Monday, October 1, 2012

Read, read and read.

We have heard it said that in real estate, the three most important factors are location, location and location. In writing, the three most important factors are reading, reading and reading.

I don’t believe there is a writing programme anywhere in the world that does not emphasise reading as a prerequisite for writing, but it amazes me how so many people still think (and even boast) that they do not. One never hears of a musician who does not listen to music (good and bad), or a movie maker who does not view other people’s work, or dancer who never learns from watching others, or a sportsperson ... and so on. But with writers ... one hears of it all the time.

Then, of course, there are those who did a couple of classics for literature when they were in school some 25 years ago, and subsequently believe they know everything there is to know about writing; or those who have read only one book in their entire lives, namely, a Harry Potter adventure, and consider their education complete.

Why do people think that they can write without any effort, even if they have never done it? One is reminded of the famous story in which Margaret Atwood said she’d like to be a brain surgeon when she retires from writing!

The number one reason for a writer to read voraciously is to learn from others. It’s not about copying, though it could be. Example: I’ve come across versions of Borges’s universal library (in different forms) in the works of Umberto Eco and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (just like the works of Kurosawa pop up in movies like Star Wars). Throughout history, writers (and artists) have influenced one another, and have copied and learnt freely. (The current copyright regime was introduced only in the 20th Century and is an aberration, but that’s another story.)

The second reason: if you don’t like to read books by others, why would anyone want to read yours? Because you have some sort of earth-shattering idea that no else in civilisation has ever had? Get real!

One point that is particularly (and bizarrely) true of many Malaysian who want to write (if they actually read) is: they prefer to read ‘imported’ books, because Malaysian writers are not good enough. Certainly, there are many bad writers (like anywhere in the world), but there are many good ones, too. Besides, one learns as much (if not, more) from bad writing as from good.

One suspects that it’s got more to do with fashion than anything else. A look at the shelves of major bookshops in the Kelang Valley, and the number of Caucasian (and African-American) faces in our newspapers and magazines, and the ubiquity of skin whitening creams available in pharmacies, sort of reinforces that point. But then, these are people who like the idea of writing far more than the act of writing, and they exist all over the world.

Still, if you don’t read books by Malaysians, why would any Malaysian want to read yours?

Malaysian writing in English faces another major problem. Silverfish hosted two writer’s events in September, one of which comprised three Malaysia/Singapore authors who have been writing since the fifties (a remarkable feat), and one of whom had claimed in Singapore in 2009 that modern English writing in Malaysian is dead. This is an unfortunate sentiment, but is quite widely shared by writers of that generation; if not dead, then it’s not relevant.

The converse view was expressed by a young writer who said that he has read some of the oldies, but questions their present output. “They complain that no one respects them anymore; yes, they were relevant during their time, but what have they done since? There is only so much whining about the past one can take.”

So there is this mutual disrespect thing going on.

When Silverfish Books began in 1999, we had some thirty titles of Malaysia writing in English (including the ten-book Rhino Press edition). At present, we have over 1500 titles and we, certainly, do not have every title in print.

As for the oldies: respect is a two-way street. The relevance of their work is not questioned, but it’s also time to move on. Robert Yeo has edited a book of Singapore short stories spanning a period from the forties to the current millennium, called One: The Anthology. That's a good start.

1 comment:

becky said...

Thank you for your tips.. please post more as I would like to learn about what it takes to be a serious writer..