Monday, April 29, 2024

THE EYES OF MIRIAM BERKLEY

Authors tend to be shy and evasive when it comes to having their photographs taken, but an amazing photographer like Miriam Berkley manages to capture and elicit the best in her subjects. Kuala Lumpur-based Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee talk to the famous New York-based photographer about books and photography, among other things

Photographs by Miriam Berkley

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF A WELL-TAKEN AUTHOR PHOTOGRAPH. It can make or break a book, especially in an overcrowded literary marketplace where good writing is not the sole criterion in the reader’s buying decision. Yes, we are talking about the professionally-taken photographs of authors you see on the flaps or back covers of books and publicity stills.

Miriam Berkley is a New York-based freelance photographer who specialises in capturing authors at their very best for books, newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs. She has photographed authors like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, Vikram Chandra, Susanna Clarke, Charles Frasier, Romesh Gunasekara, Ha Jin, Stephen Hawking, Aryn Kyle, Doris Lessing, Astrid Lindgren, Norman Mailer, David Malouf, Dinaw Mengestu, Denise Mina, David Mitchell, Grace Paley, Orhan Pamuk, Arundhati Roy, José Saramago, Preeta Samarasan, Mark Slouka and James Wood, among other literary luminaries. She photographed Orhan Pamuk in Sweden a few weeks before he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Her colour photograph of David Mitchell crouching adorns the jacket of Black Swan Green and has been published in many magazines and newspapers. Her photograph of Susanna Clarke embellishes the back jacket of the British edition of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Berkley recently spoke to us from her home in New York City.

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Tell us about yourself, your parents and your experience with the camera.
When I was a child, in the pre-digital mid-20th century, photographs were not as ubiquitous as they are today. I always loved looking at family photographs; browsing through the album with my mother was a treat. No photographs hung on our walls or sat on the furniture as they do in my own home today. There are only a few images of me from childhood, including two from my junior high school graduation. We saw photography, I think, as for special occasions.

Instead I drew, and, since elementary school, read voraciously.

ON ASTRID LINDGREN “This photograph of Astrid Lindgren was taken in the mid-1980s, not during a photography session but to accompany an interview I did with her for a children’s books issue of Publishers Weekly. We met in her apartment in Stockholm. I liked her enormously.”

My family owned one photography book, The Family of Man, which grew out of the famous Museum of Modern Art show of 1955 curated by Edward Steichen. The thematically-grouped, black-and-white photographs of people around the world made a vivid impression on me and, I believe, influenced my approach to photography, which is basically a humanist one.

My parents, although not by training, were both published writers. My father, Joseph Samachson, with a Yale PhD in chemistry, for many years wrote comics and science fiction under pseudonyms—“William Morrison” was one; I did not know it then, but he created the character Martian Manhunter and wrote episodes of Sandman in the 1940s and Batman in the 1950s. My ballet-pianist mother, Dorothy, who sometimes took me to classes or rehearsals when I was too young to appreciate them, wrote books with him for young adults mainly on the performing arts, beginning with one on ballet. I was fascinated by the stills of dancers and theatrical personalities used in their books, but never dreamt I would myself work in an allied field. I liked performing but was discouraged from considering a performing career; I thought I was headed for medicine, perhaps psychiatry.

In my teens I travelled from the Bronx, where I lived, to high school in Manhattan via subway and I remember staring at the people around me on the train. My early fascination with faces has never ended.

At college I took classes in drawing and art history, but none in photography. I did not even know such courses existed. I had access to a camera but used it infrequently, until I first set foot in a darkroom one weekend away from home and learned the rudiments of darkroom work. I loved taking photographs, especially now that I knew how to develop them. Still, although it was an interest, it played a very small part in my life until I was in my 2os and spent a few months in Israel, where I shot large quantities of film, which I bought in large rolls, loaded onto reusable cartridges, and processed in the darkroom of the kibbutz where I was living. A friend bought me an introductory book about photo technique and I used it to teach myself the basic principles and techniques of photography.

What made you decide to become a full-time photographer?
My path to full-time photography was a long and circuitous one. After college I taught for a year in a New York City elementary school, got a Master’s degree in education, and then taught for a while longer. But I had always been a huge reader, had in my early twenties written a lot of poetry, took a prose writing class with the British novelist Penelope Mortimer in 1975, and I wanted to do some kind of work involving literature. I published a few unpaid book reviews in a now-defunct feminist newspaper and armed with a few tearsheets was able to get my first paid assignment from The Chicago Daily News. This led to other reviews and then interviews, both for that paper and other large major American newspapers and magazines, including Publishers Weekly, the leading trade magazine of the publishing world.

I was also getting more involved with photography and I bought an enlarger and set it up in the kitchen of my apartment, using my bathroom for my photo trays and chemicals. I had been taking an acting class and photographed a few of my fellow actors for their head shots. I found a publishing job, put away the enlarger, and worked acquiring books for reprint, soliciting and editing introductory material, and writing promotional copy. I also had to lay out small advertisements. I kept on writing freelance literary journalism and also expanded my photography. I was hired by the newspaper of a large city union to cover some events and would bring back not only images of keynote speakers or panels, but portraits of people in the crowd, as it was always faces that drew me in such situations. One morning I was called by a photo agency just before I left for my publishing job. They wanted me to photograph two well-known singers; I did and then went in late to work.

On occasion when I did an author interview I brought my camera with me, but this was rare and usually only if there were no good existing photos of the author and the assigning editor wanted a picture. Also, the book editor of the Chicago paper I wrote for occasionally came to New York to do interviews himself and he would invite me along to photograph his subjects. I was torn for a long time between writing and photography. I had also been posing as an artist’s model for a painter, an older man with strong literary interests, and he would encourage me to write but would say dismissively, “Everybody’s a photographer.” My mother was proud of my writing but encouraged me to get a full-time job; with my photography she was out of her element and did not know what to say—so kept silent.

ON CHINUA ACHEBE “I had been a fan of Chinua Achebe’s work for years before I photographed him in the late 1980s. I don’t remember how I made contact with him but I was thrilled to meet him on his visit to New York. This photo was taken not far from his publishers’ midtown offices, beside St Bartholomew’s Church.”

In 1984, on the basis of some of my interviews, I was named a “Scholar” in the area of nonfiction at the venerated Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, but I had already gotten somewhat tired of writing interviews, and knew I wanted a change. I took a number of photos while I was at Bread Loaf and two of them, including one of the writer Stanley Elkin, were published as author photos on book jackets within the next year. I went to the big International PEN conference of 1986 and both wrote about the conference for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and, after the first day or so, moved up to the ranks of the photographers and began photographing the writers on the stage. A few of my photos were bought for publication by a Swedish journalist writing about the conference.

Then in 1987 I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I had been planning to stop in London on my way home to interview a number of British literary agents for an article for Publishers Weekly. But in Frankfurt I met the Art Director of Jonathan Cape, and over drinks I showed him some of my photographs. He told me to call him when I was in London, which I did, and he gave me two writers to photograph. One of them was Doris Lessing whom I had admired for years and was excited to meet—and the photographs for this shoot were used on a variety of book jackets in England, the United States and other countries. I never met with the literary agents.

My career as an author photographer got a boost in a most serendipitous way on the plane ride home from London. I sat next to a handsome young man, whom I kept glancing at because his profile made me think of a young Al Pacino. We introduced ourselves. He was English and on his way to New York to meet a publisher; I told him I had recently begun photographing writers. We talked for at least half of the transatlantic flight, until he had to get some sleep before his early morning meeting. He turned out to be the author of books and comics and knew a lot of science fiction and other writers. He raided his address book for names and contact numbers, which he gave me on the spot, and promised to put me in touch with other writers when I returned to London some months later. He was true to his word. His name was Neil Gaiman, we became friends, and through him I met and photographed a host of British science fiction illuminati, both established and up-and-coming. I photographed Neil a few times early on, and through him met fantasy writer Colin Greenland and eventually, through Colin, Susanna Clarke, whom I shot quickly one afternoon outside their house in Cambridge, although the book she was working on was yet to be finished. In 2004, when Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was published, my photograph of Susanna Clarke was on the British edition; I later licensed it to a number of other countries as well.

ON ROMESH GUNESEKERA “I took this photo of Romesh along The Mall in London in 1995, just outside the ICA gallery. We were both in London on a visit.”

Meanwhile, I continued to publish my writing for a couple of years more, but by 1989 I had stopped altogether.

That year I returned to Bread Loaf for two days and photographed 23 writers, including a poet named Wyatt Prunty, who spoke to me about a new writers’ conference (Sewanee) he hoped to create in Tennessee, and for which he thought having a portrait photographer around would be a good idea. The Conference opened in 1990 and since then I have been photographing writers there every year.

Nowadays, when I speak to someone—anyone—even in quick conversation, I mentally begin to study them as if I were to take their portrait, looking for their best angles and expressions. Luckily, because it permits me to photograph someone when necessary in literally a few minutes, the camera’s many eyes—each lens sees differently—have become an intuitive part of me.

What is the difference between what you were doing then in journalism and what you are doing now with photography?
In my reviews I had to evaluate a book and try to place it in the context of the author’s body of work. I would read not only the book I had to review, but also the writer’s earlier books and some critical material about them. For interviews—I also did a couple of photographer profiles as well as interviews with writers—the intention was to create a portrait in words, although nearly always the editor would want a photograph as well. In fact, the policy of Publishers Weekly was that the week’s interview had to have an accompanying photograph in order to run. This was a problem when I interviewed the Pittsburgh mystery writer K.C. Constantine, who wrote under a pseudonym in a small town and whose cover would have been blown if his image appeared. The editor and I solved the problem by having me photograph a painted shadow of a man that had been appearing recently on New York City walls.

The work was time-intensive, as I would read the new book that led to the assignment in the first place, and as many of the author’s earlier books as possible, earlier interviews and whatever biographical and critical material I could find. By the time I wrote my last interview I had begun writing on a word processor, but nearly all of the research was still manual, I was not yet part of any kind of on-line world. I acquired shelves of reference works about books and writers, and spent a fair amount of time at the public library. Preparing for the interview was interesting, the interview itself was usually fun, and the writing afterwards was tough, as I had to first transcribe the interview and then assimilate masses of information into a coherent piece of a set length. I did a lot of crossing out, writing in, and cutting and pasting—not as we do it on a computer today, but with actual scissors and tape—and I always wrote long, as details about lives have always interested me. Still as I began to write my material cohered into a point of view, into my portrait of that writer.

It is, of course, much quicker and easier to look at a photograph than it is to read an interview or even a review, and with my photographs the feedback was greater and more rewarding emotionally. I would work very hard on an interview, get approbation from the editor when I turned in the piece, and then it would seem to sink into a black hole, especially since I was writing largely for major but regional newspapers in cities where I did not live. Even if the piece appeared in PW I rarely heard from readers unless I happened to be at a publishing party around the time the piece appeared.

ON DORIS LESSING “The photo of Doris Lessing was captured during my first session with her at her home in London on assignment from Jonathan Cape. Lessing kindly drove me to the tube station when I was done.”

Photographs, on the other hand, were more fun to take, and met with immediate and wider attention. When I began, I mainly used a lab for processing and prints, so my work was pretty much done when I took a photograph. In the last few years I have gone increasingly digital, and now I shoot very little film. Although digital photography has many rewards, it is also more time-consuming than people realise to download files, process them and protect one’s images from unauthorised use. Today’s lenses are so sharp that they pick up blemishes that older lens did not—but such things can also be easily corrected, and just about every photograph one sees today has been digitally manipulated in some way. Even if the photograph was shot on film it will nowadays have to be scanned and then corrected. And since images can be sent so quickly the pace sometimes is quite hectic—a publication may change a story or add a review at the last minute because it knows it can and then the editors want something immediately.

When I photograph someone I tend to shoot a lot: many different expressions; different poses; different outfits when possible; a change of background; another kind of light. Outdoor light is always changing and photography is all about light. I carry a camera as I walk around New York these days, and when I photograph people in the street I can be quite free, as I do not have to please them. We all have many faces, and how we appear depends on the light in which we are photographed—our mood, the skill and sensitivity of the photographer, many different things coming together in an instant. We all have images of ourselves, often years behind how we actually look, and we often know how we want to look.

ON STEPHEN HAWKING “Stephen Hawking inspires people with his success despite his disability. This photo of Hawking adorns the jacket art of the original edition of The Brief History of Time.”

Once a series of photographs is taken for an author picture there is a lot more choice involved, and more rides on that choice, than in a written article, where all of the material moves the piece in a certain direction. What I have not done yet, but would like to do, is have more than one image of a writer on the jacket, perhaps a profile and a forward-looking shot, as we all have so many different visages. Usually, a choice is made that is dependent upon the merit of the photograph and its perceived ability to present an author in a sympathetic way to its intended audience.

What books are currently on your bedside table?
My bedside table does not have books on it—there is simply no room for books on the small table!—but it has clipped newspaper and magazine articles, odd bits of mail I have to deal with, schedules of upcoming events from various cultural organisations. Books are on the bed itself with spill-over on the floor.

I have just finished reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack. More recently, I began Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires. Also on my list is Montreal writer Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, which I reserved from the New York Public Library after reading about its nomination for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I am dipping into the crime anthology, Chicago Blues, and an anthology my science fiction editor friend David Hartwell just gave me, The SFWA European Hall of Fame. Then there are a number of photography books, in particular books on Photoshop, the photo software now used all over the planet, on photographic lighting, and, to better understand light, a college physics textbook I picked up not long ago that deals with the subject.

Unfortunately I don’t have as much time for reading books as I would like to. I also subscribe to dozens of magazines.

Were there any books that changed your life?
I am not sure I could say there are books that changed my life, but there were books that impressed me powerfully and whose characters or settings resonated with me at the times that I read them. I think it was the books I read in youth, when I was most impressionable, I felt most deeply about.

ON DAVID MITCHELL “This famous photo of David Mitchell crouching adorns the jacket of Black Swan Green and has been published in many magazines and newspapers.”

Early on I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Jo’s Boys—I don’t remember how old I was when I first read them—and a novel called A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter, which was in my summer camp library when I was about twelve. Although I have for most of my life lived in a large, crowded city, I found that novel, which has a woodsy setting and conveys an intense love of nature, tremendously seductive.

In high school we read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in senior English class (which should really have been called ‘Literature,’ not ‘English’), and I later read many of Dostoyevsky’s other novels, most, I believe, in English translations by Constance Garnett. Jude the Obscure, dark and heartbreaking, impressed me in freshman college English at sixteen, and remains my favourite Thomas Hardy novel.

When I was seventeen or eighteen I lived for some time in the imaginative world of Nobel laureate Romain Rolland’s bildungsroman, Jean-Christophe, in the huge Modern Library edition. In senior year in college I took a class called “Philosophy in Literature” and was introduced to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Camus’s The Stranger; I went on to read all the other novels by Albert Camus I could lay my hands on.

I also sat in on a class at Cornell—I did not take it for credit, just out of interest—given by a Pakistani-born political scientist that dealt with what was then, I believe, still called “Third World literature,” and fell in love with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, which gave me my first glimpses of the African continent, and R.K. Narayan’s The Man-Eater of Malgudi (I later read many of Narayan’s other novels). During my college years—but not for school, I was a psychology major and was not reading fiction for school—I read a lot of B. Traven, the mysterious German-born writer who spent many years living in and writing about the oppression of Mexican workers. Later, living in Sweden for a couple of years, I loved Han Suyin’s The Mountain is Young, a love story set in Kathmandu, which I picked up in the English-language section of a bookstore in Gothenburg; read the memoirs and novels of Simone de Beauvoir, the novels of Doris Lessing, a couple of novels in French by Françoise Mallet-Joris, and other assorted books.

At one point I gobbled up Anaïs Nin’s memoirs but by my late twenties I was no longer enamored of her intense self-absorption. Still, I liked her book, The Novel of the Future, and went on to seek out the writers she enthused about there: Maude Hutchins, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Anna Kavan, among others. I read rather a lot of Gertrude Stein, as well as Henry Miller.

I also read poetry. I loved Stephen Crane, better known for his anti-war The Red Badge of Courage, the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a number of European poets whose works I bought in British paperback editions: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Eugène Guillevic, among others. Some of these writers I photographed many years later.

I don’t think there was a single work of literature that changed my life. If any book did, it was probably The Family of Man.

What types of authors fascinate you?
All sorts of writers, although my tastes tend towards literary fiction and nonfiction, crime novels that transport me to new places, especially exotic landscapes, works of history, biography and memoir. Plot is important but characters are much more of interest to me. Some years ago I read a lot of literary memoirs. I don’t like reading about violence and avoid novels about serial killers. I like works that use language creatively or playfully, that open a new world or give me a different perspective on things.

How can your pictures tell a story about the writer?
I find character in faces. The story is everywhere in the photograph, especially in the eyes. I choose attractive angles and interesting expressions for the person I am photographing, but I try to stay true to who the subject is, gestures he or she might actually make. In my photographs people look good but are always recognisable as themselves. I don’t think it is necessary to have read someone’s work to photograph well if you have the right aesthetic and emotional instincts. I have photographed many writers immediately upon meeting them and without knowing their work beforehand, and created images that resonated with them.

ON DENISE MINA “I had been reading about Denise Mina’s crime fiction and sent her an e-mail before her one-week visit to New York in 2007 for some literary events. The photo was taken not far from my apartment before a reading nearby.”

A different image from a photo-shoot may tell a different story. That is why it is sometimes very difficult to choose among the photographs for a book jacket: what story does one want to tell? This is a decision made initially by me, but then ultimately by the author of the book and by the publishing team—editor, publicity or marketing people—who decide how to publish and market the book.

Tell us about a strange thing that happened during a photo-shoot.
Although nothing very strange happened during photo-shoots, I have had a few odd experiences. I photographed Patricia Highsmith many years ago in Soho Square, London, and I was almost hit by a truck that had jumped the sidewalk as it turned a corner. I had been speaking to her and was not paying attention to the traffic around me, which sometimes happens when I am photographing on the street. She pulled me back—so you might say that Patricia Highsmith saved my life!

What’s your best achievement, a photograph that elicited a powerful reaction from people?
It is hard to choose just one image. Sometimes I have many images I love of a writer but one is bought for use with a book and that is the one people see. Two early photo-shoots that yielded very good images were of Doris Lessing and Stephen Hawking. My favourite of Hawking was shot in a horizontal format, although when it was used for publicity for the first American edition of A Brief History of Time, it was cropped and sent out as a vertical image with a fair amount of its Cambridge background removed, and some publications published only Hawking’s smiling face, which was a very small part of the entire image. A few years ago I, photographed the young American writer Aryn Kyle, and although she loved that image, as did her publishers in different countries, I actually took many photos of her and I like many of the other images as well, some of them in colour. The thing about author photographs is that (unless one has an exhibition of them—which I have had, fortunately), no one asks to see the photograph when there is no book coming out or article about the writer; some external thing must occasion a photo request. So there are many images in my archive that I love but that have never been seen.

ON ARYN KYLE “I met and photographed Aryn Kyle at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2004, where she was a Scholar with no book contract yet but there was a buzz about her talent. I shot her against the white door of one of the dormitory rooms and among some nearby greenery.”

What kinds of details should people look out for to identify the aesthetic value in a photograph?
Aesthetic value is, of course, partly in the eye of the beholder, but I think there are certain things that one could generally state as true. Details to look for lie in the answers to such questions as: whatever the photograph is of, is it interesting, do we want to look at it? Do we know in fact what the subject of the photograph is, is it clearly or cleanly presented, well-balanced, or are there all sorts of distracting elements, so we do not know what we’re looking at? Are the tonal values of the image pleasing? Is the photo’s appeal sensational or does it convey real emotion? We can often see the aesthetic value of a photograph even if it is not to our personal taste. If you show a series of photographs to a roomful of people there will be agreement as to which are good photographs and which ones are not.

ON ORHAN PAMUK “The photo of a smiling Orhan Pamuk was taken in Sweden a few weeks before he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Why is an author’s photograph important?
There are several senses in which an author’s photograph may be important or not. In principle one might say it is not important, it is what’s on the page that matters, not what the book’s author looks like. But human beings are wired in such a way that looks do matter—studies with babies have indicated that attraction to beauty is instinctive—and we want to know what an author looks like and may buy a book based upon whether or not we like the way he or she appears in the photograph. When we read a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, we often turn to the author photo to compare the face we see with the voice we hear. We often feel cheated if there is no photograph. Years after reading a book we can often visualise the jacket photo.

ON PREETA SAMARASAN “Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee told me about Preeta’s début novel, Evening Is the Whole Day (Houghton Mifflin/HarperCollins), and her U.S. book tour in May 2008, and Preeta and I met up in New York to shoot the cover photo for the July issue of Quill.”

These days a good author photograph on a book jacket—and the author photo will also be used for publicity—is especially important if one expects the book to get attention in the media. The person in the photograph should look good, like his or her best self, but one should be able to enter a room with an author and know who the person on the book cover is.

The photograph in general should not conflict with what kind of person the writer is or what kind of book has been written. You don’t want an angry face on a book about empathy or an overly cheerful face on the cover of a book about tragedy. You don’t want a bland image either. A good book jacket photograph should make the author look attractive and interesting, like someone you would like to spend some time with. Of course, whom you find attractive depends to some extent upon who you are.

What are your other passions?
All sorts of music, especially classical, folk, jazz, cabaret and what nowadays fall under the rubric “World Music,” songs in French, Spanish, German, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, several African and Caribbean languages, etc. On my shelves are probably thousands of recordings from just about every continent.

I also love to be out in nature, walking in the woods or a meadow, which is somewhat ironic since I live in a crowded city and rarely have the chance to enjoy the natural world. Still, as I write now I hear the twittering of a bird in one of the very few trees outside my window and it makes my urban experience happier.

I love animals and have a cat, although I am fond of dogs too and take the opportunity when I leave my apartment to greet dogs being walked in the street by their owners. I feel brighter when I have interacted with a friendly dog.

Science—the study of how life, the universe and the human mind work—fascinates me.

My other passions are swimming, dancing, singing, and observing babies and small children, in particular as they interact with one another. And travel—experiencing new people and places, and re-encountering familiar ones with fresh eyes.

Passions of a different sort are for the environment, and for social justice and the humane treatment of those around us, human or animal, on the planet.

It would be hard to assign these an order of importance because my life would be poorer without any of them.

All photographs used in this interview are copyrighted by Miriam Berkley and may not be used in any way except with her direct permission.

An expurgated version of this interview is published in the July-September 2008 issue of Quill magazine

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Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Throw Your Mama’s Smelly Shoe Awards & Other Malaysiana Miscellany

“WE can’t eat dairy for health reasons, but ice cream is quite okay.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
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“WHY ARE YOU READING The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature? You Chinese meh?” A CHINESE MALAYSIAN TEACHER OF ENGLISH, SADLY
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“YOU should read some of the books I edit. They are surely some of the worst writings on this neck of the galaxy. Sometimes I pray to God to please, please take me so that I don’t have to edit them anymore.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
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“ARE YOU CHRISTIAN? I was compelled to write my book by God. If you’re a true Christian, you’ll help me fulfilling my publishing dreams.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“I AM AFRAID we don’t pay much for editing and proofreading because it’s a simple job. Anyone can do it.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
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“SEE what’re selling like hot cakes in the bookshops, and reproduce them exactly.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN CEO WITH AN MBA & STUFF
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“HERE’S my manuscript. I need the book in a month. Can you get it done and deliver the stocks to me?” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
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“I’M looking for a book, but I don’t know the title or who the author is. Could you check and see if you have it in stock?” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
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“DARLING, how come they are so bloody rich? And why are we not as bloody as them?” CRAZY RICH IPOH WIFE
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“I DON’T READ NOVELS; I’ve no time for them; I’m just too busy. Aren’t they all love stories, huh?” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
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“WE are practising vegans; we don’t take milk and other dairy products, but we love cheesecake.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
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“I WASN’T AWARE that you’re not allowed to plagiarise. I don’t understand why you can’t do it.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“I WOULD LIKE to thank myself for writing this beautiful book and for taking all the stunning photographs.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“I SPOTTED an error in my manuscript. Could you go through the manuscript and look for it?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“WHICH do people prefer, huh? A thin or thick book? What you think?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“WHY is my book so thin? Can’t you like make it thicker or something? And I can’t understand why we have to do so many rounds of editing.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“COULD you reprint my book with a new ISBN number? And can I craft my own CIP Data?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“WE INSIST on using our title and subtitle since we will be buying back all the stocks.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHORS
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“IS it all right for a gander (yes, a male goose) to lay golden eggs?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“CAN I include some recipes and cooking tips in my novel?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“I DON’T UNDERSTAND the need to edit my manuscript. My previous publisher published all my books exactly the way I wrote them without any of these editing, fact-checking or rewriting nonsense.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“I HAVE NO IDEA where I should close the quote?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“COULD you lift the first seven chapters of my last book and turn them into a new book?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“I HAVE a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate. Of course I have an undeniable flair for the narrative.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
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“IF YOU WANT an advance praise for your book, make sure you’ve got a book for me to praise, okay?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
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“YOU don’t have to be Chinese to speak and write Chinese, okay?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
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“IT’S bloody frustrating editing so-called Malaysian writers; their prepositions suck big time and they don’t like to be edited simply because they think they have the gift of the narrative. There must be more meaningful ways to make a living.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
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“‘READ, but don’t make any changes.’ So, why read?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
“WHY ARE WE always asked to edit texts that we are not allowed to make any changes?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
“I WANT TO PUBLISH a book of my own, but I have not written anything publishable. Could you make that happen for me? By the way, I don’t mind doing promotions for it. Just let me know the dates in advance. I’ll have to check if I am available.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“COULD we retain the misspelling? Don’t know why, but I prefer that spelling.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“IF YOU CUT out all the irrelevant bits and pieces, there won’t be a book in the end. You know that, right?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“THAT, seriously, is not a book. But, in Malaysia, it is considered one. ... And it went on the sell lots and lots of copies. Some books have all the luck in the world!” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
“YOU have too many books. You should get rid of them.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“I MIGHT ACT or talk stupid, but don’t call me stupid, okay?” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“WE WILL ONLY publish your manuscript if you buy back all your stocks. This is our business model.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
* * *
“INDEX all their names so that all of them will buy the book.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
* * *
“COULD you write it for the author? She has no idea what to write.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
* * *
“JUST EDIT the bloody manuscript. You don’t have to like or love it to edit it.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
* * *
“WE DON’T HAVE a budget to hire intelligent people, I’m afraid. So we’ll have to make do with stupid ones.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
* * *
“NOBODY buys or reads the kinds of books you read.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER
* * *
“WHY ARE THERE so many full stops in my book?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“YOU MEAN I must end every sentence with a full stop?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO be intelligent or talk smart to be a CEO or COO in Malaysia. You can easily be one if you know the right people.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“WE CHARTED a plane that took us up the Everest over the weekend. You should check it out; it will change the way you see the world.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“IS MY BOOK READY? We need to launch it at Mummy’s birthday party at the Four Seasons, okay?” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“IS MY BOOK READY? No worries. My crazy rich daddy will buy up all the stocks if it doesn’t move?” ANOTHER CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“COULD you please index my wife, son and grandson? They will be real unhappy if their names are not there.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN, WHO ELSE?
* * *
“I’M AFRAID I can’t remember how to spell my wife’s name. It has been years since I last spelt it. I’ll have to take a look at her birth certificate. If I can find it, that is.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“I DON’T KNOW how to rewrite it. I will explain it to you, and you rewrite it for me, okay?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“CAN’T you fly in a native speaker [English] to edit my [mangled English] manuscript? No?” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“GET your editors to clean up my manuscript!” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN
* * *
“MY DARLING SON writes better than J.K. Rowling.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN MAMA
* * *
“MY SON is an Asian scholar. It is impossible that he made so many grammatical mistakes.” CRAZY RICH MALAYSIAN MAMA
* * *
“IF THERE IS such a thing as beauty in ugliness, then Kuala Lumpur is one of the ugliest cities in the world.” ANONYMOUS MALAYSIAN
* * *
“WE have the book in stock, but we can’t find it in the bookshop.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN BOOKSHOP
* * *
“I’M a retired English-language lecturer. Not just a teacher, okay? There’s nothing to edit in my manuscript. My English’s perfect. There’s no need to edit perfection.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“I DON’T READ BOOKS, but I like writing them.” ANOTHER CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“YOU WERE SUPPOSED to proof the galleys—not add more names to the acknowledgements page, which is already bursting at the seams.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
“I MUST have done something despicable in one of my former lives; that’s why I’m being punished now—editing crappy manuscripts.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
“I DON’T READ BOOKS; I never liked them. And I don’t buy them either; but I like selling them.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN SALESMAN
* * *
“I DID NOT LEARNT THIS at Harvard or Wharton, okay? I discovered it myself: good books don’t need to be promoted; they move by themselves. Am I not clever or what?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN SALESMAN
* * *
“MAKE SURE my name has a PhD at the end of it. I want it on the cover as well. It will sell the book like crazy.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“YOUR EDITORS are so bloody fussy about grammar.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“I USED to be a lawyer. How is it possible that my English is bad? My English is excellent!” CRAZY MALAYSIAN AUTHOR
* * *
“WHY do you want me to edit it if I am not supposed to make any amendments?” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
“IT’S common sense. You don’t need to go to Harvard, Princeton or Yale to learn that.” CRAZY MALAYSIAN EDITOR
* * *
I ask the new editor if she knows what a yam is? She says she has never heard of such a thing as a yam in her life. What’s that? she asks. Have you heard of yam cake, yam ice cream, etc.? I ask. She says no, but she knows yam-seng! I replied: “Amazing!” Then she tells me she doesn’t know how to use the comma. She asks: “Can I put the comma anywhere I like?” And I say: “Of course, you can!” If she keeps up with this, I think I will end up in a coma by the end of the day!
* * *
THIS is one of the highlights of my publishing career: “Nobody buys my books even though I write better than Hemingway,” one Malaysian author ranted.
* * *
I RESIGNED from a career I love three years before the company’s official retirement age (60). I woke up the very next day and could not believe that I didn’t have to go to work after doing so for over thirty years. If truth be told, it was one of the happiest days of my life. Don’t get me wrong: I love my work as an editor; the vocation is my life; it’s what I’m good at. Imagine: No more alarm clock going off at the ungodly hour of four, five before the break of dawn. No more ‘Goodbye, Mother; see you at six, seven in the evening.’ No more travelling to work on overcrowded trains and walking on broken pavements. But best of all, absolutely no more trying my darnedest to tolerate or understand the pervasive inanities and stupidities in the office. Imagine the things we do to earn a pittance. There were, of course, pockets of good times in between despite the nitwits and ningnongs and sycophants and grandiloquent Little Napoleons I had to work with. It is now almost four years, and I still can’t convince myself that I don’t have to go to work in the mornings.
* * *
ONE OF THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF MY LIFE was the day I quit my last job and walked out of the office for good. It was overwhelming, this feeling of freedom. There was no looking or turning back. There’s only so much stupidity and “yes, master”-ing one can tolerate in one lifetime. It’s too much of a hassle, too much stress just to earn a pittance. It’s true what they say, that you can’t change others: you can only change yourself. On looking back, it’s simply miraculous that I managed to make a living—and a life—here despite the odds and obstacles stacked against me. I survived and came out of that place in one piece—and that’s unbelievable as far as I’m concerned.
* * *
I AM OFFICIALLY retired from work and no longer editing crap. Don’t be offended; there were a couple of nuggets (yes, just a couple only) amidst all the crap that fell on my desk over the years.
* * *
THIS is what I know for sure. Most of the people in Malaysian publishing have no interest in reading or the idea of producing good books. And that’s a critical problem that will lead to the death of the industry. Marketing people don’t read; designers lack creativity and imagination; writers and editors are not aware of anything at all—not even the finer points of grammar; and commissioning editors who are more into food and lifestyle than books. It’s hard for me (and the industry) to thrive and grow in such an unconducive environment.
* * *
ART ought to shake us to our very foundations. It should broaden our perspectives and change our points of view. It should make us cringe and feel uncomfortable. It should fertilise our minds and allow our imaginations to soar and reach for the unattainable. Art brings order to this chaotic world we live in.
* * *
I LOVE THE MUSIC of words and the stories they tell when they are all arranged in the right order. Magical and wondrous, isn’t it? Just the same twenty-six alphabets in an infinity of combinations and permutations, and multiverses are created.
* * *
I TOLD A FRIEND the other day over cups of steaming-hot Americano: “You know how it is in Malaysia: everyone loves the idea of being a ‘writer’, of getting published, but no one is willing to work at it or wants to buy and read books.” I don’t read, but I like writing, they tell me, proudly. So who then is going to buy and read your books? A nation of ‘writers’ with no readers? And when I am told to assess a manuscript, I am always advised to keep in mind that rejection is not an option. So we end up flooding the bookshops with crappy non-books dressed up as so-called literature.
* * *
I HAVE RESIGNED (yes, resigned, not retired) from Malaysian publishing; but I have not retired from life. After years of toiling in the gutter of Malaysian publishing, a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. It’s hard to keep on churning out non-book after non-book after non-book. There is no end to it. It not only eats into your soul, but also destroys and crushes it, again and again and again. And when publishers start rejecting good manuscripts and accepting and publishing bad ones, it’s time to leave and move on to better things in life. There’s only so much one can do as an editor in Malaysia. There’s no easy way to say it. 
* * *
WHEN was the last time I bought a book published in Malaysia? Malaysian authors love launching stillborn books. Though not fully formed, these books are released into the wild. As editors we have no choice but to rush the editing process to satisfy this weird craving. Most of these manuscripts are edited within a few hours and remain stillborn at best. There is more to editing than just correcting spelling. Reading mangled or fractured English is torture almost beyond endurance. That’s why there are more bad books than good ones in the Malaysian market. I am no longer disappointed about this state of affairs. That’s the way some things are. And that’s why I don’t buy books published in Malaysia. Publishing is a tough business (and editing is so bloody hard), and if Malaysian publishers have no idea what publishing entails and the kinds of skills required to create a decent book, then they should leave the industry and go do something more manageable, perhaps sell FMCGs like chocolates, poppadom crisps, potato chips, handbags, ice cream, etc. Why flood bookshops with substandard books that no one in their right frame of mind need or want?
* * *
A TRULY GREAT sandwich shop serves delicious sandwiches and great coffees to go with them. The sandwich shop in KLCC, sadly, serves neither of these. The sandwiches left much to be desired; not only were they tasteless, they were hard to swallow; and the coffee, the less said the better. And the service ... let’s not get into that either.
* * *
STUPIDITY, the bane of my life, is now the new cool at the workplace. Lunch hour is now 45 minutes instead of an hour, and working hours have been extended to 8½ hours. There will always be ning-nongs who think that squeezing 30 minutes out of every employee will increase overall productivity. There is alas no accounting for the way some nitwits use their ‘brains’: penny wise pound foolish and all that. It feels like people are employed for the sole purpose of destroying companies. And wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said that there is no greater sin than stupidity? Governments levy taxes on such ‘sins’ as alcohol, gambling and tobacco. If only we could tax stupidity, we could make ourselves a fortune. Observing stupidity in action every day at the workplace is mind-numbing and suffocating. You die a slow, lingering death within the confines of the office walls. If only there is a law to protect us from the stupidity that swirls around us. (I have no idea whether they are born this way or whether they have gone for special classes to learn to be stupid?)
* * *
I WAS ONCE reprimanded for reading “non-related material” in the office. I was once told that I was not to read other books, except those that I was editing. The thing is, I tend to read books in between editing assignments. The idea is not to waste the pockets of time in between. It helps tremendously that I enjoy reading. How else do you learn to edit and write, except through reading constantly and learning from some of the best writers in the world? It’s good that I also tend not listen to people who have no idea what they are talking about.
* * *
“WHY would you want to acknowledge God in your sorry excuse for a book? What’s God got to do with it?”
* * *
IN MALAYSIA, publishing has become more like a service, something akin to a public-relations provider or production house. Potential authors are more like clients rather than real authors. They pay to get published. And they have the final say when it comes to the editing process and how the cover looks. We are now witnessing not only the decline but the death of Malaysian publishing.
* * *
MALAYSIAN AUTHORS hate editing their own manuscripts and going through their galleys. If they don’t love what they do, I wonder who’s ever going to love their books? Their mamas and papas, perhaps?
* * *
YOU ASK the Malaysian author for a sixty-word description of herself, and here’s what she says: “Here’s my two-page biodata from my company’s annual report. You may take whatever you want from it.” I really don’t want anything from it, seriously. People somehow always live up to their stereotypes.
* * *
NO OPTICAL BENEFITS and only a paltry £30/US$40 per year for dental. No increments, no bonuses. And to imagine that some people actually think they are giving us the world and that we ought to be grateful for crumbs.
* * *
GOING ON A HOLIDAY with a buddy who is always on the cell phone 24/7 is torturous. They don’t talk or listen to you; they practically ignore you, even during mealtimes. You talk to yourself most of the time. At times like this, I think the cell phone is one of the worst inventions ever.
* * *
IF YOU WISH to quote Shakespeare but can’t quote the Bard correctly and in the right context, then don’t do it, if you ask me. You must understand the quote first before using it. If not, you just look silly. (I know, Shakespeare is your favourite author.)
* * *
YOU call yourself a teacher but you don’t read. That’s a good one.
* * *
WHEN YOU MAKE an effort to close your door, make sure you speak softly or, better still, whisper. Don’t speak so loudly that I could hear you through the paper-thin walls.
* * *
AN EXCHANGE IN BALI:
“Where are you from?”
“Malaysia.”
“Huh. Where is that?”
“It’s between Singapore and Thailand, and parts of Borneo.”
“Oh!”
* * *
ANOTHER EXCHANGE IN BALI:
“Where’re you from?”
“Malaysia.”
“Huh. Where is that?”
“It’s in the southern Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Argentina and South Africa.”
“Oh!”
* * *
I WAS TOLD that inconsistent design is considered a style nowadays. You learn new things every day. When design is inconsistent, I don’t think that’s considered a kind of style. It displays a lack of professionalism and is clearly pure stupidity. In extreme cases, psychiatric treatment may be called for.
* * *
THOSE WERE THE DAYS when there were no digital devices of any kind. Now I see both parents and kids on their gadgets the whole day without talking at all. They spent their seaside holidays holed up in hotel rooms each lost in their own worlds playing Internet games and killing Pokémon monsters. I miss the days when people told stories and engaged in meaningful conversations. Are those days long gone, I wonder?
* * *
WHAT I LEARNED from all the Malaysian publishing experts today: that mixing English and Malay in sentences makes easier reading for Malaysians. Stupid is now the new cool, I guess. There comes a time when you just give up trying to understand the world.
* * *
SOMEONE told me the other day that he doesn’t read books because he doesn’t like the smell of books. “I love books, but I don’t read, because I am allergic to the smell of paper.”
* * *
I WAS RECENTLY enlightened by one of Malaysia’s top graphic designers that inconsistent design is also considered a style. You learn new things every day. But, seriously, here’s is what I think: When design is inconsistent, I don’t think that’s considered a kind of style. It displays a lack of professionalism and is clearly pure stupidity. In extreme cases, psychiatric treatment may be called for.
* * *
WE NOW LIVE in a strange world. On the one hand, we have hardworking people who are struggling, barely surviving in this world, and on the other, we see non-productive people who get paid lots of money for doing next to nothing.
* * *
I WOULD LIKE to submit a manuscript for publication, but I have not written anything. How do I go about getting this unwritten manuscript published? You will have to get it written first. So, when do you want my manuscript? Once it is written. And when is that? In a hundred years’ time. Will you be editing it? Yes … that is, if I live long enough to do it.
* * *
YOU don’t have to be Chinese to appreciate Chinese songs. That’s the wonderful thing about music. It’s universal. It transcends all boundaries. You must know or at least have heard of people who speak more than one language. People who are bi-, tri- or multilingual. People who work as linguists, translators or interpreters. There are, among us, people who are multilingual (people who speak more than four languages), people who just love language. Anyway, I am half Chinese and trilingual, and I love Italian food. You don’t have to be Italian to appreciate Italian cooking, right?
* * *
I DON’T UNDERSTAND this notion of fearing God. Porkie says he is not afraid of anybody; he is only afraid of God. I suggest he rest easy because the probability of him meeting the Devil is so much higher than him meeting God. The Dark One will most probably embrace him to his bosom like a long-lost son.
* * *
IN MALAYSIA, if someone wishes you good morning, you can be sure that he or she is not Malaysian. Only foreigners do that. Most Malaysians do not make a habit of wishing others; they tend to ignore others. They were most probably brought up that way. Good manners are hard to learn.
* * *
WE only see what we want to see. Most of us tend to close our eyes to all that we do not want to see. It’s our way of deceiving ourselves. Such strange creatures we are.
* * *
I HAVE NO IDEA what has changed. A new nation? What nation? A new era? What era? I am still dealing with the same fools like the day before. Nothing has changed.
* * *
I KNOW what a bad book is. We have a treasure trove of them here. Where? Here.
* * *
I TEND to get along with everyone—except those I don’t want to get along with.
* * *
DO PEOPLE learn from their mistakes? I would like to think so, but I really don’t think so. It’s just not in our nature. We tend to repeat old mistakes and make new ones simultaneously.
* * *
BRITISH EDITOR Diana Athill remembers the late V.S. Naipaul as a brilliant though difficult writer, one whom she had to work very hard at keeping affection for. At least the Nobel laureate wrote brilliantly despite his irascibility. However, I can’t say the same for the pain-in-the-you-know-where Malaysian authors I sort of “worked” with over the years. Most of them were far, far from brilliant writers. (They were horrendous.) They weren’t good one bit: they couldn’t even spell and they wrote using their own brand of fractured grammar. I went through hell editing and tolerating them for years. And I am so glad that it is all over now. There’s an escape hatch at the end of the tunnel. Finally.
* * *
IT HAS BEEN SAID that everyone has a book or a novel or a story in them, but in most cases that’s exactly where it should stay. This witticism clearly suggests that not all stories are worth telling, and not everyone can tell their story well. Most Malaysian writers are not bothered with their own books; they don’t read their proofs and make improvements (like the good writers I know) or rewrite their sloppy, fractured, pedestrian prose.
* * *
IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE that Malaysians were once colonized by the British. One would expect our standard of English to be excellent considering where we came from. But no … even university professors’ standard of English is deplorable. I have edited many of their works over the years and I am making an official complaint about their horrendously slothful writing and the lack of fact-checking among them. One author’s language skill (or lack thereof) was so bloody awful—but bad English did not stop her from being a successful (meaning rich) Malaysian. Malaysia is indeed a land of milk and honey. It is reassuring yet sad to know that one can still be go places and be as successful as this role model no matter how dim one is …
* * *
WHY are Malaysian authors so dumb? As you edit their files, they are at the same time making amendments to their original files. If a manuscript is not ready, don’t submit it. And if they have submitted a manuscript for editing, can’t they make amendments once the manuscript has been copy-edited? They somehow believe that the two different files will miraculously merge! (Mulder and Scully should investigate this phenomenon.)
* * *
THIS just came in: “Can you not make any amendments to my edited manuscript? However, I would appreciate it very much if you could comb through it and see if there are still any errors.” A constant refrain from the past?
* * *
THE SHRILL, loudmouthed social butterfly says that I have edited her voice out of her magnum opus. “I have lost my voice after being edited,” she complains. “I only removed all your bad grammar and superfluous vocabulary,” I say. She retorts: “But I am the queen of the kingdom of bad grammar. Bad grammar had me at hello. I am a better version of myself only because of bad grammar. With all the fractured bits out, the voice is no longer mine. I feel so stifled, so naked, so voiceless.” For once, I absolutely agree with her! (I told her to go take a flying leap into a puddle, and reminded her not to forget to take her galley proofs along with her.) There’s only so much stupidity one can tolerate in one lifetime.
* * *
STRANGELY, in every Malaysian company, there is always, without fail, a ridiculously dim-witted parasitic secretary who thinks and behaves like she is the CEO. Fortunately, there is a cosy little nook in Hell specially reserved for constipated fools like her.
* * *
“PLEASE don’t pluralize all the ethnic and subethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak.” They are of course referring to the Bajau, Bidayuh, Bisaya, Dusun, Kadazan, Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah, Melanau, Murut, Orang Ulu, Penan, Ukit, etc. I then asked: “What about the Dayaks and Ibans?” And their response: “Except the Dayaks and Ibans.” Why only the Dayaks and Ibans?
* * *
IT’S HARD TO EDIT when the publishers are breathing down your neck, hurrying you endlessly, demanding that you put the book to bed when it is neither drowsy nor sleepy: “Quick! We must go to print now! We need the book out in the shops immediately!” I guess there must be long queues outside bookshops with people waiting to get their grimy hands on that excremental hogwash.
* * *
TRAVEL is no longer what it used to be. It is overrated. It doesn’t open up our minds or change the way we see the world and our place in it. We need the right attitude for travel to be meaningful. Otherwise, it is just a meaningless exercise in passing time, a meaningless exercise in wasting one’s existence.
* * *
MALAYSIAN PUBLISHERS will publish anything and everything—even the crappy school assignments you have thrown away. If you had known this then, you would have kept them. Who would have thought that they would be worth something some day?
* * *
I DON’T KNOW WHY I am wasting my life on this stupid manuscript. The author is obviously not interested in her own work. She must have dubious reasons for wanting to get it published. I must learn not to care too much and just let it go. The writing is so bloody atrocious that I am opting for state-assisted suicide to end my mental anguish.
* * *
THE THING ABOUT working in a Malaysian office is that you tend to meet more ningnongs than intelligent people. It’s not exactly the most fertile ground for the imagination to grow and flourish. Most of the time it makes you wonder where the cleverer Malaysians are. (Migrated to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, most probably.) All one can do is try to stay afloat in a sea of stupidity, or risk drowning. You might think that we are the most intelligent life forms on the planet, but if you work where I work, you wouldn’t think so. What amazes me most is the shockingly low level of intelligence and rational thinking even among the supposedly educated. This is what I know for certain about myself: I can’t work for stupid people.
* * *
YOU REALLY NEED oodles of patience and perseverance when editing badly written manuscripts because most of the time the authors have no idea what they are writing about and you have no idea what you are editing. But no matter what, the editor is still expected to turn turd into gold in the quickest time.
* * *
STUPIDEST QUOTE OF ALL TIME: “I want this yesterday.” Only idiotic people use this line. Those who use it set up a precedence for human stupidity. Intelligent people and real corporate leaders avoid such nonsensical clichés because they say absolutely nothing at all.
* * *
MALAYSIAN “writers” have fantastically big egos—especially those who can’t write, strangely.
* * *
MALAYSIA is not exactly the friendliest country in the world (despite what the paid commercials say): most of the time the people are bloody rude, downright discourteous, boorishly loudmouthed, sinfully disrespectful, selfishly materialistic, slothfully lethargic, and obsessively mindless and narrow-minded, among other things. Asian values? What Asian values? There is no such thing as Asian values. Malaysia is truly NOT Asia. Don’t believe the ads. They are just ads, and as you know, they are all meant to deceive. Malaysians are not like Singaporeans or Hongkongers or Mainland Chinese. You’d think that Singaporeans, Hongkongers and Mainland Chinese are bad; Malaysians are by far the worst. (Malaysians have no idea what priority seating zones in public transport mean.)
* * *
THEY bake one bloody generic cupcake or muffin, and the next thing they want is their own cookbook and a food show on telly! It’s all in a day’s work for someone who bloody well can’t write.
* * *
EDITING another dumb Malaysian manuscript ought to be a breeze or a walk in the park after so many years of doing the same thing … but it really doesn’t get any easier despite the years and experience. In fact, it gets worst because the whole process saps your energy and snuffs out your passion for the printed word.
* * *
MALAYSIAN WRITERS who write in English should make an effort to read up on the basics of grammar instead of jumping to conclusions when editing their “writing”. I know that you have an honours’ degree in English and all, but surely, it’d do you good to relearn some of the basics once in a while. After all, you don’t really learn much in the university nowadays, do you?
* * *
HERE’S another observation about Malaysian writers. When launching their magnum opuses, they want other people to write their speeches. They always say they don’t know how to write speeches. Why am I not surprise at all? And to think that we are talking about people who have gone through the school system and graduated with distinction from some of the best universities in the universe. Also, they like to pepper their speeches with hackneyed phrases like “a passion for excellence”, “to be the best”, “in pursuit of excellence”, “best talents”, among other similar bullshitised hogwash.
* * *
ONE leading Malaysian publisher told me that they are the purveyors of some of the finest crappiest books on the planet and they have always been rather proud of this fine tradition of theirs. “We have been in business for decades. We must be good at what we do. There is and has always been a surprisingly lucrative market for such books in Malaysia.” Who am I to argue with them when their publishing success is truly a clear testament to this fact?
* * *
I WAS ONCE TOLD that life is short, and there is only so many bad manuscripts one can edit. That’s really hogwash! You’d be surprised at the endless number of bad manuscripts there are to edit in Malaysia. You could build a successful lifetime career doing this. I did.
* * *
THERE is only one or two decent enough bookshops in Kuala Lumpur. There are only two or three decent enough bookshops in the whole of Malaysia. The rest are just stationery shops pretending to be bookshops. Lately many of them have started selling chocolates, potato chips, poppadom crisps, ice cream and China-made handbags. Handbags? I wonder, do people actually think that these addictive titbits and handbags are going to save book retailing in Malaysia? What a depressing state of affairs.
* * *
WHY DO MALAYSIANS write like this? “I like chicken rice because I like anything with chicken and rice in it.” “No, I’m not comfortable with your amendments, but I can accept the changes.” “The cake you baked tastes really delicious, but I don’t like it.” Three more examples to whet your appetite: “I enjoy eating because eating is enjoyable.” “It is unique because it is one of a kind.” “I really enjoy eating cakes because they are so delicious to eat.” I am rolling on the floor with laughter. Write like this and you will most definitely win the THROW YOUR MAMA’S SMELLY SHOE AWARD for ridiculously good sinfully bad writing!
* * *
If I AM FORCED to edit another datuk’s or mak datin’s so-called manuscript, I will have to seriously consider joining the rebel forces in another galaxy far far away. They are killing me brutally with their prose (or lack thereof).
* * *
I AM JUST an editor—not some kind of magician. I can’t twitch my nose and make all your misplaced punctuations, misspellings, fractured grammar and other gibberish disappear in the blink of an eye. I know you’ve baked your cake and all that and you’ve invited all your friends and your mummy and daddy for the launch, but the fact of the matter is, your book is still ... well, half-baked. But you go ahead and launch it. Don’t let me stop you.
* * *
IN MALAYSIA, anyone can be a writer nowadays. Everyone, in fact, is an author nowadays. Sadly, our so-called standards have slipped to a historic nadir. We just received a manuscript from someone who actually wrote his entire chef d’oeuvre without using articles and prepositions. Malaysians have no qualms about submitting incomplete and unedited manuscripts to publishers. What an amazing feat of human imagination!
* * *
THE DEVIL’S back in town, and these are the darkest days. We are going through hell editing another stupid manuscript. Almost seven hundred pages of pure fire and brimstone. By the time I die editing this nonsensical treatise, I would most probably gain a useless PhD in Stupidology with Honours. Believe me when I say that the deterioration of the modern human mind is real, and has begun. Perhaps we should consider starting a crowdfund to stop the doofus from writing for the rest of his life?
* * *
WHEN Malaysian writers complain about the tedious editing process, I have eight words of advice for them: “Don’t write. Go watch Beauty and the Beast.” (No offence to Beauty and the Beast.)
* * *
ANOTHER crappy Malaysian “book” is being launched before it is ready to be published. (Not that it was good enough to be published in the first place.) And as always, without fail, the sumptuous food has been planned, the opulent venue booked and paid for, the entertainers and guests and the press have been invited. All is ready—except the book. They will never learn that that’s not the way to do it. Well, what can I say? People just don’t realize that every time a crappy book is published, the world dies a little bit.
* * *
I’M close to tearing my hair (not that I have much of it left in the first place) and banging my head against the concrete pillar or brick wall over a new manuscript (which was initially rejected) that landed with a thud on my desk. I was told it had been “professionally edited” (whatever that was supposed to mean) to perfection. It was supposed to be “good to go”, they said with confidence. But going through it now, it is almost like deciphering hieroglyphics. Why are there no full stops at the end of sentences? Why does the writer start sentences with small letters? Why are commas not employed when required and in all the oddest places? Why are the hyphens and dashes and colons and semicolons placed incorrectly? Why does he bold or italicize words as and when he feels like it—sometimes both at the same time? Why does he resort to ellipses with random scattering of dots? Why are the definite and indefinite articles and prepositions all wrong? Why leave spaces before punctuation marks? Why are paragraphs of text repeated wholesale? Let’s not go into singulars and plurals; it’s a jungle of a mess over there. Sad to say the so-called writer is not too bothered with his own writing. But he wants to be on the cover of magazines, he says.
* * *
THIS is not exactly something new. But it is worth talking about to remind us how far we have come as civilized human beings. The date of the book launch has been set and the invitations have all gone out to the most important people in the kingdom. Heck, the cake has already been baked and iced. But the book is yet to be ready. In Malaysia this is never ever a problem. “We will just launch a mock-up of the book then,” they say proudly. Who says dreams don’t come true?
* * *
“I WAS FORMERLY Chinese; now I am Christian.” I was once lost; now I am found. Strangely, and surprisingly, many so-called educated Malaysians don’t seem to know the difference between “race” and “religion”.
* * *
ONE Malaysian author told me the other day: “I don’t understand why you need to edit my manuscript and make so many amendments. My previous publisher published all my books exactly the way I wrote them without any edits or fact-checking or rewriting. I just don’t see the need for this constant back and forth between editor and author.” You should have stuck with your old publisher, if you asked me.
* * *
MALAYSIAN “writers” who engage ghostwriters to write for them (because they can’t or are just too lazy to write and research) should understand that they are supposed to pay them for services rendered. Even though they are called “ghost”-writers, they are really not ghosts or dead people. They are human, just like you and me.
* * *
HSM LUCIFER strides in with his syrupy, drippy-drip smile and asks me why the Japanese lady on the cover of her cookbook is wearing spectacles. I look at him and say: “Perhaps she is short- or longsighted? Maybe she has astigmatism? I don’t know; perhaps she likes designer spectacles? Perhaps it makes her black eyes brown? Perhaps she has yet to go for her lasik? After all she does look good in them. I could give her a call and ask her—if that is really what you want to know?” With his shifty eyes and plumpy apple-ish cheeks, he replies: “There’s no need.” Life’s full of these wasteful, unproductive God-what-was-that-all-about moments! It’s a strange world we live in, and it looks like there’s nothing much we can do about it.
* * *
SO LITTLE TIME, so many terrifying manuscripts to edit. There’s only so much editing one can do to make some of them a tad better. Malaysian university professors and journalists who write like primary schoolers are the worst of the lot. And please stop threatening us by dropping names!
* * *
MALAYSIAN “WRITER”: No, I haven’t written a novel. But I would very much like us to meet up and discuss the story.
Editor: What is there to discuss if you haven’t written it?
Malaysian “writer”: If I write more words, will the novel be thicker?
Editor: Duh! (Of course.)
Malaysian “writer”: How many words must I write?
Editor: One hundred thousand words. Or thereabouts.
Malaysian “writer”: Wah … so many words-ah?
Editor: Why don’t you just give up writing? You are obviously not very good at it.
Malaysian “writer”: But writing a novel is my lifelong dream!
Editor: Looks like you will be dreaming for a long, long time.
Malaysian “writer”: With your experience, what kind of readers do you think will read my book?
Editor: Most probably dumb ones!
Malaysian “writer”: You so bad one-lah!
Editor: I am not bad. Just truthful. Wasn’t it Plato who said that no one is more hated than he who speaks the truth?
Malaysian “writer”: Plato who-huh? Your friend-ah?
Editor: Yes, Plato is indeed my best friend from long long ago!
* * *
IMAGINE editing an author who gets the spelling of his wife’s name wrong! “I will have to get back to you with regard to the spelling of my wife’s name. I will have to ask her if it is spelt with an ‘a’ or ‘e’. I may have to take a look at her birth certificate to ascertain. You just never know.” Yes, you got it right, you just never know.
* * *
ANOTHER prize-winning quote from the very people who gave us the ground-breaking QUOTE OF THE CENTURY (see below): “I don’t agree with all of your edits, but I am quite all right with them.” This is absolutely riveting, nail-biting stuff.
* * *
QUOTE OF THE CENTURY: “Edit, but please don’t change anything, because it is already perfect.” (It was far from perfect.) A classic case of imbecility or existential profundity, perhaps?
* * *
I FINALLY learnt to say no. After all these years. And it felt really, really good. I have always been one of those people who had problem saying no. And because of that I have always ended up with more than I could chew. Now, the weight of the universe is lifted off my shoulders. I must continue using it more often.
* * *
A SENIOR EDITOR at a Malaysian publishing house received the following email 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 lifestyles, 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.”
* * *
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 THROW YOUR MAMA’S SMELLY 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 soul-destroying 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 in Malaysia, 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 savoury Malaysian delicacies (including the obligatory epok-epok (curry puffs) and the all-time Malaysian favourite mee siam, among other things) and given a complimentary copy or two of the 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, okay; 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. Most of the time the manuscripts are so execrable, possibly written by someone who doesn’t speak or write the language at all, 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: most editors don’t know how to edit. (Editing is not just about punctuation, grammar and spelling.) Most of them lack basic 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 and figures, solving problems and consulting the dictionary. Punctuating dialogue and inconsistent tenses are major weaknesses. 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. They do not know what a personal or surname is when 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 in the long term.

Another sad fact: designers don’t know how to typeset books and design book covers. It’s amazing what designers and typesetters can’t do. Most of them are not designers; when you think about it, they are really more like incompetent typesetters than designers. Most, sadly, have no grasp of the aesthetics, whether in the design of covers or the typesetting of pages or the cropping of photographs, are not open to constructive criticism and lack even the most basic of language skills. (They’re practically illiterate when it comes to 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. ... And hope someone likes it.”) 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. Experience makes no difference. 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 (mouses?) for centuries, but they have not gain any relevant experience at all. They have no idea what consistency is. (“You want consistent or inconsistent typesetting? I can do both equally well.”)

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) has always been a Sisyphean struggle. Books are never published for the right reasons. It never fails to amaze me how publishers always find stupid 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 and scare the living daylights out of you. 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 always 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, Believe when I say I 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 bedroom! And maybe toss them in with the carrots, potatoes, onions (the big ones) and tomatoes when Mummy makes chicken soup for the whole family. (Don’t forget the salt and freshly ground black pepper.) 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?
Waterlily: Lily!
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!
Author: What?
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. Age doesn’t determine maturity or wisdom. 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. What’s stopping you?
* * *
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?
Author: What?
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 a low income-high inflation country like 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, which one can learn. The real language of literature is created in the heart, not a grammar book.” Makine—a Russian-born 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 weaving 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, wooden, lifeless. Good writers (and there are a good many of them) 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 never been before and bring the reader along for the ride.
* * *
I WAS EDITING a piece of tosh 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, I wonder?
* * *
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 THROW YOUR MAMA’S SMELLY SHOE AWARDS for the crappiest writing in the world? One that would put us to sleep for a thousand years. There’re some books I can’t put down even when I’m feeling sleepy; and then there’re those that put me to sleep instantly. 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 this 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 English?
B: No.
A: Can you read and write Malay?
B: No.
A: Can you read and write Chinese?
B: No.
A: So, what are you doing now?
B: Studying Korean.
A: You can’t even handle English, your mother tongue or the national language, why would you even want to take up a challenging language like Korean?
B: I just like the way the Koreans speak and sing-mah!
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!
Editor: No!
Author: You know, you are not as nice as some people say you are.
Editor: You could always self-publish and put the names of whoever you like on the cover if that makes you happy!
* * *
ANOTHER turd of a manuscript landed in my lap with a loud thud this morning, turning my life upside down and upsetting the balance in this neck of the universe. Looks like it’s another long month of agony, damnation, sleepless nights, slogging and suffering. A manuscript that is far from stimulating. Somehow one’s opinion of prominent people tend to go down the clogged monsoon drain once you start reading their life stories. Their stories tend to put me to death. What have I done to deserve this? I take care of my family and love all my brothers and sisters (including all my Facebook friends) and buy my mother her 100% Massimo whole wheat bread every other day, yet I still get punished! What have I done to deserve this! What I have done is, I have just edited possibly the worst book of my career. And after countless hours of editing within a tight time frame, it is still the worst book of my entire career.
* * *
WE were at a popular dining establishment in KLCC the other day. We were disappointed with the stuffed chicken breast we ordered. They were clearly below expectations. Not only were they hard, dry and leathery, they were bland, almost tasteless, more like something left over from the night before warmed up. If you enjoy paying First World prices for food that is below average or worse, then this is the perfect place to waste your hard-earned money.
* * *
I HAVE NO IDEA where Malaysians get their education from. Their spelling is the pits. They spell “Barisan Nasional” as “Barisan National”, a blend of English and Malay. Even my dear mother knows that it is spelt as either “Barisan Nasional” (Malay) or “National Front” (English). It is one or the other. It is either Malay or English. Be consistent when you write. First, decide which language you want to write in. I know, a tough decision. Malaysians also can’t tell the difference between “reign” and “rein”, “ferment” and “foment”, and when to use them correctly. They tend to use them interchangeably. Other weaknesses include hyphenation (“long term” vs “long-term”, “fairy tale” vs “fairy-tale”, etc.), italicization, prepositions and word order, punctuations, spelling of names, insufficient fact checking, among others.
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MALAYSIAN authors have the bad habit of editing their books only after their books have been published and distributed all over the universe and beyond. They are never bothered with editing at the manuscript stage. (They submit their manuscripts raw without editing them.) Most of them are so bloody lazy to read their own works. There is nothing much we can do about this because Malaysian writers prefer eating to reading. Most of them can spent the whole day eating but not many can spend the whole day reading. Most of the time I wonder: Why do they even bother to write?
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I get this a lot … from the moment I was born back in the early 1960s to now in 2016.

A: You are mixed, right?
B: Ah … yeah.
A: So what kind of food do you eat?
B: Grass and lalang … and banoffee pie!
A: Huh! I mean: do you eat Chinese food?
B: No!
A: Why not?
B: Duh! I don’t know! Perhaps I don’t like Chinese food?
A: How can you not like Chinese food when your mum’s Chinese!
B: Why not?
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SELLING BOOKS in Malaysia is a tough business. For most people books are considered non-essential. Bread-and-butter issues take precedence over other matters. My ideal bookshop is one that challenges me intellectually in my reading journey. Not only do I want bookshops to stock the kinds of books I want to read, I also want them to surprise me by introducing me to titles or authors I have not heard of before. I don’t buy books online at all, so the local bookshop is where I buy all my books. However, I think nowadays the role of educating the reading public has been taken over by the internet. After all, there are only so many titles a brick-and-mortar bookshop can stock at any one time.
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HIS SATANIC MAJESTY (HSM) LUCIFER tells the editor that he should edit the manuscript only for grammar and spelling. “Just check the names and spelling, and make sure the grammar is perfect,” he reiterates. HSM goes on to tell the editor to keep his opinions to himself because nobody cares what he thinks about the manuscript. “It doesn’t really matter if the writing is good or bad. Your job is to edit—not to assess or judge the manuscript.” What the heck is he trying to say!
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PUBLISHER: You have offended Big John with all your spot-on edits!
Editor: But his manuscript was full of errors and other inconsistencies!
Publisher: He isn’t happy because you edited too much of his manuscript. I can’t believe you spotted over a thousand errors! I did tell you specifically not to edit it.
Editor: Yes … not bad for a manuscript which is supposed to have been edited thoroughly and ready-to-print. Shouldn’t he be happy that I spotted so many errors in his book? I would if it’s my book.
Publisher: Yes … but, you know, you made him look real bad! And he is awfully hurt. He doesn’t want to work with you anymore!
Editor: I did not make him look bad … he really is bad!
Publisher: You shouldn’t be too brutal with the edits.
Editor: Editorial brutality? That’s a new one. I wasn’t brutal at all. All I did was edit the grammar and corrected the spellings and factual errors. No rewriting whatsoever. A walk in the park, really.
Publisher: Where? What park? Whatever it is, he is offended!
Editor: Idiot that I was, I tried to edit the manuscript as best as I possibly could. If it will make him happy, I could easily restore or reinstate all the errors back into the manuscript. It’s no big deal to me. It’s your call; after all, you are the publisher.