effect -- used in the theatre, which is arguably the most vibrant of the arts in Malaysia. But also, I sometimes write in Manglish, and not just in dialogue. I'm not trying to blow my own horn, but you did ask, so I'm answering: I've just had a short story in Manglish published in _A Public Space_, which is a pretty well-respected literary journal in the US (it was started by the former executive editor of the Paris Review, and has published some big names). You can check out A Public Space online, but unfortunately my story isn't online. Still, it is in Manglish and *I* am proud of it and, clearly, non-Malaysians with discriminating literary tastes saw fit to publish it. I'm just saying: Raman wants stories that tell us who we are? Here is a language that tells us who we are. It has everything in it: our colonial history, our obsessions, our cincai spirit.

I currently have another story in Manglish that I'm sending out, so stay tuned!

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I happened to read a few books by "Kitchi Boy". He's pretty good at getting to the heart of what it meant to be Singaporean.

It's still a pretty good read for purely nostalgic reasons (I wonder if there are still roadside mamak stalls in Singapore :) )

Anonymous said...

Yes, I remember Kitchi Boy, but I did not read the books. I read them when they were first published in Fanfare magazine. Anybody still remember Fanfare magazine in the early 70s?

Fallen Angel

Anonymous said...

You're not the only old-timer around these parts, Fallen. I remember Galaxie as well :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, Galaxie. And Movie News, too! Remember Saturday Weekly?

Anonymous said...

Oh yea, Movie News :) for some reason I never saw Saturday Weekly though. I think I saw it at the news stand but never bought it.

"After all, publishing is about ringgit and sen. About the bottom line. It's not about charity. Or, heaven forbid, the art of writing and the message delivered."

There you go Preeta. It's about making a living, not delivering some sort of message. It used to be about magic, remember? people like Caroll and Barrie and Twain and Dickens, they were magicians. That's why they're still read today.

Today's writers are salesmen mostly. There are too many written and unwritten rules. Carroll played with little girls almost all his working life, that's where "Alice" came from. Anyone doing that in this day and age would be highly suspect.