TimeOut Kuala Lumpur: THE WRITE STUFF
Local publishing seems to be on the rise ... but strangely not in this country. S.H. LIM investigates
WITH BETH YAHP’s The Crocodile Fury, Rani Manicka’s The Rice Mother, Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day and Chiew-Siah Tei’s Little Hut of Leaping Fishes all enjoying some measure of literary success overseas, it’s not presumptuous to say that maybe, just maybe, Malaysian writers of serious fiction in English have arrived. Google their names and you see links to reviews in international presses, reading group blogs, even including amazon.com, where their books are being sold.
But I’ve been corrected.
We still have many rungs on the ladder to climb, according to two notables in publishing. Eric Forbes, senior editor of MPH Group Publishing, puts it this way: ‘The success of one book isn’t the success of the whole publishing industry.’ Raman Krishnan, owner and operator of Silverfish Books, expresses it in different words, saying that 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.
Because the requisite building blocks for successful local publishing are not in place.
Forbes points out that an absence of strong locally published works in the marketplace is ‘an interconnected problem.’ 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.
There are challeneges facing publishers of serious fiction. Foremost, what moves off bookstore shelves and make the cash registers ring is nonfiction. Self-help books, in particular. (Feng shui and astrology are the established best-selling genres.) ‘We want to enhance our lives through magic. These self-help books point to something wrong in our lives, pander to our insecurities and promise quick fixes.’ And who doesn’t want a quick fix to life’s many problems?
‘The success of one book isn’t the success of the whole publishing industry.’
But according to Raman there is more truth in fiction than in these you-too-can-be-a-millionaire books. Read thoughtfully, Forbes says, ‘Literary fiction is an investment to making our lives richer and more meaningful.’ Raman has another take. ‘There are thousands of stories that tell us who we are as Malaysians,’ he says with evangelical fervour. ‘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.’
‘I get manuscripts but many are so bad that they are rejected outright,’ says Forbes. Good typescripts are so hard to find.’ Most local publishers want almost-ready-to-print scripts. They just don’t have the resources to work closely with a writer on rewriting and editing. They are working on what generates revenue. To get published locally, in any genre, writers often have to seek the services of freelance editors to clean up their scripts. And the cleaning up often means grammatical and usage errors only. Forbes reveals, ‘There were days when editors would actually line-edit text, check facts and figures, weed out inconsistencies, and turn clichés into elegance.’ Today’s writers have to rely on themselves to learn to rewrite and self-edit so that their writing can shine.
Silverfish Books takes another route to find scripts to publish. It tries cultivating people who have stories to tell and are willing to sweat them out onto paper. Raman doesn’t worry about looking for writers; he wants people with stories and who possess workman discipline and attitude to knuckle down and get their stories in print. He will be their editor, working with them on technique and form. Including grammar. News from Home is the product of this endeavour. He readily admits that while much of what is published by Silverfish Books is good, little on the whole measures up internationally. ‘When you write in English, you compete with Dickens, Shakespeare and others,’ he says, and, of course, thousands of titles across hundreds of genres that come out each year.
Both Forbes and Raman underscore that anyone who is serious about writing must read too. A lot. It is pointed out that most local writers don’t write well because ‘they do not read enough.’ Raman laments that in our country the level of English is quite low. ‘Writing in English is not really taught in schools. Most writing is self-taught. We are working against the tide of our education system.’
But beyond writers, there’s also a need to have skilful editors. Publishers have to invest in nurturing good editors to improve on potentially good work. There is a lack of editing skill in Malaysia. Editors are the arbiters of quality, making sure that mediocre writing doesn’t flood the market.
Forbes says, ‘We must nurture good writers. We have talent here. Many of them have proved that they are capable of writing full-length books. It’s really up to them where they want to go next.’ But they definitely need support with writing workshops from literary agents, good editors and publishers. And better education. Somewhere along that chain, the government should assist with grants and funding for workshops.
Reproduced with permission from the September 2008 issue of TimeOut Kuala Lumpur