I wrote a short novel—technically called a novella—as part of my studies in Lancaster University’s Creative Writing programme. I have been encouraged to publish this novel titled The orang utan of Verona. But I have not started looking for a publisher yet. I am realistic. I know how hard it is to publish a novella. But I chose this form that has Italian origins because I wanted to be the first Malaysian to do something unique with it. I wanted to create a novella that had a composite feel to it, one that made you feel that what you were reading was part adventure tale, animal parable, travelogue, romance; realist, historical, science fiction. Most of all, I wanted to create in English something that had a lot to do with Malaysia and Italy, all three things being a big part of my identity.
Getting The orang utan of Verona published: what does this mean? The same as it was for my two other books: a publisher makes my writing available to the public without any financial input on my part.
Where should I begin to look for a publisher for my story about a baby orang utan named Roma? The UK? Malaysia? Yes, all good places to start especially since the novel is set in a British colony—Sarawak—today a Malaysian state. What about Italy? No, since the novel is written in English, though Italians might be interested in the fact that the protagonist of my story is the great nineteenth-century Italian adventure novelist, Emilio Salgari. He was the first Italian writer to invent a Malay hero, Sandokan, who fought the British imperialist, James Brooke. Salgari also created the first mixed marriage in Italian literature between Sandokan, a dethroned Malay nobleman, and Marianna, niece of a British colonial officer. But in real life, the real Salgari had never set foot in Malaysia. In my novel, I make him go there for the first time with another Italian, the botanist Odoardo Beccari.
I am apparently the first novelist to write a story that actually places Emilio in a Malaysian setting. What can possibly go wrong when two Italians want to bring Roma back to Italy, but the Malay family that is raising her don’t want to let her go, especially after they discover that she practices Islamic rituals? Does everything depend on Emilio who loses his heart to Zarina, the daughter of the house who takes care of Roma? Italians will have to wait for the Italian translation of my novel to find out. But that would only happen if I found a publisher.
But there is also another kind of publishing, and that is putting your unpublished work up for the public scrutiny of good literary critics. What do I mean by a ‘good critic’? I know who they are, and they should know who they are. If someone were to write to me, asking to review my unpublished novel, this person would have to fit the criteria of good critic. It could be a historian, English professor, poet, novelist, journalist, artist. And why not even a scientist. How can we understand the importance of the humanities for the sciences and vice versa if we do not even know how scientists are reading literature? Especially literature about humans and animals; science and how it relates to race, religion, criminality and other important social and political matters that make up the stuff of fiction.
It doesn’t matter if these critics don’t know who Salgari, Beccari, Cesare Lombroso or the Brookes were. It doesn’t matter of they don’t understand the tensions in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious mix, or what deforestation means for the country and orang utans. It doesn’t matter of they don’t know what Islam and Muslims have to say about hunting animals, touching dogs, human females breastfeeding apes, praying monkeys and Darwinian theories. It would be better if they knew, but a novel is supposed to make us know and experience something we didn’t before, or at least stimulate our curiosity to know more. All I expect of a good literary critic is to know how to write well about literature.
Academics sometimes quote from unpublished dissertations, but I don’t know if any critic has ever written and published a review of an unpublished novel. Why in God’s name would anybody want to waste their time doing that? Why would anyone want to be so charitable? What value is there in evaluating a piece of creating writing that has no market value? Is there any value in consuming the work of a critic outside its institutional and commercial value when there is no book yet for anyone to purchase?
It is highly unlikely that any critic would respond to this call. People really do have better things to read and review. Plus, which serious public platform—literary journal, newspaper, blog etc—is going to host reviews by reputable literary critics of the unpublished novel of an unknown novelist?
What if I get I get bad reviews? Why would I want to sabotage myself like this? Well, that is why I need at least six critics. Maybe not all will give me a bad review. But what happens if I do get six bad reviews? Then I will go back to the novella and work on improving it. And I will hope for number seven. A serious writer should be willing to put herself on the line.
Having my work reviewed is no guarantee that it will or won’t be published since I have no idea how publishers value the opinion of literary critics. I have not yet come across a notice on a fiction publisher’s website stating that all manuscripts will be subject to peer review. Even though most writers are aware, without having to hear it from Terry Eagleton, that there is no guarantee that what one produces in a creative writing programme will be published in the sense I mean, he nevertheless establishes a link between universities and the publishing industry, though in the process completely overlooks the potentially subversive role of the literary critic, many of whom teach in universities.  Unless this is already happening and I don’t know about it, do fiction publishers solicit the opinions of literary critics the way university presses ask academics to peer review manuscripts? If not, why? Why are the services of critics more appreciated after publication and not before?
If Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman published by HarperCollins had gone through peer review, I suspect the reports—had they been made public— would have generated a lot of public interest and discussion. It is creatively useful to see the kinds of criticism and recommendations writers receive on their drafts before they become published products. We better understand the creative process when we see how one novel idea might be discarded for a better one. But this is not the choice HarperCollins made.
If somebody does answer my ‘call for critics’, would this give more power to critics—many of whom also teach in universities—than agents and publishers in the shaping of literary standards and tastes? Critics can’t help sell what is not on the market. But surely that isn’t their only function? Can they still have a say, given their enormous experience with literature, in the discipline of creative writing? The review of an unpublished novel tells us something more about that novel after it has passed under the eyes of competent scholars, supervisors, examiners, and other readers. But what happens outside that context? What I am proposing here is to let my novel speak for itself on its own terms beyond institutional requirements, and without a nice picture and name of publisher on the cover, things readers are influenced by.
In my case, I can’t ask for a double-blind peer review. Just as they know who I am, I will have to know who the critics are since I have got the keys to the goods. Furthermore, my idea is to make reviews of my work public, not keep them hidden from the public eye as is often the case with peer reviews in academic publishing where one-sided praise and pummelling is meted out in secrecy and anonymity. What I am imagining is not a display of power and crushing but rather a coming together of reputations, where the established reputation of a critic meets my, as yet, undeclared and undefined reputation as novelist. What kinds of creative energies and values can emerge as a result of this unique encounter?
Academics spend a lot of their time reading dissertations and unpublished book manuscripts, and are often called upon to write peer review reports for academic presses. The ultimate function of a peer review, if done properly, is to further improve the manuscript beyond, or differently, from what has already been suggested by thesis supervisors, colleagues and other readers. It is work that contributes to determining the outcome of the final published product. Peer reviewing is usually done only when a publisher is interested in a manuscript. My call for critics is absurd because no publisher has expressed interest in my novella yet as I have not sent it out.
Writers write hard, and some also work hard at networking and socialising to find an agent and publisher which will then lead to reviews, prizes and more sales. There are also competitions, crowd funding, self-publishing, self-promotion and all sorts of possibilities. Some writers are very good at selling themselves. But I am doing exactly the opposite. Rather than first looking for a publisher which will then lead to reviews, I am bypassing (for now) agents and publishers and am going straight to the critic, at least where this novella is concerned.
The idea is even more preposterous than The Father’s in Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters In Search Of An Author. This Father suddenly appears on stage with five other people while a play called ‘The rules of the game’ is in rehearsal. He asks the Director to be the author of their story which the Father begins to tell. This, of course, becomes the substance of the whole play replete with dramatic moments including a drowning and a suicide involving children, and The Father attempting to buy sex from The Stepdaughter turned prostitute whom he says he didn’t recognise. We know how that play ended. The Director agreed to be the author of the stories of six people who ended up becoming characters once their story got told, despite the confusion in reconstructing their narratives. In my case, however, we do not know how the search is going to end. We do not even know if six critics will ever search for me.
We are all different as writers. Some want fame and money, two things that also determine the reputation of writers. Others want a good reputation that doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by these two things. Writers have dreams and we have all heard stories about the various methods they use to realise these dreams. I just had an idea, sat down, wrote it and gave it a phase.
Unlike Pirandello’s play, I have no idea how this game with no clearly defined rules is going to end. Maybe the ending will be an anti-climax just like the ending of my novella. I like the irony of anti-climaxes in fiction because they don’t keep the past locked in the past, or make a story an end in itself. It shouldn’t always be the ending that counts but what happens before and in-between.
And of course next.