I approach writing as a craftsman. I produce stories for sale on the market. I measure my success in book reviews, social media engagements and royalties. My goal is to entertain my readers, and if I can communicate deeper ideas in my stories, all the better. For professional writers, it doesn’t matter if a story touches on rarefied subjects, if it espouses some transcendent matter of politics or philosophy, or if it attempts to understand the human condition: if it isn’t entertaining enough to excite a reader’s passions, it is a poor story.
This interview of prominent Singaporean literary figure Gwee Li Sui is a telling reminder of the vast gulf that exists between the craftsmen and everybody else. Observe this snippet:
Bharati: How do you think we can practically achieve this?
Gwee: For starters, it would be good if an MP could cite a Singaporean writer. Then we change the dialogue where writers stop becoming just people in a corner in a library activity, talking to people who are interested. They become part of a larger conversation. I think as a writer in Singapore, I feel we are not allowed to enter the sphere of a larger conversation.
Bharati: Why do you feel that way?
Gwee: Because we don’t have an audience. We speak through our books, we speak through our poems, people read our stuff but it’s still the same group of people. We hope to find new voices to engage the issues but again, that’s slow.
It’s tied to how the press covers us, how society perceives what we are doing. If you’re seen as just doing subversive things, that’s not very helpful. Because the point of literature or at least for writers is that we want to explore possibilities. We want to ask questions. We are not against any techniques per se, or any way of seeing the world per se. But we are never happy with any way of seeing. Let’s just put it like that. No technique is going to be satisfying. That’s our job. Our job is to be free, to be able to look at things from various angles.
Gwee: I don’t think writers not being to reach their audience is the writer’s fault. We don’t have the instruments, the levels in place where the writer’s work can reach out to a certain audience.
At one stage of course there’s the censorship, there’s also the level of values. We have a work culture that makes it irrelevant to read. We also have a level of propaganda which is that writing has to reach a certain economic advantage or political advantage in order to be celebrated. Or it has to talk about nation, or talk about certain places in Singapore in order to be of value. We have so many layers that makes writing misunderstood.
Bharati: I understand that you have several things working against you. But while this is a complex issue, involving a lot of different players and societal factors, shouldn’t you bear some responsibility?
Gwee: That’s a lot of things you want a writer to do. Our first responsibility is the art.
Bharati: But what is the point of the art if it doesn’t make an impact?
Gwee: It will make an impact when you read the work. It cannot make an impact until the work is engaged.
Bharati: So if you don’t want to take responsibility for that, who do you think should?
Gwee: Okay, on one level, the different agencies do engage us and bring us in so that people can listen to us talk. In that sense, the library is taking up the responsibility. When you say it’s the writer’s responsibility I keep wanting to stop going in that direction because at some stage it’s all going to collapse back on us and the writers will have to do everything. We’ve already for a time been doing everything. Sometimes we are also self-publishing. Sometimes we are being our own editors. Poets anthologising poets. Writers publishing writers. That’s sad. We have to go beyond saying the writers do everything.
Running throughout the interview is the undercurrent that Singapore literature deserves to be read. The writers have already done their part; the onus is on everybody else to make Singlit part of the cultural conversation.
This is a mistake. If you don’t produce works worth reading, much less remembering or discussing, then no one is going to care.
If you’re a writer, no one is obliged to read you. It is your duty to produce the best works possible and promote them to the best of your ability. You’re not going to get very far by demanding that others talk about the wonders of Singlit. Better to pull them to you, let them see for themselves the wonders you have made, and allow them to advocate your works for you.
Previously, I’ve made my thoughts on Singlit quite clear: I don’t believe Singapore literature has a body of work compelling enough to capture the popular imagination and become part of the cultural backdrop. Singapore has no shortage of writers, but this isn’t enough. If a story can’t connect with the intended audience, the audience isn’t going to read it. If the stories that make up the Singapore literary canon can’t command the attention of Singaporeans, they aren’t going to engage with them.
The West has the great pulp writers and the grandmasters of science fiction and fantasy. From their works came Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and other such masterpieces. These stories have inspired the Superversive and the PulpRev movements, which aim to take the art of storytelling to new heights. Japan’s horizontal integration of light novels, manga, anime and gaming ensures rapid dissemination of fiction to domestic and international audiences. These industries have a ruthless approach to fiction: series that fail to sell well will be axed, leaving only the best and most popular on the shelves. Such well-loved stories sustain the otaku subculture, which do their party in preserving and disseminating Japanese culture to the world.
Without the body of work, without memorable writers creating compelling content, there won’t be fans and influencers willing to go to bat for you. All responsibility is on the writer to make memorable stories and leave an impact on the reader.
Here’s another snippet from the interview:
Gwee: …Our responsibility first is to write.
Bharati: True, but also why do you write? You write so that you can also engage society, make an impact, right?
Gwee: No, I think we write because we have certain existential issues that we grapple with as a person living in society.
Bharati: That sounds self-indulgent.
Gwee: It’s not self-indulgent, because writers feel that in seeing our issues and then to go with a conscience, we are finding something that someone else may actually understand as well. We don’t think we need to step out in order to understand. We feel that we step in to be able to become universal. And that’s a difference.
On the contrary, it is self-indulgent if you’re writing primarily to grapple with ‘certain existential issues’. Writing is communication. It is well and good if you write just so you can thresh ideas in your head, but if you want people to read what you write, then you must write for them.
The audience comes first. If you write to expound on some weighty philosophical matter, you’re better off writing non-fiction in the form of blogs, essays and articles. People inclined to read such material would already be predisposed to such content. People who want to read fiction want something else: to be entertained. If the primary purpose of your story is to shove an idea down the readers’ throats, they will choke on it, hack it up, then close your book and walk away forever.
If you write fiction, literary or genre, you must entertain your audience. If you can awe them with wondrous feats of plot and prose, and capture their hearts with memorable characters, your audience will remember you. They will speak of you. They will make your stories part of their everyday lives.
And, as a bonus, they’ll pay you to write more stories.
The industry has changed. Online distributors and self-publishing platforms have made gatekeepers and censors irrelevant. No longer do you have to pray that your story meets a publisher’s desires — which, in Singapore, is inevitably a book about Singaporeans set in Singapore about Singaporean culture. Just write your story, edit and format it, and publish when ready. If the censors take issue with it, they can find out if Singapore law applies to overseas publishers.
Likewise, social media have made it possible for writers to reach wider audiences and access deep pools of literary resources. A fast-paced world demands fast-paced production, and a world full of distractions demands novelty. It is no longer enough for a writer to simply write books and let publishers take care of the rest. To reap the benefits of modern technology, writers must step up to the plate.
To remain relevant, a writer needs to push out at least one book a year. To make a living from writing, however, a writer must be prepared to write multiple novels a year. The pulp greats were famous for their prodigious outputs as much as their skill, and today the highest-paid independent writers are also the most prolific ones.
In addition, a writer must build his brand and pull in readers with his force of personality. My blogging is part of my content marketing activities. I engage other readers and writers online whenever I can. I talk about my stories whenever I can, and promote those of my fellow writers when the opportunity arises. All this is part of my efforts at branding. It isn’t enough to write great books; people must also be aware of your existence, and that means you need to go the extra mile and promote yourself at every opportunity.
Readers aren’t obliged to read you. You must give them something to be excited about. Write stories that make their souls sing. Make your presence felt everywhere you go. Build a canon and your fans will come.
As for myself, my latest novel No Gods, Only Daimons is one of the most well-received Singaporean novels on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars from 31 reviews. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store or the Castalia House ebook store.