Beyond the First Decade: Sensationalism for General Reader

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

A second strain of short stories has concerned literary circles -- books aimed at general readers in the mass market and include collections of ghost stories, and books which have sensationalistic themes such as sexual deviance and crime. At the 1989 Singapore Book Fair, The Almost Complete Volume of True Singapore Ghost Stories by Russell Lee and his team of "ghost writers" garnered the title of "Top Selling Book". In the following year, another book of ghost stories Souls, Volume One achieved the same honour. This has subsequently led to the issuing of a second volume, True Singapore Ghost Stories, Volume Two and Souls, Book Two.

These books consistently attempt to present these stories as true and factual records of inexplicable and supernatural events and not works of the imagination. An example is Souls, Books One & Two. The preface to both volumes asserts that the accounts given were excerpts from the files of an independent research team. They feature transcripts of personal accounts based upon actual occurrences. Although parts have been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. This need to authenticate a record is also true of True Singaporean Ghost Stories.

Perhaps the only way to account for the popularity of the horror genre is to argue that it is an extension of the Gothic mode in Singapore literature. As in paranormal experience, the stories dispense with cause and effect. Hence, there is no plot, no explication and no character development. There is, however some entertainment value only because some of the situations are so ludicrous as to appear comic. One finds the editors' attempts to authenticate these anthologies quite laughable. In real terms, books such as True Singapore Ghost Stories and Souls, Books One and Two have very little literary merit.

Furthermore, standards of writing and editing have been sacrificed for the greater interest in capitalising on the Singaporean's love of the macabre and this has become an issue of concern.

Another source of concern is books which are sensationalistic in nature. In Sisterhood: The Untold Story, Joash Moo deals with the controversial issue of transexualism and transvestism. Each story is told either by a person who would be considered an outcast of society, a prostitute or sexually ambivalent person. Moo states that the objective of the book is "not to hurt anyone but to tell the story of a small minority, their struggles, their pains, their sorrows." Moo hopes that "readers will approach this anthology with a view to understand and not to judge." The intention, if true, is fair. However, its execution in this case leaves something to be desired. Koh Buck Song, a literary critic with Straits Times, had this to say:

If in doing so, they (writers) can cast some light into corners shrouded with prejudice, they could do society a valuable service. But if all they achieve is to invite more onlookers to peer at curiosities of nature as though they were circus freaks, then they would have done their subjects a disservice. Recent Singaporean literature has been condemned in strong language - "empty, meaningless topics", "unkempt taste for sexual kinks and all sorts of perversities"and so on. The language used betrays some hard prejudices against what is seen as attempts to cash in on the taste for scandal, the macabre, bizarre and brutal.

Rather than presenting these characters sympathetically, Moo tends to flaunt these particular characteristics. They are promiscuous, vain, deviant, trouble-makers and aggressive and they do not elicit any from the reader.

One might argue that with the modernisation of Singapore, it is now possible to discuss themes such as sexual deviance openly. The crucial issue that must be addressed concerns the value of such works to Singaporean society. In terms of literary merit, none of these collections have the depth of insight that would nourish the soul and mind with perspectives and insights into the human condition, or that would enlarge one's sympathies for humankind. Having only momentary entertainment value, these books are at best transitory.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with works of this quality, some critics fear that these publications are perceived as representative of Singaporean literature by the readers themselves. What is "of concern is that readers become satisfied with what they swallow simply because they do not know any better."

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