Attending the annual Singapore Writers’ Festival was the first time, I had ever been so ecstatic upon being crowded by hoards of millennials – it was a sensory overload of steel-framed, round hipster sunglasses, and a blur of fashionable and well-orchestrated shagginess, accentuated by the melancholic aesthetic that were the chilly rains of December. The germination of interest from not only a larger, but also more youthful demographic is definitely promising. Reflecting on Singapore’s literary scene post-festival, I decided it would be necessary to divert from the usual grievances regarding the unfulfilled potential of Singapore Literature’s reach (albeit still relevant), and move towards discovering how best to diversify interest within the existing demographic.
There is a tendency to categorise literature as a self-fulfilling way of life, a romanticised entity that should not be compromised into a commodity. However, we need to acknowledge that literature will always be market-driven. That said, our literary market has recently been driven by an influx of young readers, flailing towards standard liberal-propelled themes – LGBT rights, Chinese privilege, the ailments of a monolithic society – essentially, issues with an overarching theme of political dissatisfaction.
Singaporean literature has been morphed largely into a medium for calling out these societal faults, as our youths refine and redefine the age-old Singaporean tradition and art of complaining (just kidding). But while the swelling of participation from our youth is a great place to begin and a helpful nudge to put more attention to our literary scene, a subtle risk of mistaking fad and earnest interest surrounds the writing community. It is the danger of our newfound audience unintentionally perceiving literature as a husk carrying messages for social change, a mere means to spark political discourse. Take, for instance, Singapore’s beloved enfant terrible, Alfian Sa’at, and his irresistibly, juicily controversial poem Anthem. While Sa’at’s pieces such as “This Room”, “Once Again, Over the Phone” and the many other gems ensconced within his poetry collection The Invisible Manuscript contain more nuanced depictions of homosexuality, the popularity of Anthem tells of us as an audience – desperate for a direct story with a clear purpose. We have largely forgotten the nuanced aspect of literature and in effect, the craft itself.
At this juncture, it would be almost impossible for this thinking to prevail while leaving the words of Elizabeth Hardwick unheeded; the words that lay deep in an October 1959 issue of Harper’s Magazine, in an article titled The Decline of Book Reviewing. Going back half a century, Hardwick’s lamentations on the state of publicity for American Literature still ring true at present, a rather cyclic repetition observed in the current Singapore Literary Scene. She begins by setting the scene of an “America, now, in oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect”, with “all the great moments of artistic tragedy and misunderstanding… in a curious state of camouflage”. This was attributed to the “flat praise and faint dissension” of book reviews, as “a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally”.
It was not so much the bland and “readable” book reviews from which the similarities were drawn between the American and Singaporean Literature Scenes, but the sharp disengagement with literature coupled with emphasis on the literary market. “The publishers needed favourable reviews to use for the display of their product”, Hardwick asserted, “as an Easter basket needs shredded green paper under the eggs”. “Advertisements of the publishing business keep the book-review sections going financially”, and thus works were received with uniform equanimity. It is granted, however, that the situation in which we find ourselves in the current Singaporean Literary Scene is less a predicament than a misguidance, having stemmed from the positive roots of social awareness, as opposed to the decline in which American literature was headed from systematic biases in the trade. Sadly both lead down the same road of inequitable attention, to the advantage of “trashy novels” and “commonplace ‘think’ books”, and in the context of Singaporean Literature, themes flashily appealing that strike the core of a political debate. Both roads lead to the disengagement with literature, thus materialising the awkward and harmful dissonance between the purpose sought out by an audience and the literary value of a text.
The comparison thus brings us to a point in which we must arrive at a truce or a compromise between the wants of a market and the great entity that is the spirit of literature. I personally see this less as criticism of ignorance on the part of our audience – we are the market and this manner of consumption is natural. Literature and art in general, which will remain in the market and thus become commodities, will always be a compromise. I see this more as a challenge to the audience and the authors of Singaporean literature to take pride in themes that may be incapable of sparking mass reaction and are so often deemed frivolous. By this, I am referring to nuanced reflections on the intangible as Grace Chia presents in Cordelia, or highly experimental pieces like Thirty-Seven Reasons why Red is Rad by Desmond Kon. Diversity in the field of Singaporean Literature has come a long way from the steady ramble and standard wit of pioneer poets such as Edwin Thumboo and Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, and it is time we pay it its due attention. From thereon, a balance of attention between glamorously controversial topics and pensive dissection of comparatively subtler themes would allow sustainability in both market and craft, and in such diversification we may finally see the dissipation of “Singaporean Literature” as a single genre.