By DAPHNE LEE

A book-related Facebook group is celebrating turning one next month with a festival. People will have the chance to meet local writers, find out about their publications, buy their books and get autographs (and wefies) at events around the country, it seems.

I don’t really know what to make of the events, though. I understand wanting to promote the work of local writers through sales, readings and discussions, but I don’t understand events that are just about showing up to sign books, especially when I have never heard of most of the writers listed.

But does it matter that I don’t know the names? Not if it’s because they have produced work that I am unfamiliar with. However, I believe that the writers are unknown to me because they have not written or published much. Again, this would not matter if the festival sought to provide a platform for them to share new unpublished work or introduce readers to past published efforts.

But according to the festival schedule, there are only two events that feature anything more than just signings and mixing-and-mingling.

Honestly, the event sounds to me like an exercise in self-indulgence, but I do wonder if I am old fashioned or too severe, and I have been trying to work out what exactly about the event bothers me. Well, the question that keeps repeating itself in my head is: “Exactly what are we celebrating?”

The festival site points out that the community “transcends genre, language, function, medium and experience levels”. Thus the group supports all Malaysian writers, no matter what kind of writers they are, no matter how long they’ve been at it, and no matter how successful they are at it. It’s all things to all writers.

So yes, I think the group should celebrate. I think it has been a great source of information and encouragement, and the group administrators should be proud of the support it offers all Malaysian writers.

However, I worry about how they are celebrating their achievements. While I would like to see as many Malaysian writers as possible gather to read their work and offer tips and advice on writing, publishing, and promoting their creations, I am uncomfortable about them assembling simply to sign their names in books. I’m referring particularly to those writers who have barely made their mark in the publishing scene.

It reminds me of something I heard the other day: apparently there is a member of a writing group who gets uppity if the other members offer comments about his stories. It’s unclear whether he has actually said that the others have no right to critique his work as he has been published (a short story in a recent anthology) and they have not. I have also heard of those who continue to dine out on one story published 10 years ago. They fall just short of handing out name cards inscribed “Author”.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency for Malaysian writers to be more attracted to the “writer’s life” than to actually writing. They want the “fame” and the “glamour” without the effort.

They are quick to consider themselves having “arrived” with the publication of a couple of short stories, or a volume of poetry. Getting published is the prize. Getting published means being interviewed by the media, being photographed (wefies, anyone?), and signing books.

Do I seem too harsh? Surely there’s no shame in wanting your work to be published?

I guess my cynicism has to do with the impression I get that publication is the Holy Grail, whereas, in my opinion, a writer’s dearest wish should be to write well. Would you continue to write if you knew you would never be published? If your answer is “No” then I feel you shouldn’t be writing in the first place.

Some will feel that’s too idealistic of me. Perhaps, but in my experience there are far too many local authors who worry about getting their book published and agonise about how well or not their book will sell, yet have not actually written the book in the first place. It seems that “How do I write well?” is not a question that crosses their minds, and “Will my story touch people?” is frequently secondary to “Will my story make me rich and famous?”

To me, events like this group’s are one of the problems our writing scene faces. This culture of celebrating mediocrity, of self-congratulation is tasteless and embarrassing. Would it be so hard to organise a panel discussion, some readings or a Q&A session?

There are some experienced and talented authors who are taking part in the event who could have been tapped to offer invaluable insights into and advice on writing and publishing. Even those who are just starting out should be given the chance to share their experiences and work.

So. Exactly what are we celebrating?


Daphne Lee is reading The Banana Leaf Men (Sensations) by Aneeta Sundararaj, and looking forward to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown (Macmillan).