KUALA LUMPUR: Literary laureate Dr Zurinah Hassan is appalled at the taste of local readers. It is hardly surprising why. Sleazy and inane titles like Duda Terlajak Laris (Much Sought-After Widower), Mr. Boss, Miss Stalker, Suamiku Encik Gula (My Husband Mr Sugar), Isteri Duda Terhangat (Hot Widower’s Wife) and Mr. London Ms. Langkawi currently hogging an online bestseller list.
The plots may be wafer-thin, frivolous and shallow but the genre appears to be a firm favourite of 20 to 35 millennials.
Worse, these works are not written in proper, scholarly, Bahasa Melayu. The authors have opted for a modernised version of the language, complete with a generous dose of slang, not what Malay literature or Bahasa Melayu teachers would recommend.
“It’s worrying to think what kind of content our youngsters are absorbing by reading such novels,” said Zurinah, a writer and poet who was recently conferred the 13th National Literary award. Certainly, (these novels) won’t do much to help our nation produce quality human capital.”
She said the popularity of low-quality fiction would have negative implications on the publication of more academic-oriented reading materials, as well as put the dampers on efforts to create a smart and knowledgeable generation.
“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,” she said. She found it alarming that many of these novels were being adapted for television dramas and films.
“I shudder to think what will happen if we continue to foster a generation of people, particularly Malays, who are engrossed in daydreaming whilst others are busy pursuing their higher studies and improving their skills to progress in life,” she said.
Form of Escapism
Zurinah, 66, felt that the growing fondness for light-hearted novels could be attributed to the readers’ desire to divert their minds from their daily problems.
She also found it ironic that novelists who pay no heed to syntax or the nuances of the Malay language were producing works that outsell books authored by national laureates and other esteemed literarians.
“I’ve heard that their novels go for a dozen or so reprints (because of lucrative sales), which is something unheard of for serious novels written by laureates.
“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 pointed out.
Asked what could be done to encourage young Malaysians to read more serious titles, Zurinah said the government could, for a start, make a concerted effort to select only commendable novels as reading materials for secondary school Malay literature students.
She also urged Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to exercise more creativity when publishing reading materials and to refrain from bringing out publications merely on account of their popularity with the people or their profitability.
“In short, they should publish books that can shape society, not those (books) that are shaped by society,” she stressed.
Zurinah said it was also vital for writers like her 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.
“We can take our cue from Malay poets who are known to have shaped the minds of society through their clever use of literature, just like in the past when our ancestors made use of poems and songs to disseminate wise counsel.
“In fact, Islam itself was propagated in the (Malay) archipelago through Nazam, which is an ancient form of poetry presentation,” she related, adding that efforts should be made to revive this art form by either having the poems published or promoting them on social media platforms like YouTube.
Asked how writers could inject positive values and academic elements into a light-hearted” novel, Zurinah said all they needed was a bit of creativity in order to lace their stories with the bits that would pique the interest of youngsters.
“And in meeting this challenge, we must all accept the fact that many things, including languages, change over time. Language may undergo changes, but its inherent beauty must be preserved at all times,” she said.
A storyline, she added, could include the element of romance and love but it should be kept within the confines of decency and cultural mores.
“And, inserting educational and motivational elements and noble values (into the plot) can help mould the characters of the young readers, who will then go on to become part and parcel of a knowledgeable and ethical society,” she said.