The MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A WINNING STORY?
In conjunction with the MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009, Janet Tay asks me what I look for in a winning story. Here’s what I think.
What kinds of books do you read? Any particular genre, and why?
I enjoy reading literary fiction (novels, novellas and short stories) and nonfiction (essay collections and literary criticism).
From my father’s collection of books in the 1960s and ’70s, I devoured the classics: the Brontës, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Herman Melville, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, W. Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie (the unsurpassed queen of English crime fiction), Margery Allingham (another mistress of crime fiction), John Creasey, Alistair MacLean, James A. Michener [remember that doorstopper of a tome, Hawaii?], Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Dennis Wheatley (whose occult potboilers were firm teenage staples), etc. I read them because they were there, part of my father’s collection; perhaps they were his favourite books. My father shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since—it was he who ignited my adolescent love of words and literature. He had a great love of 19th-century British and American fiction which he passed on to me, and he was open to 20th-century fiction and fiction in translation of almost any kind. It was from him that I learned to appreciate and enjoy the fiction of Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, The Sure Hand of God, Trouble in July), D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) and the translated works of Alberto Moravia, especially his novel, The Woman of Rome, and his collection of stories, Roman Tales.
On my own, I discovered the works of Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Henry James, Stephen King, Alice McDermott, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Anne Tyler and John Updike. I enjoy Australian fiction, too, especially the fictions of Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Colleen McCullough and Tim Winton. And yes, I also devoured the page-turners of Sidney Sheldon (The Master of the Game, The Other Side of Midnight, Memories of Midnight), Jackie Collins (Chances) and Harold Robbins (The Betsy, Carpetbaggers).
Of course, like everyone else, I went through my fair share of Enid Blytons, Hardy Boys, The Beano and The Dandy, and Look and Learn; Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also featured prominently during my wonder years. Those were wonderful adventures and mysteries. I still remember them to this day.
I still enjoy reading crime novels occasionally; some of them are extremely good, yes, as good as literary fiction!
What would make you pick up an unfamiliar book in a bookstore and buy it?
Normally, I tend not to pick up books I am not familiar with. Most of the time, I tend to have done my homework and I know exactly what I am looking for. However, I must admit a weakness: I am drawn by good books with nice covers!
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
Good writing, thought-provoking plots, intelligence, absolutely. Originality is always important; a good story must have an enduring quality, a distinctive voice, gripping plots, characters that grab you by the scruff of the neck, language, style, inventiveness, stories that tap into the contemporary state of mind (for contemporary fiction), etc.
What will you look for in deciding the shortlist and the winner of the MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009?
Definitely all of the above prerequisites; and also stories that bristle with imagination, authentic characters, concision, tight editing and good openings and endings. Of course, good language skills is a must. Voice is vital because it alters one’s view of the world after having read a story.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
I believe it is difficult to write a good short story. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to write a good novel either. But I believe it is a good place to start to learn the craft of writing.
Do you think it is harder to publish short-story collections than novels (whether in Malaysia, the U.K., U.S. or other markets)? If so, why?
Everything is so market-driven today. The sale of short-story collections does not warrant publishing more short stories. Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell. Perhaps people are afraid of short-story collections; perhaps they think that they won’t be able to understand them. It’s always easier for publishers to keep on doing what they’re or have been doing, but surely they have talented marketing people to expand the market. Perhaps there is a lack of imagination in the selling of such books, or perhaps a reflection of a society that no longer values merit.
What do you think are the biggest challenges Malaysian writers writing in English face today?
There is lack of a readership for books published locally. This is not exactly something new; it has always been this way. However, there is a much bigger readership for nonfiction. Books written and published in Malaysia are not able to penetrate other markets due to too many reasons.
What do you think the book industry in Malaysia can do to encourage more reading and writing in English?
There’re not many avenues for creative writing in English in Malaysia. I am talking about English magazines and newspapers here. Fiction is not exactly encouraged. Off The Edge magazine does publish short stories, but not on a regular basis, since there are not many good stories to choose from. We need more writing magazines, but there are not many willing advertisers. And more prizes that reward good writing. I believe the book industry has done lots to encourage reading and writing in English, but the response from the public has always been tepid, to say the least.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses in Malaysia are imperative in increasing the number of good Malaysian writers and/or improve the quality of Malaysian writing?
Creative writing courses and competitions will increase the number of good Malaysian writers and/or improve the quality of Malaysian writing, but only to a certain extent. However, they are still essential. There is only so much you can learn from such courses (such as technique, style, etc.), but when it comes to things like originality, a lot comes from the writers themselves. Some things can be taught while there are other things that cannot be taught. Writing workshops (to hone writers’ narrative skills and polish their manuscripts), grants and bursaries always help, especially for those who are serious about writing and making writing a career. (All these cost money and I just don’t see Malaysian publishers or private organisations investing in such things because the returns are not immediate.) A person can be guided to write well, but the creative imagination is innate or inborn and without it one cannot be a good writer. What we desperately need now are writers who write well and we don’t have many of those.
Who are some of your favourite short-story writers and who do you usually recommend to your authors or writers to read to improve their craft?
Some of my favourite short-story writers are Julian Barnes, Bernard Malamud and Alice Munro, among others. Those with a bleak or melancholic disposition might like to try Barnes’s The Lemon Table. The thread that connects the stories in this collection is the encroachment of old age and how we respond to death: fear, disappointment and regret. However, they are not as depressing as they sound because Barnes enlivens his tales with dollops of wry British humour.
Malamud is one of America’s finest, though underappreciated, short-story writers. He is better known for his novels than his stories. His dedication to the craft of fiction writing is undeniable in such novels as The Assistant, A New Life and The Fixer. The Assistant is perhaps the best of all his novels, though he won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer. However, his stories are wonderful, too, and should not be ignored. And if you would like to experience his stories, you only need to read The Complete Stories to enjoy them. He won his first National Book Award in 1958 with his first collection, The Magic Barrel.
Munro is possibly one of the world’s most inventive short-story writers at work today. Generational conflict, marital discord and divorce, and youthful alienation in provincial and urban Canada and places in-between are the recurrent thematic threads that bind the fabric of her narratives. She is especially adept at evoking a sense of place and her psychological acuity is as sharp as razor. Munro, however, is highly underappreciated and deserves a wider readership than what she is enjoying now. With her last two collections, Runaway and The View from Castle Rock, she might just do that, though. She is at the moment putting together a new collection.
The MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009 closes on March 31, 2009