Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

in #writing4 years ago

Once again, the arts community is promoting Singapore literature through social media and the mainstream media. The latest initiative is #BuySingLit, billed as "an industry-led movement to celebrate stories from Singapore".

Once again, the news turns me off SingLit.

A History of Disappointment

As a child I was a voracious reader. I read every book I got my hands on, no matter the subject. I inhaled encyclopedias, fairy tales, the Norse epics, Greek and Roman mythology, world folklore, comics, and so many more stories. In the mornings I would read about hobgoblins and dragons, in the afternoons I studied atomic theory and photography, in the evenings I followed the exploits of supersoldiers and scientists.

At the age of 12 I grew conscious of Singapore literature and the classics, and began to seek them out. Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Goh Poh Seng, Russell Lee, Wena Poon, Joanne Hon and other less-famous writers. Always I compared them to the other stories I've read, and found them wanting.

My synesthesia won't allow me to read books. Instead, I experience them.

Ernest Hemingway's prose is lean and taut and muscular, demanding a hundred percent of your attention. Michael Connelly's stories are as black as a murderer's heart and as slick as ice. Tom Clancy alternates ponderous white slabs with blazing crimson streaks. J. K. Rowling began as smooth caramel, but her later works transformed into dark coffee shot through with green and gold. J. R. R. Tolkien seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, stretches out into lush green vistas and soaring grey mountains. John C. Wright ignites fireworks with his words, blending them together into gold and bronze and violet and emerald on every page.

Compared to all that, every Singaporean writer produces thin mist of pale shades. Some are white, some are yellow, some are brown. Occasionally the mist parts to reveal black-on-white shapes as shallow as the ink that produce them. Other writers make the mist so thick and sticky and dry it feels like wading through a hail of glue drops frozen in the air. These stories are plain, staid, prosaic, illogical, shallow, boring, unreadable -- and nearly interchangeable.

Singaporean genre fiction consistently ranks the lowest among the books I have read. Star Sapphire by Joan Hon is a romance story thinly veiled as science fiction, and not a particularly memorable one at that. The Singapore Noir anthology is bleakly bland while Best of Singapore Erotica fails to titillate. Douglas Chua and Barry Chen claim to write thrillers, but I have found their stories more useful as reusable sleeping aids. Only two writers caught my eye: Johann S. Lee, whose writing is competent but unremarkable (and I don't swing towards gay male romance stories), and Neil Humphreys (who was born in England), specifically his thrillers.

The majority of Singapore's prose output is high-brow literature, and even that fails the test. Baratham's A Candle or the Sun promises a spy story focusing on a radical Christian sect, but all that stands out is that the protagonist seemed very concerned over whether he (and his manager) was gay -- and that the secret police seemed pointlessly sadistic and otherwise inefficient. Lions in Winter by Wena Poon has multiple scenes that possessed neither a story arc nor relatable characters, yet claimed to be stories. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore by Catherine Lim is little more than dry sepia. Held against the starkness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the hidden depths of Road Dahl or the dark absurdity of Jean-Paul Sartre, these stories were limp and colourless.

Even so, I tried to participate in Singapore's literary circles. I joined writers' groups -- and left soon after. I paid to attend workshops and classes -- and learned nothing. I joined writers' events and seminars -- and all I found was navel-gazing, bloviating and boredom.

Everything But Writing

The chief problem as I see it is that the Singapore writing scene is about everything but writing.

Every writers' group I have joined were for hobbyists. They brought together like-minded people to talk about their own writing, encourage them to write and participate in writing activities. This isn't wrong per se, but I am not a hobbyist. I aim to be a professional. Professionals delve deep into craft and examine the state of the industry. These groups did not.

Programmes at writers' events do not build up writers. #BuySingLit's events have art displays, treasure hunts and book tours. Only a handful of workshops are geared towards writing -- and even those workshops are foundation-level courses. The same holds true for Singapore's premier writing event, the Singapore Writers Festival. SWF has film screenings, music, history, panel discussions -- anything and everything about the writers' craft, or, indeed, writing. Contrast this to events like Dragoncon or Thrillfest, which teach more about the art, craft and business of writing in three days than SWF does in a month. The instructors at Dragoncon and Thrillfest go into the kind of detail that is sorely lacking in Singapore. I don't have anything against the non-writing oriented events in local writing events, but one would think that the events, being about writing, would at least focus on the core audience and try to do more than teach beginner-level writing craft.

Singaporean publishers are only interested in a specific type of literature: stories about Singapore culture set in Singapore aimed at a Singaporean audience and foreigners who enjoy reading about Singapore. Writers who do not fit the mold will not find much support from the industry. While publishers are free to pursue whatever business model they like, people like me, a Hugo Award nominated science fiction and fantasy writer who will not limit his stories to Singapore, will have to look elsewhere. Likewise, Singapore's mainstream media tends to focus on Singaporean writers who have either published through the usual publishing houses, or who are too big and controversial to ignore.

Add them all up, and what you have is a culture that encourages newbies to write and people to feel good. Not a culture that encourages people to sustain their writing or to further hone their craft. The only goal is producing a novel, anthology, poetry collection or whatever, not about living journey about pursuing a career at writing or the art of the written word. When someone publishes a work, the usual cry of "Support local talent!" echoes in the usual circles, without anyone paying heed to the actual quality of the content. Indeed, a couple of the stories and writers I mentioned above were award winners -- and the award-winners of today aren't better.

No Country for Writers?

Sturgeon's Law states that ninety percent of anything is crud. In Singapore's case, there aren't enough writers to have a statistically significant ten percent of non-crud stories.

I intend to change that.

I've been writing fiction since I was 12 years old. My published fiction writing career spans 4 years. Later this year, I will publish at least one novel through Castalia House and one short story through Silver Empire's [Lyonesse] (http://lyonesse.silverempire.org/) programme. I am already working on a bunch of other stories, which will be revealed in due course. If Singapore is no country for writers like me, then I will find other avenues to publish my works.

I will also be passing on the tricks of the trade. It's been a long time coming, and now I feel ready to give back to the wider community of writers. Expect more posts zooming in on the way of the pen.

Fundamentally, I don't care whether stories, especially mine, can be labelled SingLit or not. I care about good writing, wherever they may come from. Since my country continues to disappoint me, I will reach out to a wider audience.


The only thing I remember reading out of Singapore were the Kiasu and Bookworm Club books/comics about a million years ago when I used to visit family there annually. I remember them being entertaining, but I don't remember how old I was when I read them (vaguely similar to you I can't really remember a time when I couldn't read or wasn't writing/otherwise making up stories, unlike you I'm not famous :).

Looking forward to your tricks of the trade posts :)

Thanks! Now that you mention it, I do remember the Kiasu and Bookworm Club too. I read them in late kindergarten to primary 6, before moving on to bigger and brighter things.

I'm not famous by any measure -- I'm just more insistent on writing than others. But sure, I'll put out posts on the craft soon enough.

I read most of it ( about 80%) cause i dont want just to upvote and what i have to say it that i hope you find your way. I like people who keep trying for their dreams. Now about books ,cause when i have free time i try to read something( last month i bought 6-7 booksdifferent kinds) i dont like to say about the lvl of a country's writers as this is total subjective but about the law and how they treat to writers! Judging by my country, our laws makes it very difficult for everyone to make a living out of this
i believe that every country has some decent writers but mostly none gives them motives to just try. Everyone needs them and needs you even those who dont like books, soon enough they may watch it as a movie or series!

As for the piracy in another post you mentioned i totaly agree but i have to say in manga-anime world a lot of the sites pay an amount for the rights in order to show them or at least share some links to buy the originals or follow the original site etc etc ( i just want to say that even if it seems like piracy their special deals behind the table)

Anyway keep it up i am really amazed by you!!!

Thanks! I'm going to keep writing, no matter what.

"My synesthesia won't allow me to read books. Instead, I experience them." How you experience stories is intriguing for me as a reader, and important to my publishing team. I hope to have the chance to meet you. Take a leap of faith and send me a text at 96706781?

Hi Cheah, this is Wena Poon. I was attracted by the captivating title of your post. The word "SingLit" turns me off too! I wish I wasn't in that category. Somehow I get put in the "SingLit" bucket, even though I have not lived in Singapore for a quarter of a century. My concerns as a novelist are international ones.

I have published 13 fiction books. The only book that gets attention in Singapore is the first, "Lions In Winter", precisely because it was about Singaporeans (albeit living overseas). I wrote those stories nearly 20 years ago; I hope I have improved since. The other 12 fiction books I subsequently wrote had very little to do with Singapore. They cover Spain (including my challenge to Hemingway as a female student of bullfighting), Japan, America, Britain, China, and so on. These later books did not attract much notice in Singapore because their subject matter was too "foreign".

I am often asked by Singaporeans to produce more "SingLit". It's hard to crank something out under that label since I don't just read "SingLit" anyway, I read all kinds of things! I have always believed that novelists should have a broad view of the world and produce good literature, not simply "Singaporean Literature", which few outside Singapore's borders can relate to.

I do, however, have deep respect for many Singaporean and Malaysian writers I have met. I hope you have met/will meet some. They are kind and gentle people, especially the older generation. You will find something to learn from their outlook on life, even if you don't identify with their writing style.

Bravo to you, and hold on to your childhood dreams. Keep writing and living an interesting life. And if you can't find a publisher you like, design, publish and distribute your own books worldwide on Createspace/Amazon. Because of new technology, it is very cheap, and more importantly, it's liberating!

All the best, Wena.

this was an interesting read- until now I've never heard someone criticise the entire SingLit campaign so thoroughly. Even then any criticism I've heard about SingLit revolved around the fact that the circles were exclusive, and made it hard to break into the industry. Of course, I've never attended any of the workshops, so I couldn't tell how much it failed locals either. Upvoted!

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