The writerly sections of my Twitterhorde, otherwise known as the LitMob, have spent half of today all a-flutter over a letter that was sent in & published in the Straits Times Forum on Saturday, the 20th of November 2010. The letter is titled “Fund proven writers” and it is written by N.T.S. Chopra. You can see a scan of the scandalizing letter here.
The letter addresses the NAC’s Arts Creation Fund, and while applauding its intentions, criticizes its habit of providing funding to artists for the process of creating their work, instead of focusing on the end product–particularly in the context of literary works. The letter-writer’s main concern is that, by providing funds to writers who are yet to produce a finished piece of work, we are “sacrificing quality for the sake of quantity”.
I see their point and it is a valid one. It is a risk that the NAC takes: there’s no guarantee you won’t end up with an abomination that makes the Twilight saga look like Hemingway. But then the letter-writer veers off into murky waters: instead of handing the grant money to individual writers, they suggest, why not hand it to publishers instead?
“After accepting and publishing a certain literary work by a local writer of acceptable standard, quality and merit, let his publisher apply to NAC for assistance.”
The suggestion boils down to this: we should put the power of deciding who gets funding, and who doesn’t, to publishers. Publishers that are, in the end, businesses. And, like all businesses do, ultimately have as a #1 priority only one thing: profit. And revenue.
Do we really want to put the future of Singapore’s literary scene at their mercy?
“If the book meets the set criteria NAC should then buy enough copies of the book from the publisher at a heavily discounted price and distribute it to the libraries of secondary and tertiary education institutions here, and also to Singapore diplomatic missions abroad for free.”
In other words: we should take a fund established to help writers create books, and turn it into a scheme to help publishers sell books. Brilliant idea, except that it leaves out the part where publishers already have a variety of avenues to seek funding for their going-ons, whereas writers, particularly new writers, do not.
The Arts Creation Fund, as its name implies, is a fund meant to help the process of creation. Writing a book is by no means an easy task: it takes time, it takes effort, and it takes money. If you’ve ever dabbled in writing on a serious basis in Singapore, you’d know how difficult it is to make it here. Just getting yourself to the point where you have a story completed–not even on the shelves, just completed— is a Herculean struggle, since fiction writing doesn’t pay a living wage, and we all have other obligations in our lives. Every bit of support during that long, arduous process really helps–and this includes the Arts Creation Fund.
While I’m all for encouraging the emergence of quality Singaporean literature, I am pretty sure the way not to do it is by cutting off budding writers from one of the biggest means of support that they have. We have to realize that “established writers” do not spring fully-formed from the forehead of the Raffles statue beside the Arts House– they have to be nurtured, encouraged to put their passion to work. Each writer has to begin somewhere, be it as a budding, unpublished writer taking those first shaky steps into the world of professional writing.
Naturally, a percentage of these unproven beginners will churn out rubbish, same as with any other field of discipline. That’s definitely a risk you have to take. Some of these first-time writers will, over time, improve. Others may not. But the important thing is that they have created, and their works are out there, and by simply being there they may encourage others who might, one day, win the “prestigious international award” that the letter writer craves for Singaporean literature (along with–of course!–more book sales).
In the end, it comes down to this– the Arts Creation Fund is a good thing, the NAC is doing a good job of encouraging local writers with it, and please please don’t break it and make things worse for the local literary scene than it already is. Just to throw a final tortured analogy into this screed: if you put fertilizer in the ground, sure, you’ll turn up some weeds living off the richness of the soil. But if you never fertilize the land at all, how can you expect your trees to bear fruit?
** Picture is from when I dressed up as a Hogwarts student to go attend the Deathly Hallows premiere last Wednesday (and took part in Movember Girls to boot!), blogpost of which should be forthcoming. Stay tuned.