The Tai Tong restaurant on Lebuh Cintra is an unusual place for a literary discussion, but it is where a friend insists on introducing me to a website that hosts his favourite reads. Over dim sum, he explains the workings of Webnovel, the international portal of the burgeoning China Literature company. The concept is simple: writers upload content; readers pay for said content. Popular serials have been adapted for television.
It is not alone: the industry giant Wattpad dominated the digital literary market, boasting associations with major publishing houses and Margaret Atwood.
His conclusion? Malaysians will have to adapt or get left behind by progress. The world is changing and yet people like me cling on to outdated habits. Perhaps he has a point – statistically, users of such online communities are indeed youthful. If this is the case, what will the future look like?
Keys to Hidden Worlds
According to the National Youth Development Policy, youths are people between 15 and 40 years of age.1 In short, millennials and Generation Z – two generations entrenched in digital technology which in turn changes their relationship with the written word.
This interaction has led to success for at least one local youth: Tey Feng Nian, better known as Steven Steel, won a major award on Wattpad for his novel Someone’s in My Head.
“Communities like Wattpad, FanFiction, NaNoWriMo – they’re commodifying writing in a way we’ve never seen before,” Jackie Ashkin, an emerging poet, says. While excellent at generating engagement, the art of storytelling has been gamified. “Someone like Dickens wrote and sold his writing serially, but he was more the exception than the rule when we start thinking about quality.”
Publishing in the digital age is pretty misunderstood, especially when people believe that digital heralds the end of print. The advent of the printing press didn’t kill off publishing, but it did cut down on job vacancies for scribes, in the same way that new technologies may make certain processes redundant but open new doors.
In general, local literary culture remains uninspiring. Despite boasting talents like Preeta Samarasan, Zen Cho and Tan Twan Eng, many established writers live abroad. At home, they are only vaguely known by readers who are likely to be more familiar with James Patterson and Tom Clancy. Ashkin suspects that this apathy has institutional roots. “In my experience, international schools are more inclined to encourage reading for fun, whereas the local system is more geared toward reading as a skill.”
Her observations dovetail with Natasha Krishnan’s university experiences. Despite being part of a circle of readers, the habit is still largely seen as an academic pursuit. “Having studied literacy in the classroom, there isn’t much room for a reading ‘culture’ beyond course requirements,” Natasha remarks. “As a Literature student, I can tell you this: what we have is an odd little paradox between the desire to learn and the desire to perform well academically. They both require reading, do they not? But growing up, I used to be chided for reading for leisure by teachers who think they mean well, but don’t realise that they are hindering the development of a reading culture by actually discouraging reading.”
Given these barriers, being a young reader and/or writer can often be an alienating experience. Fortunately, changes may be afoot. Sue Sudarak runs the Language Arts Workshop, which focuses on teaching children to write. Lokalhouz has started a Buku Jalanan project, while the Reading Room at Hin Bus Depot has finally opened. There is also a book exchange at Occupy Beach Street. For youths, these groups and initiatives are keys to hidden worlds.
The Nature of Malaysian Literature
When asked about her work, editor-publisher-writer Anna Tan remarks, “I don’t know if I really see myself as a “gatekeeper” as much as a “signpost’.”
Currently away on a Chevening scholarship, she helped create a community for local writers through her work with MYWriters Penang, the local chapter of the Malaysian Writers’ Society. Their annual chapbook, Nutmag, publishes exciting content from local writers. Encouragingly, the editors have received unconventional submissions from young writers, many of whom are unafraid to explore weighty topics such as family secrets, death and the supernatural. If published, those stories or poems could be the start of a writing career.
For Rosalind Chua of Clarity Publishing, the desire of youths to be unconventional is not new. Despite changing trends and lifestyles, youths will always be rebellious. “I think youths always want to read stuff they’re not supposed to, especially if it includes crime, smut and mind-altering substances… so I have been told.”
She has previously published illustrated children’s books – a process that she enjoyed. The venture soon became unsustainable given the proliferation of cheap, imported children’s books. However, Chua remains buoyant. “There are a number of local publishers producing some really decent kids’ books, especially those that focus on local myths and legends. So that is a huge positive.”
While marketing segmentation drives most major publishers, clearly seen in the lucrative Young Adult market, she is not interested in such trends. “As far as our ‘adult’ list goes, I think certain books will appeal to younger readers especially, since our authors are rebels at heart and have off-the-beaten-path perspectives about life and storytelling. I’m just happy when people tell me they have enjoyed our books, young or old.”
Sadly, success in the Malaysian book trade is a struggle. Sixty-two years after independence, national literature remains divided along both ethnic and linguistic lines. The local industry is dominated by Malay and English-language publishers, with a smaller market for Chinese and Tamil readers. The main concerns and approaches of writers come down to class and background. Only Buku Fixi seemed to briefly transcend these boundaries – its gratuitous pulp fiction and Instagrammable covers were a welcome relief from the usual get-rich-quick guides, conspiracies and ghostwritten biographies.
These inherent divisions are a constant concern for anyone in the literary world. “Language always plays a factor, and there are small but healthy communities of authors working in English and Malay – but they don’t often have a chance to mix, and Malaysia’s many other languages don’t get close to the same level of exposure,” Ashkin remarks.
Tan shares the same concerns. MYWriters ostensibly caters for “all languages” but English-language writers dominate the group. There are Malay-language writers too, but they are relatively inactive. The same problem applies with Chinese-language writers. One of her strategies to overcome this bias is for NutMag to be more multilingual. “For our fifth anniversary next year, I’m hoping to get equal submissions in English and Malay, plus some in Mandarin and Tamil if we can find editors and translators. This will hopefully pull together all the scattered writers and readers in the state at least once!”
Sustaining a Literary Ecosystem
The Penang Digital Library occupies a pair of renovated mansions beside the Penang Free School. On average, nearly 15,000 monthly visitors pass through its doors. The first thing I notice when I step into the sleek complex is the complete absence of books. Instead, patrons are browsing the internet on their devices, or engaging with the library’s many iPads and interactive display screens. Apparently, some of the secondary school and university students keep working there late into the night.
Shanker Tamarasan, the library’s Information Technology Officer, describes his workplace as the “library of the future”. An expansion in Butterworth is in the works, while other states are working on similar projects. Although its digital holdings primarily consist of academic e-books on topics such as computer science, they will soon have access to the National Library’s virtual collection. For Shanker, progression to digital media is inevitable. If that is to be so, what will happen to Penang’s small literary ecosystem?
Chua is confident that publishers will soldier on. “Publishing in the digital age is pretty misunderstood, especially when people believe that digital heralds the end of print. The advent of the printing press didn’t kill off publishing, but it did cut down on job vacancies for scribes, in the same way that new technologies may make certain processes redundant but open new doors.”
Tan sees a space for physical books despite the Library’s overwhelming belief in digital books. “I’d like to predict that everyone will go digital, but honestly, the true bookworms are still going for print, or a mix of both. If you talk to the average person on the street, or average browser at the Hin Bus Pop Up Market, Malaysians still like print books, especially for children.” The opening of a second branch of Gerakbudaya Bookshop, housed at the new arts space Hikayat on Lebuh Pantai, could be said to be proof of print's lasting popularity.
Yet a love of the printed word may not necessarily translate into increased book sales. Leo Books has occupied a small lot in Tanjung Tokong’s Island Plaza for nine years. Despite its diminutive size, the shop has a diverse collection, spanning Bulgakov to Bao Ninh. But Wendy, Leo’s proprietor, has had two difficult years – the slow economy and a corresponding lack of spending power were exacerbated by the attitudes of would-be buyers: parents barked at their children to not waste money; older visitors bargained for lower prices; others simply browsed the shelves and bought their books online. And of course youths seemed less willing to read, distracted by more ephemeral entertainments.
With large chain bookshops such as MPH and Borders reporting dwindling returns, the solvency of the independent bookshop is precarious. “You can only stay in business if you’re passionate enough, and if you’re able to put up with a loss. You need to be good at marketing, engaging customers and holding events, but it is very tiring,” Wendy explains. In short, diverse strategies and income streams are needed just to keep a small shop afloat. For now at least, Leo Books continues to serve as a vital link in the community. But without a wholesale change in societal attitudes and the national education system, the fight for the short attention span of local youths remains bitter.
Natasha has two simple suggestions to alleviate this problem. “If we want reading habits to improve, we should start by doing two things: not seeing books as a waste of money or time, as well as acknowledging that reading for leisure does in fact contribute to one’s education, instead of focusing on just academic learning alone.”
But what about future Malaysian writers? Their works fall within Clarity’s scope. “I enjoy publishing books that I like to read, especially if these are written by Malaysians. We’re a Malaysian publishing house and we want to showcase Malaysian talent – if I keep harping on this, it’s only because I feel very strongly about it,” Chua declares.
And Ashkin is optimistic about the stories that youths will someday write. “I think the world stage is finally starting to open up to postcolonial and non-Western literatures, and that’s really exciting, because it might bring interest back.”
William Tham works at Hikayat and Gerakbudaya Penang. He has been published by Buku Fixi, Looseleaf, Calibre and more. His new novel, The Last Days, will be released in 2020.