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Flesh Eating Zombies And Playboy Doctors, The Problem With Malaysian Reading Habits

Just a cursory glance at the Malay fiction shelf in your nearest bookstore and odds are the words ‘kasih’, ‘cinta’ or ‘sayang’ have appeared in the title of more than one of the novels.

Besides racy romances, novels about cannibals from outer space or terrorists hunting prostitutes are also creeping up the local best-sellers lists as top choices for Malaysians who actually do make the effort to read.

Reading might not be synonymous with Malaysians but actually we aren’t faring too badly.

Pic: xinhua.netPic: xinhua.netThe National Library of Malaysia said that on average, Malaysians read 8 to 12 books per year, which is a respectable number, but when compared to other developing nations such as the United Kingdom, we certainly lag behind, as their average is 16 books per year.

Getting Malaysians to read, regardless of the genre, should be the main concern in order to raise the average but arguments have been raised on the types of literature that Malaysians choose to read and how it could negatively affect the building of quality human capital.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the problem with ‘light’ reading novels flooding the local publication scene with escapism pulp fiction. Literary laureates and educationists have expressed concern over the long term impact of youth raised on a diet of ‘low quality fiction’ could produce a generation of shallow thinking adults.

In a nation that is still struggling to make reading a national pastime, Malaysian Digest seeks to find out if the reading materials that Malaysians choose to read should be a cause of concern.

‘Silly’ Malay Novels Making Our Kids Shallow In Thinking

“Our kids are reading sillier books and they will eventually get sillier and sillier,” Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim had voiced her concern in a recent interview, NST reports in April.

In the same report, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka language expert Hasnah Mohd Saleh echoed similar concerns over the decline in the depth and sophistication of thinking among the young, coinciding with the timeline when teen novels become mainstream.

The genre of teen novels, or rather light-hearted novels that appear to be frivolous in theme and story lines laced with lurid graphic content bordering on erotica that would pique the interest of youngsters have become so popular that they have even found their way into national schools reading syllabus.

Earlier this year, the choice of novel to be used in the literary component for Form 4 students caused uproar throughout the nation.

Pic: weeehingthong.wordpressPic: weeehingthong.wordpressThe novel, Pantai Kasih, was criticised because of its content that was considered inappropriate to be taught to students in schools.

Persatuan Penulis Nasional Malaysia (Pena) said that novels contain lewd scenes and dwell on sexual encounters that are inappropriate are not suitable for learning in school, Sinar Harian reported.

Its President, Dr Mohamad Saleeh Rahamad, stated that literature components for schools should be of higher quality to help build the younger generations' thinking.

"It also lifts good literary works and representative of its era. In the literary world, popular works are not considered an achievement that needs to be appreciated although its production is not wrong as long as it is not proven to be against the basic objectives," he said.

Literary laureate, Datuk Dr Zurinah Hassan, also voiced her concerns about Malaysians affinity towards popular Malay fiction, which are written in the modernised version of Bahasa Melayu and peppered with generous amounts of slang.

Teenagers brought up on communicating through social media gravitate towards reading material that similarly pay scant attention to the syntax or the nuances of the Malay language.

"It's worrying to think what kind of content our youngsters are absorbing by reading such novels. Certainly, (these novels) won't do much to help our nation produce quality human capital," Datuk Dr Zurinah told Bernama.

She is also of the opinion that the dominance of such ‘low quality’ popular fiction flooding the market would hamper the efforts to create a smart and knowledgeable generation and called for people to read more works by recognised writers.

"It will also have adverse effects on character building... and even pose a threat to the very future of our race as our civilisation is known for its rich literary and cultural history.

"The works of (respected) writers like Keris Mas and Shahnon Ahmad depict the realities of life and compel readers to think but, sadly, not many people are interested in reading serious stories which, in actual fact, have the capacity to elevate the reading public's level of thinking," she said.

However, National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) president Hashim Adnan in the same interview had put forward another opinion, pointing out that people should not read too much into the novels.

“Light readings offer escapism for students from the reality of their workload,” he said.

Are the battle lines being drawn between literature and pop fiction or can we find a middle ground?

In Defence Of Love, Sex, Ghosts And Gangsters In Popular Fiction

The arguments by the heavy weights in the industry are valid but for the younger generation, these arguments are not compelling enough to stop them from reading these novels.

Pic: novelmelayu.blogspotPic: novelmelayu.blogspotSyuhada Salleh, 26, who is doing her postgraduate studies in modern Malay literature, does not believe that popular fiction is detrimental to the development of the society.

“The building of quality human capital focuses more on the values inculcated in the novel, which I believe is the most important thing that needs to be included in any form of novels especially humanity, religious and societal values.

“Quality human capital can be achieved through novels especially popular novels because they are used as materials to educate the society.

“If there aren’t values that can turn the reader into a quality person, that novel is considered empty. There are no values so it becomes a negative influence,” she elaborated.

She also does not agree that people need to read the works by esteemed literary icons to instil good values as it is easier to absorb positive elements through popular novels.

“I don't agree with the notion that it would be more beneficial for readers to read books written by more accomplished writers because positive elements and good values are easier to digest through modes that are easier for the readers.

“The value of the novel is not determined by the type the novel is, whether it is a popular novel or literary novel.

“There are popular novels that have positive values and novels from laureates that spread negative values,” she argued.

Pic: pbs.twimg.comPic: pbs.twimg.comBelieving that the language used in popular fiction is not that bad, Syuhada said that while getting Malaysians to read is a great concern, the types of books they read is a secondary concern.

“There needs to be efforts to inculcate the interest in reading. As for the reading materials, it is a concern because there are many categories of readers.

“If more people like to read popular fiction, the writers need to take the initiative to equip their writing with the correct language.

“But the language can’t be completely correct because a novel is a genre within literature. Literature meanwhile has free writing ethics, not constrained by formal language and accurate grammar.

“Good language is important but it will not be entirely perfect, because novel writing is a free writing, so the language used in novels should not be contested,” she explained.

As highlighted by laureate Datuk Dr Zurinah, it was also vital for writers to rise up to the challenge and produce works that not only met literary standards but also have the necessary elements to attract the attention of the younger generations.

Her comment brings up a valid point, as producing books that nobody buys or reads is also self-defeating.

As our local publishers are only too well aware, titles that make the local best sellers lists have to take into consideration the lowest common denominator of public consumption.

A Flourishing Local Alternative Publishers Scene Is Good News

Glue-sniffing motorcycle gangs, incestuous imams and all manner of ghostly apparitions on the loose might not get the author on the shortlist of literary laureates but it keeps the local writing and publishing scene alive.

According to a report in Publishers Weekly (PW) last September, a new wave of locally produced ‘pulp’ fiction is driving sales and making the industry viable to a growing stable of home-grown independent publishers.

The report had cited Ramon Krishnan of Silverfish Books who observed that the current crop of alternative publishers are making waves in the local publishing scene, driven by passion although the quality is uneven, he observed.

The list of alternative presses has grown longer in recent years, with DuBook Press, Lejen Press, Selut, Terfaktab, Thukul Cetak, Rabak Lit, Simptomatik and Puja Buku joining Gerakbudaya/SIRD, PW reports. Leading the pact is indie-turned-mainstream publisher Buku Fixi.

Amir Muhammad. Pic: scoop.itAmir Muhammad. Pic: scoop.itAmir Muhammad, founder of Buku Fixi, is of the opinion that readers should be more adventurous when it comes to books and not constrained to read only serious stories.

“People should read whatever makes them happy. I believe young readers are quite curious and resilient and if things are presented to them in an attractive way, which fits the zeitgeist, it will be popular.

“I am happy to see things like travel writing and sci-fi starting to take off in the past year or so.

“I am less happy to see the proliferation of "instant pendakwah" books, many of which are written by very young and beardless men who seem particularly obsessed with telling women how to dress; but to each their own,” he commented.

Amir also said that books chosen as prescribed reading in school should not put people off from reading altogether.

“It would be good if prescribed books don't put people off reading for life.

“For example many Americans would still cite the books they were assigned in high school such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Moby Dick" as being among their favourites,” he referred to some of the classics in English literature that were once controversial in their time.

Pic: fadhlisipadle.blogspot.comPic: fadhlisipadle.blogspot.comEstablished since 2011, Amir’s Buku Fixi have added colour to the publishing industry by offering alternative titles in urban crime, horror, mystery and science fiction stories, which are different from the popular genre in local publications, and their readership proves that Malaysians do enjoy this divergence.

“Seventy percent of our readers are young women, and they don’t want to be fed only with romantic ideals of their future husband, which is the most popular theme in local publications. The remaining 30% means that boys do read, and that figure is actually considered freakishly high in Malaysia.

“Fixi readers are drawn more to horror and psychological thrillers.

“We do try to expand the range a bit by including things like dystopian sci-fi and translated foreign books but those have not always been successful,” he said.

This shows that Malaysian readers have a wide preference and are not confined to reading certain genres, so they should not be forced to only read serious stories.

The last National Literacy Survey carried out in 2005 by the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage reported that Malaysians aged 10 and above read an average of two books a year.

What was also revealed in that survey was that over 77% of Malaysians confessed to only reading the newspaper, while another 3% admitted to reaching for a magazine while a measly 3% took the trouble to read a book. Separately, a staggering 13.5% expressed no interest in reading whatsoever.

The stories that Malaysians read might seem simple to literarians but every reader needs to start somewhere before delving into heavier works, which is a good way to encourage reading.

So whether it is weird, wild or racy, whatever it takes for Malaysians to take the first step to pick up a book represents an opportunity, using pop fiction to attract young readers which in turn with greater demand ultimately leading to better quality.

-mD