A SENIOR EDITOR at a Malaysian publishing house received the following e-mail the other day. The message, with typos amended (to avoid embarrassment, of course), reads: “I can’t write very well, but I thought I’d like to try writing a novel. I’ve decided to write one about pirates, but I know next to nothing about pirates. Could you please email me information about pirates: their lifestyle, their eating habits, where they like to chill out in the evenings or during the weekends, what they like to do during the day when most of us are at work, what kinds of books they read, etc., so that I can start working on the novel immediately? With much appreciation and best wishes.”
MALAYSIA is not exactly the friendliest country in the world (despite what the commercials say): most of the time the people are bloody rude, downright discourteous, boorishly loudmouthed and deeply disrespectful, among other things. Asian values? What Asian values? There is no such thing as Asian values. Malaysia is truly NOT Asia.
SOME MANUSCRIPTS are so bloody horrendous that I literally get sick editing them! I feel feverish, headache-y and all-over-the-body-achy. Seriously, one of these days we must consider giving out a slew of ROTTEN DURIAN/MOTHER’S OLD SHOE AWARDS for the crappiest Malaysian books of the year—books we absolutely could not care less about, much less read. I know for sure there won’t be a dearth of contenders for these uniquely Malaysian awards where MEDIOCRITY is the ONLY yardstick of greatness and celebrated with customary poop/pomp and ceremony! Perhaps I will start the ball rolling with that pathetic attempt at a book ... yes, that
particular pseudo-book! It reminds me of the opening lines to Keir Alexander’s excellent novel, The Ruby Slippers
: “She stinks. It has to be said. Stinks to high heaven.” She does, believe me, she does.
THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS is escalating all the time. Maintaining sales have always been a challenge, now more so than ever. There are not many good manuscripts to choose from in a lacklustre marketplace. There’s nothing much we can do about the decline of the English language or the quality of writing in Malaysia in the short term. We have to accept the fact that the only thing we can do as publishers is to enhance our production values: editing standards and marketing efforts will need to be stepped up. Producing a book is not going to get any easier; editors will have to break their backs editing and rewriting substandard manuscripts to a level deemed publishable in a short time. Not that there are many good editors to choose from in a nation that doesn’t care much for reading and writing in the first place.
AT A BOOK LAUNCH in a five-star hotel (nothing less that five stars will do, or an exclusive golf club) in Kuala Lumpur the other day, everyone invited to attend the event was treated to a sumptuous meal of sweet and savory Malaysian delicacies (including the obligatory curry puffs and mee siam
, among other things) and given a complimentary copy or two of the said book of the day. Suffice to say that the food tasted so much better than the book. This is quite understandable. Let’s not beat around the bush; no one in their right frame of mind would use their hard-earned cash to pay for it. The trick is not to take Malaysian publishing too seriously. If you do, you are in for an early grave.
WHEN will Malaysian education start focusing on understanding and critical thinking skills? Will it ever? There is a serious dearth of these basic skills: reading, writing, creative thinking, questioning, criticism, creativity and imagination; there is also an absolute lack of interest or intellectual curiosity or empathy about the world we live in. We desperately need graduates who can not only eat but spell chocolate!
Education per se is irrelevant; one must have the right mindset to use the knowledge acquired and make one’s life useful and meaningful to society. The idea of education is to make every one of us into critical, empathetic, intelligent, logical and thinking beings. If not, what’s the point of existence? What’s really the point of education if we do not produce intelligent, efficient and productive nation builders? It is frightening when the education system keeps on churning out graduates who don’t read (and have no interest in reading) and can’t write.
SERIOUSLY, do we really have a publishing industry in Malaysia? I sometimes wonder, more often lately. A sad fact: Malaysian writers can’t write and don’t want to be edited at all. Those who can, the writing is bland, careless, dead, dispirited, hollow, illiterate, inert, insipid, lackadaisical, lazy, lethargic, lifeless, non-informative, puerile, self-indulgent, shallow, tepid, uninspiring and vague. Sometimes the manuscripts are so execrable, possibly written by someone who doesn’t speak or write the language, that editing them is next to impossible. (I don’t pray for much, seriously: just good health and happiness for all creatures big and small, being a better human being ... and good writing to land on my desk.)
Another sad fact: Editors don’t know how to edit. (Editing is not just about punctuation, grammar and spelling.) Most of them lack the most basic of editing skills (grammar, spelling and writing); if they can’t even handle basic editing, surely they are in the wrong profession, no? Editors are unwilling to learn and tend to miss more than they spot errors (and constantly introducing new ones at the same time). And many are averse to research, checking facts, solving problems and consulting the dictionary. Punctuating dialogue is a major weakness. Most of them lack imagination and intellectual curiosity and have no idea why they are doing the things they are doing. Many are not (and will never be) aware of the important aspects of book production like bibliography, footnotes, endnotes, indexing, etc. Also, not many editors have a nose for business or finance. Publishing is not just about PUBLISHING bad books; it is also about SELLING the bad books you publish. Both are equally important to sustain the business.
Another sad fact: designers don’t know how to typeset books and design book covers. Most of them are not designers; when you think about it, they are really more incompetent typesetters than designers. Most, sadly, have no grasp of the aesthetics, whether in the design of covers or the typesetting of pages, are not open to constructive criticism and lack even the most basic of language skills (English and Malay). (“The kind of designs you don’t really need to go to design school to learn. The idea is to do it blindly.”) There is absolutely no passion to push boundaries or to have higher expectations, no sense of accomplishment for a job well done. They do not seem to learn anything from experience. They have no idea whether contents pages are required for the manuscripts they typeset; they have no idea what acknowledgements, forewords, prefaces, introductions, appendices, bibliographies, indexes, afterwords, footnotes, endnotes, figures, tables and charts are. They may have moved their MOUSE for centuries, but they have not gain any relevant experience at all.
Another sad fact: translation standards are (atrociously) abysmal. Translation is not just about translating words (linguistics) to another language; it’s also about translating cultural and other creative nuances; the translated text must make sense and transport you to another world or dimension. “Translation,” in the words of Anthony Burgess, “is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” A good translator must not only possess a solid grounding in both languages but a strong grasp of idioms and metaphors as well. Sadly, it’s rare to find translators who are strong in both English and Malay.
A vicious cycle. Definitely. So, do we really have a publishing industry in Malaysia? Of course not. I believe what we have here is more akin to some kind of stunted, constipated offshoot of public relations, rather than publishing as we know it. Publishing good books (and finding a readership for these books) is constantly a Sisyphean struggle. Books are never published for the right reasons. It never fails to amaze me how publishers always find reasons to justify the publishing of substandard books as though producing as many such books as possible is some kind of noble calling or something!
EVIL, THEY SAY, NEVER DIES ... it claws its way back from the pits of hell to haunt the living. We are in the midst of editing perhaps the worst manuscript on the planet … rejected by all who had a chance to look at it but somehow foisted on us editors for the dumbest of reasons. And to think that the British once colonised us, you would expect a certain standard of English. After the last disaster of a book, we thought we had seen the last and worst of horrendous books. No-o-o-o … that’s too good to be true. Ladies and gentlemen, Evil is back in business and is here to haunt the living daylights out of us. Just goes to prove that there are some things money can’t buy … for instance, to write well and tell a wonderful story (fiction or otherwise). Some publishers claim they publish these rejected manuscripts under the pretext of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Seriously, you can call them anything you want; I prefer to pile them under POO and flush them down the LOO where they belong for all eternity. Of course, under normal circumstances these manuscripts would not see the light of day but the dark of the sewers. I fail to understand what joy these author-wannabes derive from being published under such circumstances!
AND THEN there are those so-called Malaysian authors who insist that we do not comply with standards and conventions when editing their so-called manuscripts! As the Backstreet Boys would croon back in the late 1990s, They want it that way!
You can have it any way you want, Sweetheart, as long as you pay the production costs and buy up all the stocks and keep them locked up in your room! And maybe toss them in with the carrots, potatoes, onions and tomatoes when Mummy makes chicken soup for the whole family. The books will also come in handy if you have plans for house extensions. Books, after all, are not just books; they make hardy bricks, too.
REMEMBER THE GOOD OLD DAYS when we used to have meals and lovely conversations without interruptions? We used to eat and talk, and eat and talk, all the while enjoying ourselves. Those were the days when we used to really talk with one another and conversations were long, and there were jokes and laughter, and time just passed without us realising it. Those days are long gone. People nowadays are more interested in their smartphones, internet, text messaging, etc., and seem to prefer to communicate with people not dining at the table but elsewhere, reading news updates, taking photos of themselves in all manner of poses, etc. You may have the whole wide world at your fingertips, but you don’t seem to be aware of the immediate world around you. Once in a while, think about the person sitting opposite you.
POMPOUS LASS: Only native speakers can edit my manuscript! No Malaysian editors for me, please!
Publisher: You mean someone from Good Olde Mother England?
Pompous Lass: Of course—if English is their mother tongue!
Publisher: Why’s that?
Pompous Lass: Because my book is for the wonderful people of this planet. I want it to be perfectly edited for all my readers from around the world …
Publisher: Would you like to bear the cost of getting someone from England to edit it then?
Pompous Lass: Will that be cheap?
Publisher: What do you think? Everything is cheap except you?
Pompous Lass: I wouldn’t want to spend my money on that! If it’s too expensive, a local editor should be all right, I guess!
Publisher: Yes, cheap local editors are the best!
WATERLILY: I want to talk to the editor?
Receptionist: Who’s calling?
Receptionist: Lily who?
Waterlily: Water “I-can’t-tell-you-my-real-name” Lily!
Receptionist: How can I help you?
Waterlily: I want to talk to the editor about my manuscript?
Receptionist: What’s your manuscript about?
Waterlily: I can’t tell you that! I don’t know who you are. You may just steal and profit from my hard work! I want to speak to the editor!
Editor: Could you send us samples of your work, Water?
Waterlily: I can’t do that either.
Editor: So what can you do, Watermelon?
Waterlily: My name is Waterlily, not Watermelon! Why do you need samples of my work?
Editor: Duh! So that we could assess your writing and decide whether we want to publish it or not!
Waterlily: Why do you want to review it? I am a famous writer and my work is quoted in all the leading journals all over the galaxy!
Editor: That’s nice and all and I’m happy for you. However, we would still like to assess it.
Waterlily: Will you be distributing my book in the U.S. and the U.K.?
Editor: No. We only sell foreign rights to those markets. And over the internet.
Waterlily: Looks like you are not the right publisher for me then. Goodbye!
Editor: Good riddance.
AUTHOR: Would you like to publish my manuscript?
Publisher: Well, it depends …
Author: Depends on what?
Publisher: Well, whether you have a written manuscript?
Author: I haven’t written one. Can you get it written for me?
Publisher: Why is that?
Author: I can’t write.
Publisher: But you have studied for a couple of foreign degrees … and you have lived overseas for many years. With your fake accent and all, I’m sure you could write English.
Author: I’m very bad at grammar. Could you get me a writer whom I could talk to, take down notes and put them all in a book for me? I can talk very well. I just can’t write.
Publisher: I can’t imagine how you manage to pass all your exams over the years!
AUTHOR: Could you label me a bestselling author on the cover of my new book?
Editor: No! You are not a bestselling author! And you’ve never have been one!
Author: It’s a way of MARKETING the book!
Editor: I don’t think that’s MARKETING; that’s shameless CONNING. Your first book sold less than a thousand copies in over five years. That, to me, is a disaster of epic proportions! Your book sounds more like the worst-selling book of the century. And with the way it is moving (or not moving), it looks set to be the worst-selling book in the history of humankind. I believe your book will still be around even after the Apocalypse!
AUTHOR: And on what grounds are you rejecting my manuscript?
Editor: Well, it sucks, for one!
Author: What! How dare you insult me! Everyone who has read it thinks it a magnificent piece of work!
Editor: Who, pray tell, read your magnum opus?
Author: My darling husband and children, friends and relatives! And my dearest mummy and daddy, too!
Editor: Of course!
Author: So can I take it that you are not interested in publishing my manuscript?
Editor: De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da ... Duh!
AUTHOR: Yahoo! My book is a runaway bestseller!
Editor: How’s that possible?
Author: I got every one of my best friends to buy 500 copies of my book. Yahoo! Time for a reprint?
Editor: What do you expect them to do with all the copies of your book?
Author: Who cares what they do with them? Hide them under the stairs? Perhaps they can make beef or vegetable stew with them?
AUTHOR: I would like you to publish my book?
Editor: Your manuscript, you mean? Well, it all depends on the quality of your manuscript.
Author: What? I know your Financial Controller and the TOP HONCHO, you know!
Editor: Ooh, I’m shivering!
Of course, we will publish your book—even though it sucks big-time!
Editor: Isn’t that what you want?
WISDOM, they say, comes with age. I once thought that wisdom was the exclusive province of the elderly. Now that I am all grown up, I have come to realise that that’s all balderdash. Wisdom is the province of those who possess it; age is simply immaterial. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet young people who are wise beyond their years, and I have also had the MISFORTUNE of meeting old people who have absolutely no wisdom at all.
AUTHOR: I don’t like my marriage photograph in the book. We
look so bloody fat.
Editor: Of course, both of you are fat. So, what do you want me to do? Both of you should have gone on a diet before getting married. Well, you could always get married again.
AUTHOR: Make sure all numbers smaller than 10 are in figures, not words, okay?
Editor: Numbers from 1-9 will be in words, not numerals. Anything from 10 and above, I will use figures. That’s the standard editing rule.
Author: But I am your client and you do as I instruct.
Editor: So, what else do you want to go with that? Bad grammar? I can do that. What about factual errors? You want some of those? Weak characterization, perhaps? A plot full of holes? We can add a couple of those, if you like. Why don’t I also throw in as many misspellings as I can for you—on the house, of course?
Editor: For your information, you ain’t my client. You can keep your money and go ask your mummy to search and replace all your 1-9s with figures.
“ANYONE can be an author nowadays. You don’t really have to be a good writer or a whizz in grammar and all that nonsense,” so says the marketing consultant. You can’t write? No problem, we will get you a ghostwriter to write on your behalf for a fee, she says. And if you suck big-time at grammar and vocabulary, also no problem. We have the backroom boys (editors, copyeditors, proofreaders and designers) to clean up your writing (or lack thereof) and make all your dreams come true. After all, most people just like to see their names on the covers of their so-called books. And perhaps launching them at one of the hotels or golf clubs (or fast-food/burger joints or shopping-mall concourses). That’s about it.
PASSION is, of course, a wonderful thing to have. But let’s talk about ringgit and sense. There is simply no money in editing in Malaysia. I have been editing books for a living for well over 30 years now, and this saddens me a great deal. Perhaps it’s time for me to seriously consider giving it all up and do something else with the rest of my life?
ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, when all the stars in the heavens are somehow aligned, the perfect manuscript lands on your desk. All is well with the world; the elves and hobbits are having a whale of a time in the playing fields and the flowers are singing and dancing in the wind. There is joy and laughter all over the kingdom. With minimal editing, the manuscript is published to much acclaim and financial success. There are, of course, books that do not capture a readership no matter how good they are or how much they are pushed or promoted. Most of the time, though, bad books fall on your head with a loud thud. Some of these books go on to become successful books after much editing, rewriting, blood, sweat and tears, etc. Publishing is a difficult business; there is no guarantee that a good book will sell. Neither is there a guarantee that a bad book will not sell. Not all bad books sell; most of them end up in the cemetery of lost books.
ACCORDING to Andreï Makine, “Language is just grammar. The real language of literature is created in the heart, not a grammar book.” Makine—a Russian novelist who writes not in his mother tongue but in French—is not discounting the importance of grammar in writing. However, good writing is more than good grammar. Good grammar, in other words, is just not good enough when crafting sentences. In our reading, we have occasionally come across writing which is grammatically perfect in every aspect but somehow lacks heart, writing that lacks an emotional core: hollow, meretricious, staid, technical and wooden. Good writers know when and how to break rules for good original prose to emerge. The challenging task is to nudge boundaries and push narrative towards places it has not been before.
I WAS EDITING a piece of writing the other day. Writers and editors need to be logical when they write or edit. A baby girl is a baby girl. There is no need to be too specific by calling it a “young” baby girl. Is there such a thing as an “old” baby girl?
WE ARE IN THE MIDST of editing another crappy manuscript by a crappy Malaysian writer. It’s just another crappy day in the life of a Malaysian editor. Possibly another worthy contender for the ROTTEN DURIAN AWARDS for the crappiest writing in the world? One that would put us to sleep for a thousand years. We can’t wait for the torture to be over ... until another one comes along (like they always do). Please, please forgive us for unleashing the horror upon humanity and the universe. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. ...
MOST OF THE TIME book editors reject more than they accept manuscripts simply because there are more bad than good writing floating around. With modern publishing the way it is, where quantity is more important than quality, decisions on whether to accept or reject manuscripts are no longer the sole preserve of editors but marketing consultants. Editors are no longer the literary gatekeepers of the universe like they once were. They are more of a stumbling block in the seemingly unrelenting contemporary marketing process. The role of editors is to edit good manuscripts and make bad ones look good enough for those who do not know better. As literary gatekeepers, marketing consultants think that they document history and human evolution, but most of the time they dress up trash to look like literature. This explains the glut of bad writing you see flooding the marketplace. That’s just what I think.
A: Can you read and write Malay?
A: Can you read and write English?
A: Can you read and write Chinese?
A: So, what are you doing now?
B: Studying French.
A: Wah, so clever!
AUTHOR: Could you put my husband’s name (and mine) on the cover?
Editor: No, I can’t do that. He is not the writer. You are the author. Your name will be on the cover.
Author: But he helped me with research, fact-checking and proofreading.
Editor: You may credit him in the acknowledgements page.
Author: But I want his name on the cover with me.
Author: You are not as nice as some people say.
Editor: You could always self-publish and put the names of whoever you like on the cover if that makes your life worth living!