The #BuySingLit Festival and NOISE SIngapore panel Draw ‘Em / Print ‘Em / Sell ‘Em happening this weekend are a couple of events in an increasing number of initiatives set up to promote local and regional talents. An industry thought to be solely on the shoulders of a select few until the early 2000s, Singapore’s Literary… no... Storytelling scene has flourished since.
However, how far have we come?
Before we start, there’s a need to clarify a few aspects. Like respecting authorial intent, context is the basis for everything here.
Firstly, I’m a content reader / consumer. I go for plot twists, character-driven stories, or stories where weird things happen to normal people. My interest in turn-of-phrase, metaphorical statements, and poetic license is foundational at best (unless there are subtle pop-culture references or the language is obviously mind-blowing). My main concern is this: Do I understand what’s going on?
Secondly, I’m an empath. It’s incredibly important that the author’s passion for the story (not the words) shows through. If I don’t feel it, I don’t feel it. At best, the story becomes a one-note / one-time read / listen / watch.
Finally, Singapore Literature, or SingLit, will be defined as fictional work produced by Singaporeans, or in Singapore, be they commercially or self-published.
The Critical Triage of SIngLit / Singapore Creators
“Anything from Singapore sure not good one lah!”
“We get people writing speculative fiction, but they are all not good!”
“Everyday work OT 12-14 hours until want to die already, go home still must stress about this and that. Cannot even sleep properly, read what?!”
These problems continue to haunt us (as storytellers, producers, and managers) today. However, I’d like to focus on the lessons learnt from my experience working alongside other independent storytellers.
Lesson #1: Accessibility is important
I firmly believe that you should have a target audience, but if you want your story to spread, make it accessible.
When I was in a focus group on how to get Singaporeans reading, one idea stood out to me the most - let everyone read “rubbish”. “Rubbish” meant anything and everything - good literature or not. For me, it made the most sense.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies steered me towards the original.
Video game Return to Mysterious Island got me to return to Jules Verne’s works.
Watching Red Cliff motivated me to finally read Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
All my experiences which led me to read classics started with works the intellectuals diss as “disrespectful”, “mainstream”, or “insert your own negative connotation here”.
Lesson #2: In an environment where reading is almost an anomaly, there’s no benefit in judging what people read
Do you want your non-reader kid to read? How about starting with Colin Goh’s Dimsum Warriors? Or A.J. Low’s Sherlock Sam series (which got my chronically-anti-reading cousin to finally read for fun)? How about the Yellow Princess series by the Global Beards?
Know someone who wants to read but has no time? Try anthologies like HEAT / FLESH / TRASH (urban fiction edited by writers around Southeast Asia), or Ayam Curtain (edited by JY Yang and Joyce Chng).
How about people who want a twist on epics? Terry Ho’s Forbidden Hill Chronicles then? Or wait a bit and give JY Yang’s silkpunk novellas a chance.
What I’m saying is - there’s no point in judging how / what people read.
Lesson #3: What you don’t like does not necessarily equate to bad writing / fiction
Reading doesn’t make you superior. It gives you ideas, trains your thoughts, teaches you, gives you a form of escape or entertainment. Regardless, leisure reading should open our world view, sharpen our minds, and lead us to what we like.
Note that I said what we like, not what’s “good”. There’s a difference between bad writing and prejudice against certain genres of fiction. Unfortunately, because the line is so fine and the word “good” is so subjective, what we like and what’s “good” is often the same entity.
For example, Clancy and Patterson are decent writers, but not exceptional in my book. I still read Patterson here and there anyway because I’m bored and I like his stories, formulaic as they are. Or how I don’t read Lovecraft or most of King because I don’t like Horror / Terror, but you cannot deny that there’s literary credit to their work.
Which brings me to my next point - ranting excessively that we should have exceptional Pulitzer / Man Booker / Hugo / Printz-worthy writing (much less local / regional writing) when our stories are not accessible (story-wise and physically) misses the point.
Yes, we have to strive to write well, we should hold ourselves to international standards, but we do have to remember that at the heart of it, we are storytellers - tell your story.
Lesson #4: There is no one or fixed road to publication, even in Singapore
My earliest memory of Singaporean works were from Catherine Lim - Colin Cheong, Goh Sin Tub, and Stella Kon here and there, but Catherine Lim was pushed to us more than any other author. And I was convinced (as a 14-year-old can be) that there was no hope for literature that was not about national pride, or how Singaporeans are so Singaporeanly Singaporean in Singapore. My first ever rejection from Angsana Books cemented that. How publishers asked for stories before the 2010 rise of Spec Fic came about perpetuated those themes as well.
It was not until I visited Comic Fiesta (an independent comics festival in Malaysia) that my perspective on this changed drastically. For the first time, I experienced an event where independent creators were able to sell their own works without the pressure of booths that cost as much as your monthly rent. Regardless, the selection was so diverse, you were bound to find something you’d like.
Until then, your credentials were at the mercy of a traditional publisher. If you were self-published, you had to deal with the image of “not-good-enough-to-be-considered”. Comic Fiesta proved to me that your portfolio need not be restricted to traditionally-published work.
Self-published creators still have a plethora of problems in Singapore - high printing costs, storage, distributors who dodge payments, tedious processes for individual sellers. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that they continue to produce work with “no standard”.
The idea of Comic Fiesta and more recently, Comic Art Festival, Kuala Lumpur (CAFKL) attracted a group of indie creators in Singapore, leading to events like the inaugural Illustration Arts Fest held last year. Seeing its potential, some of us were even given booths to promote and sell our works at the Singapore Writers’ Festival.
No, it’s not that the situation in Singapore is hopeless. If we, as creators, want to put something out, we do it to the best that we can, not write in private and then make noise about how we’re not given opportunities.
Lesson #5: The industry is not just about creators (a.k.a. you).
Publishers, at their core, are businesses. In a capitalistic, pragmatic environment, they need to balance value and cost. Like it or not, money has to come from somewhere and constantly asking the government for money is not sustainable if we want an environment that supports the arts.
Should publishers extend opportunities to unknown writers with potential, take risks on stories that have nothing outwardly to do with Singapore? What about stories written purely for entertainment and escapism? Yes, definitely. It’ll only do us, as a community, good to have all levels and genres of writing.
However, don’t forget other avenues (as creators and readers) - go beyond bookstores and the Internet, go beyond emailing and social media, and meet your readers / creators at panels, festivals, or groups. As creators without agents / managers, we have a greater responsibility to keep the industry thriving - if we don’t support each other, will others feel confident supporting us?
And I have yet to start on educators, distributors, marketers, the lot.
Lesson #6: Attitude matters, regardless of how recognised or talented you are.
At the end of it all, I’d say the most important lesson from working with the local indie scene is that attitude matters. You may be internationally recognised and / or able to live off your writing modestly, but if you guilt-trip your supporters, or excessively rant about how the local industry is holding you back / not good enough, you may be taking a couple of steps back.
We need to not only step-up our creative game, but also our professionalism. It’s a complete waste if we write magnificently, but cannot even answer a simple email promptly and professionally, or meet deadlines with event organizers.
Lesson #7: Do not undervalue your part-time / day job
Man Asian winner Tan Twan Eng once recounted how he possibly disappointed a budding writer. During one of his talks, a student dragged her father to see him, telling Tan that she wanted to be writer when she graduated from school.
Tan’s advice? “Get a job first.”
Aside from the financial stability and benefits, a good-enough job truly benefits us as creators.
Time & project management skills come from having to answer to your day job responsibilities.
Customer service skills come from having to answer emails from people you’d rather not talk to.
Most importantly, you learn humility and empathy from working for someone else - two major lessons essential for being good writers / storytellers.
Colin Cheong, Loh Guan Liang, Shamini Flint, and Dave Chua still teach.
John Green is a social entrepreneur.
Ransom Riggs is a photographer and filmmaker.
As much as I hope and wish that writers who want to go beyond being “hobbyists” (and are in it to become professionals) get to become full-timers, the environment doesn’t permit that for now. I’d love to just spend my days creating stories in novel, podcast, or game form and collect royalties while I dabble in Arts Management as well.
But I still need to eat and pay bills. And venting and blaming won’t make people give us money immediately.
Lesson #8: Change is still necessary
Case in point: Buku Fixi and Maple Komik in Malaysia.
When Fixi’s founder, Amir Muhammad, came to SWF last year, he shared his experience running an urban fiction publisher in the capital of Malaysia. While a good lot of their earnings come from translated work, he knew, as a publisher, that he was going to face two major problems:
Yet Fixi is considered to be one of the most popular publishers and creative houses in Malaysia.
I’m putting my money on Amir’s mission to publish more urban fiction and fiction people in general want to read. Likewise, Maple Komik was formed to publish comics the founders wanted to read but never found in Malaysia.
Yes, we need more diverse books - creators can stand to be more regular with content or promotion, publishers can stand to publish more diverse stories, readers can benefit from reading unabashed, action-packed science fiction / fantasy / thrillers / general fiction from Singapore here and there.
Yes, publishers can step up. But at the same time, we can still push our own and our community’s work forward by creating more, creating well, and creating regularly.
If it took me almost 30 years to get to where I am today, I can only imagine how it’s like for a nation. And if my own soul and community are telling me to push on, I see no reason to stop supporting a scene which has contributed and taught me so much, for better or for worse.