Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Excitement of Writing in Singapore

Gwee Li Sui gave this keynote speech at All In! Young Writers Seminar 2011, organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore. While exalting the thrilling life of the imagination, he also warns young writers to be realistic in their expectations of fame and money. After pointing out the lack of a reading culture in Singapore, he highlights the economic realities of the book market in the country:

Then, there is the curse of writing in English, and I don’t mean Singlish. Because English is an international medium, writing here does not have the advantage that writing in languages linked to originating cultures and nations have. Those have their ready, tuned-in, and economically viable readership bases. But any excitement in the writing of Singapore gets drowned out quickly by the incessantly renewing excitement in English writings that come from all four corners of the world. The Straits Times isn’t really helping here: just check your Life! Books pages. You are competing with the products of other markets, all larger ones, which also have more established publishing houses within more developed culture industries, with systems of reviewing and advertising books. And that’s for readers in Singapore!

That is a hard truth. Singaporeans do not read Singaporeans, unless the writing belongs to genre fiction, like ghost stories, or "special" interest, like gay. Or the book wins some big award in the UK or USA, which it is more likely to do if the writer lives and works in those much bigger markets. If economic realities depend on the imagination, as the talk contends, what Singaporean writers need is a truly imaginative entrepreneur of the Singapore book.

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