Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

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.

One thought on “Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

  1. Hello Benjamin!

    Read your post, and completely agree that Singapore literature, if we continue on the same route and in the same manner now, would turn me off too and I’d look for another way to live.

    I would love to gift you a book that would perhaps let in a glimmer of light to this overwhelmingly insipid, grey ma(e)ss.

    Would you kindly pass me your mailing address? 🙂

    Sincerely,
    Suning

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