Why Singapore Literature Turns Me On (… in a manner of speaking)

(Full disclosure: I’m an editor with Epigram Books, and I’m also a published SFF author with my first legit books coming out this year. If you know me, you know that I pretty much don’t shut up about the latter fact, ever.)

This is a response to a blogpost that has been circulating in Singapore’s writing circles over the last few days: Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off. Ooh, clickbait-y title. I had a little stream of consciousness going through my mind when I was reading it, and it went something like this:

“Oh my god is this the Benjamin Cheah guy who was on the Rabid Puppy slate? He’s a real person, oh man. He’s around! Not hiding in shame! This blogpost is awful. What a massive cock. What a BELLEND. So has he read any SingLit published in the last 5 years or what? Oh I see he’s ~TOO GOOD~ for the local writing scene. Wait, is he actually touting his Hugo nomination to give his words a sense of authority? Oh good lord that is fucking embarrassing. I bet he thinks people here don’t know better… yeah, they probably don’t….”

I wasn’t going to waste any of my precious time rebutting it, but over the past 4 days I’ve seen people keep sharing it over… and over… and I was like, “so nobody’s going to mention that’s he’s basically published by a neo-Nazi?”

So I guess I’m writing a rebuttal. Oh dear.

Alright, so: if you didn’t know, Mr Cheah’s Hugo nomination was part of something called the Rabid Puppies, which was a nomination slate pushed by his publisher, the alt-right agitator Vox Day, who gets his followers to stuff the nomination ballots with pieces largely from his own imprint, Castalia House. These nominations are looked upon very, very, very poorly by regular SFF publishing, who have things like standards and a sense that cheating is bad. Nomination via one of the Puppy slates is generally seen as an indicator of anti-quality, really. Not a good look. More Hugo voters thought there should be no award given out at all, than voted for Mr Cheah’s story.

If Mr Cheah wanted to bung local writers for subpar writing, he might have started by looking in the mirror first.

As I said. Embarrassing.

(I actually wrote a much longer, much meaner take on this, which devolved into a five-paragraph rant about the Rabid Puppies. Decided to nix it because dear lord that is one hornet’s nest I do not want to kick over.)

Look, the local publishing scene has its issues. I have issues with it! For one thing, it’s also insular, and when communities are very small and everyone knows everyone and people are generally all friends, people don’t criticise works that are published as much as they should. So if I think something’s rubbish or overrated, I’m more likely to keep my mouth shut, or share my opinions very, very privately with a small group of friends. I think that’s a problem. I think we need to be willing to push each other to do better, even if it will hurt feelings. I also think that publishing is too reliant on government grant money, which results in a whole slew of other issues.

…generally, publishing being so broke in Singapore is an issue, because it just means often publishers don’t have the resources and time to push the work they put out to their full potential. We take so many shortcuts and make so many compromises just to get books out of the door. It really is, in a lot of cases, a labor of love. Do I think it’s unfair to compare local literature to stuff that’s put out by the Big 5? Well no, I think literature has to stand on its own merits, and local lit can be just as good. (Have you read Balli Kaur Jaswal? Or any number of our really excellent short story writers?) There’s quality here, no doubt about it. But at the same time you don’t really complain that a kit car put together in somebody’s shed isn’t as good as a Mercedes SLS. I mean, that’s just churlish.

(THIS is also why #BuySingLit is a thing, because if you invest money in the products that local publishers are putting out, then local publishers have more money to produce even better products for you in the future! Instead of, you know, going belly-up and everything.)

Seriously, if there are problems with the local publishing scene, the way to solve them is not by shitting on Singaporean writers in order to elevate your pet white-people idols. Don’t think people can’t see what you’re doing.

Some of the things that have bothered me about local publishing also appear to be changing. I’m glad that there is greater diversity in the voices being published and lauded. And the famed resistance against genre writing–it’s no longer what it is. I’ve worked on four manuscripts this year at Epigram and three of them are just straight-up sci-fi/fantasy. There’s Altered Straits, which came out this month, and it’s got alternate universes, a post-apocalyptic nanobot-invasion setting, and tons of weird body-horror-mutation shit. Also merlions. Because we just have to have merlions. There’s another one coming out in a few months, one of the finalists for the book prize last year, that’s a spy-thriller type about a man who’s immortal. (Surrogate Protocol, that’s what it’s called.)

And then there’s The Gatekeeper, which won the book prize last year, and I’m super excited about. Secondary world fantasy (fantasy Singapore, really, with all the racism and classism intact!) about a pair of medusa sisters & their struggle to fit in a world that won’t accept them. It’s got maps! and a conlang! It comes out in Singapore next month and in the UK I think September-ish. Can’t wait for y’all to read it, because y’all, you have to read this book.

By the way, these are just titles being put out by my employers in the first months of the year. There’s more! There’s way more. Ethos had a wonderful anthology of fantastical fiction out last year, This Is How You Walk On The Moon. Math Paper Press has been publishing spec fic titles for yoinks. Genre fiction in Singapore is alive and well, my friends.

More than all of that, I’m really encouraged by the energy I see around SingLit, in both readers and writers. Of the manuscripts I’ve worked on so far this year, three out of four are debut novels, and the authors’ excitement is palpable. Young writers fresh out of the new writing programs at our schools are getting published, and their work is excellent. I know people who are sitting themselves down and getting out that novel they’ve had in their head for years. People are aware of local books now. People are buying local books. People are reading local books. Not everything is a masterpiece, no. Not everything has to be a masterpiece. Singapore literature– the good, the bad, the ugly– is growing into an ecosystem. It’s maturing, expanding, flourishing.

Why would anyone want to discourage that?

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