Sunday, August 21, 2005

Malaysian Fiction in English?

Is there really a market for Malaysian fiction in English?

EVERYTHING BOILS DOWN to economics at the end of the day. How many copies of a local novel in English are sold? Malaysian authors must write for a global audience – not just for the local market. The Malaysian market for local novels in English is very limited. It is not surprising if you study the statistics. Take a look at India for instance: while growing fast population-wise, the market for books is still merely a tiny fragment. In India, most writings in English sell less than a thousand copies each, though the subcontinent has a population of over a billion people! Not exactly a very viable proposition. Malaysian writers, I believe, must penetrate the British and American markets to enjoy better market penetration in terms of sales, distribution, promotions, foreign rights, etc. (However, the truth of the matter is that not all books get to enjoy these. The publishing world is a pressure cooker; if you don't sell, you don't survive, but unlike popular or commercial fiction, literary novels are very rarely supported by huge marketing budgets and strategies.)

Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) was published in the U.K. and the U.S. and was recently longlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2005 Guardian First Book Award

There certainly is a need for home-grown literature published in Malaysia. It is always good to nurture and encourage good local writing. After all, it is difficult to get published in the United Kingdom and the United States. Even writers in these countries find difficulty getting their works published in their home countries due to one reason or another! What’s happening now is that good novels get published overseas while the not-so-good ones are published locally, if they are published at all. Sadly, most local publishers do not see developing home-grown writing as a viable business option; most publishers prefer nonfiction and textbooks.

D. Devika Bai's The Flight of the Swans (2005) was published in Singapore

Like any other business, book publishing is indeed subject to changing trends, tastes, etc. Yes, Southeast Asian writing is doing all right at the moment but it is merely a passing fad. Books published in Malaysia do not reach a wider world audience due to many reasons. Whether a local writer publishing in the West can create literature that really addresses Malaysian issues will really depend on the writer’s skills and maturity. Though I cannot dispute the fact that literature has an important role to play in addressing social issues and educating us on a wide variety of topics, I also believe that it must also entertain us and teach us stuff we never learnt at school or university; so much better if literature can do both simultaneously. The world is a big place and there's no stopping writers from exploring any issue under the sun. Yes, literature can change the world.

Rani Manicka's The Rice Mother (2002) was published in the U.K. and the U.S. while Touching Earth (2004) was published in the U.K. The Rice Mother is the winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region, for Best First Book

Sharon Bakar hits the nail on the head when she said that there is a real lack of editing skills here in Malaysia. “Editors act as gatekeepers, making sure that second-rate writing does not flood the market. Editors must reject the second-rate, encourage and support first-rate writers.” Yes, developing good editors takes time, effort and commitment. Editors must edit more, but we must consider the realities of the workplace, where editors are subject to punishing schedules by publishers. However, good publishers are indeed a rarity, especially those who appreciate the value of good editing. What we need are publishers who grapple with the conflict between perfectionism and commercialism and at the same time try to find ways to improve public taste.

It is imperative that publishers exercise discretion in the kinds of books they publish. Quality must always come into play in the assessing of manuscripts. Readers must never be shortchanged. After all, imported fiction has historically been the first priority for serious readers of literature. The questions we need to ask are: How do you go about maintaining the quality of manuscripts? Are there enough quality manuscripts published at regular intervals to sustain publishing as a business in the long term in Malaysia? What about retail support? What about the support of the local press in terms of author interviews, book reviews, book supplements, etc.? We must not forget that we are now living in an age where publishers have to pay to display their products in strategic locations within bookshops.

5 Comments:

Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Thank you for this post Eric and for pointing out good, hard facts. You put your fiery book passion to wonderful use.
My 2cents worth is that if you are talking of an international market besides all the surrounding frills that makes a book in English fiction happen, the writer itself needs to dig down into its spirit - to keep reading good fiction constantly, to immerse itself in a rich, multi-layered vocabulary and extraordinary writing style that lie in demand everywhere in the West today & Australiasia (the international market). A first-class standard for English fiction writing starts with the prospective author first, before all else and this really should be turned into a priority.
Funnily enough though, as I am now submitting my manuscript in Britain and considering submitting different kinds of storylines as well, I don't see it as what you wrote - the marketing/sales expertise bit and all that. I actually view those things as a Godsend perk because all I really know how to do with a natural confidence is write and its just terrific to know that when a publisher takes you on in Europe or New York, all your book's supplementary needs are automatically taken care of with the signing of the contract - author, literary agent & publisher.
For me, the most important thing is that I increase the face and width, length and breath of any intellectual audience that reads me. Different cultures, heritages and all of that - its such a pleasurable thrill. And that's oceans of joy on what it could do for me as a writer to lift my spirit and ambitions to new heights. (Great motivation, I suppose)
Also, in the West, in-house editors (from publishing houses) that come automatically to every signed author are fiercely skilled and even head-hunted especially by conglomerates like Penguin UK who heads-hunts their in-house editors. There are editors who specialise only in crime fiction or family sagas etc. And are known to be specialists in this field.
These are the things that win my vote. That you know around you as an author when you of your best, that there are a group of professionals in the West who will give you of their best, irregardless of where you were born or raised.
I also think it's better to soar up a big ladder especially when the opportunity is already there and automatically run down again - swift & easy - as opposed to climbing up the first rung of that same big ladder.
At the end of the day, a writer who lives and breathes its stories in English fiction doesn't have to emigrate to any certain point. It's spirit can champion its cause into the West from anywhere it lives on this planet. It really is just up to us, isn't it.
Best wishes for the week ahead,

Sunday, August 21, 2005 4:15:00 AM  
Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Eric, I have made 2 errors.
1) There are editors who...And are known to be specialists in these fields - and not as I wrote, specialists in this field.
2) Also, in the next paragraph, should read as...when you know that as an author you give of your best to the publishing authority around you, that there are a group of professionals in the West who will give you of their best.... and not as I wrote otherwise.
*******
Also that international recognition or national recognition should be a Malaysian author's (english fiction) last priority in the sense that I feel the author should go where its work is most appreciated to feed its passion to write and not to worry about the labels a watchful, curious Malaysian public waits to stick on its book jacket.
And no, I don't think that a Malaysian writer should write only on Malaysian literature. Not when the world is its oyster and not unless the writer is imprisoned for the rest of its life, in the peninsular from where it was born.

Sunday, August 21, 2005 4:38:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Hello Susan:

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Your opinions make lots of sense. Writers must always read the best fiction and learn from the best writers. Sadly, lots of wonderful books do get lost in the clutter of distribution and do not remain long enough on the shelves and thus fail to find the readers they deserve. And this is where the Internet plays an important role: through the Internet you get to discover books you will never find in bookshops. The world is a big place and there's no stopping writers from exploring any issue under the sun.

All the best
Eric Forbes

Monday, August 22, 2005 1:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Golda Mowe said...

Has the publishing industry in Malaysia changed in any way since you've written this post? When I first started looking for a publisher in 2008, I couldn't think of one in Malaysia that has a wide international reach. I ended up looking overseas and finally found one in Singapore.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 4:35:00 AM  
Blogger Writing in Life said...

I strongly agree with that. I am writing an adventure fantasy. I sometimes thought "Why all Malaysian authors wrote only about Malaysian Fiction? Am I the only person in this world is aware of that?" Thank you for this post. I am glad that there is someone who had the same thoughts as me.

Sunday, December 04, 2016 8:33:00 PM  

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