Whatever happened to the written word?
by Minh Chau
I'm a bookworm and proud to admit it. It was a habit formed in my early years, and when I was a student, I regularly visited the book shops on Ngo Thi Nham and Nguyen Xi streets to escape the demands of a heavy curriculum.
On a recent visit to one of my old haunts, I was taken aback by the number of "best-sellers" on display. On closer inspection I realised, almost without exception, they were all potboilers. In an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, themes such as sex, love, betrayal abounded. To underscore this dumbing down of literature, they were poorly written, full of spelling mistakes and poorly bound, as if the publishers themselves didn't care about the dross they were churning out. Speed was clearly paramount, low-brow appeal the name of the game with a bid to rake in as much money as possible.
It seems sensationalism has become the mantra of the publishing in general, and the old adage that sex sells is as true today as ever.
Whatever happened to the likes of Nguyen Du's Kieu Story, Vu Trong Phung's Dumb Luck, and Nam Cao's Redundant Life, Bright Moon and The Eyes? These are the names I grew up with, and I loved them. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find one of their books on Ngo Thi Nham and Nguyen Xi streets. It seems they have become victims of literary commercialisation, or as novelist Nguyen Tuan put it: an ‘Echo and Shadow Upon a Time'.
Nguyen Quoc Hung, chairman of the Board of Vietnamese Studies in the Faculty of Communication and Arts at the University of Victoria in Australia, is rather pessimistic about the future of mainstream publishing in this country and elsewhere.
"Domestic literature has become completely commercialised. It aims to meet the mass-appeal of easily digestible entertainment. Therefore, stories must be short and easy to understand. They aim to be witty and light-hearted for the feel-good factor," Hung says.
"Publishers are not interested in bringing out stories that are deep, complex, mysterious, or philosophical, which make you think and worry. Books have in effect become a collection of articles you might read in a newspaper. The industry has become flat, like a basket of goods on show in a shop."
Author Trang Ha's Sorry, You Are Just a Prostitute defends the stories she produces. "They may be cheap but they are not cheap in the usual sense of the word.
"Many writers churn out rubbish because they can't write any better. I write popular books by design, but I use humour and irony. There is a market in Viet Nam for cheap things which are written seriously."
Ha Kin, author of the best-selling novel New York Love, says she is not aiming to produce high literature. "My work is a form of autobiography, not a literary work."
Nguyen Truong Toan, a teacher at the Military Technical Academy, says: "I really like writing poetry and often read literary books. I feel the standard of Vietnamese literature has dropped to meet popular demand. There is a definite shortage of beauty. It has become a self-serving prophesy and demand for good literature has actually fallen."
He argues that this sloppy writing style has become de rigueur and that the internet is partly to blame. Anyone can now be published, even if it's just on the net, but they can hardly be called writers or poets, he says.
One example that springs to mind is The Chain, written by Vietnamese singer Le Kieu Nhu. To me, this book is a blatant PR stunt. It is riddled with references to sex, at the expense of story.
Writer Le Van Thao, president of the HCM City Writers' Association, is equally dismissive of The Chain. "I would not read that book if my life depended on it. I care about literature, and frankly that book does not meet the definition of the word."
Hoa Binh, a journalist and a writer, bemoans the shortage of good reading material on the shelves.
"I'm pessimistic and saddened by the demise of Vietnamese literature. It really is difficult to find something worth reading. It's not just me; I've seen lots of people standing outside bookshops looking bored with the offerings on show. Titles such as Short Skirts, Memories of Lipstick and Love Soup, My Sister I Love You don't really do a lot for me or for anyone else it seems."
Binh points out that literature is not just about recreation. Sure, she says, escapism and entertainment are important, but books have a moral obligation to inform, awaken conscience and instill compassion. If they don't meet these criteria then they are simply "nonsense".
Nam Cao in Bright Moon argues that "Art does not need the false moonlight, art should not be the false moonlight; art should be suffering things which escape from the misery of life..."
Publishers take note, please. — VNS