Not Reading Literature Is The New Reading Literature

If I hadn’t seen it on the front page of the Straits Times, I’d have dismissed the article (headline “Literature winner read only 3 novels in 2 years”) about the Singaporean winner of the Angus Ross prize as a satire on the Singaporean education system. I was about to go into a rant about the unfuckingbelievableness of it all, and then found out that Nicholas had already done it for me, complete with characteristic acerbity and extracts of the article’s most offending statements.

All I will add is that I dearly hope Ms Candice Wan Shu Ting was misquoted several times by the journalist who interviewed her. If she was, she has all my sympathies for being portrayed as an astoundingly arrogant teenager who deserves to be spanked hard with every book of the Western literary canon (just to start with). If she wasn’t, if I ever meet her I don’t think I’ll be able to resist asking, ever so casually, “Read any good books lately?”


  1. Being a criminally slow and unmotivated reader, I am actually perversely pleased with this article. Through my blinkered lenses Ms Wan was not misquoted, and in my own biased world it’s validation that lazy-asses like myself can make good if we make whatever little we have go a long way. :p

  2. Hah! Po Chin, fancy meeting you here!

    EXACTLY. Dan Brown writes like shit.

    Well, not shit. More like baby food.

    *lit major-book snob pride/rage*

  3. During one of the various CAP Alum meetings that’s been going on recently, this came up and we spent a good half hour ranting, er *cough cough*, discussing the topic thoroughly. ;p

    I actually know Candice though. She spent the first 3 months in TSD.

    But anyway, I completely agree with what one of the posters (Budak, I believe) commented in Nicholas’s blog. *grin*

  4. Have you read the entire article? A friend of mine claims it’s more balanced (supposedly she does read, just news articles not novels) and the quote may have been taken out of context. It makes her sound extremely arrogant to me, but I’d like to check if my friend was right.

  5. Yes, Xue, my view is based on the entire article, not just the excerpts. The rest of the article adds balance in that it suggests she’s not a chao mugger, and has a number of other abilities. (I dare not describe them as “passions”.) Good for her.

    But the fact that she reads non-fiction doesn’t really change my view of her statement about why she doesn’t need to read any more fiction. And, like Nicholas pointed out, her reference to her “genuine passion” for Literature is what really gets my goat.

    As I said though, I do still think it’s possible that she was misquoted or her quotes were taken out of context. And I really hope that’s the case.

  6. honestly i think the fact that she won a lit prize for being able to dissect and criticise literature doesn’t have much to do with this big furore. just because she seems like she can’t be bothered to read literature doesn’t mean that she’s a bad lit student, anyone equipped with proper analytical skills and trained to construct a decent argument (i.e. good Practical Criticism skills) can be a good lit student. i don’t mean to defend her, i still think the quote sounds really stupid and arrogant, but it’s kinda like how some actors refuse to watch too many films or study other actors’ acting because they want to preserve some sort of originality in their acting style… (but then we are starting to delve into the whole postmodern ‘is any art original’ arena now, so let’s not go there!)

  7. i’d think she was misquoted. our press people are notorious for misquotes, misinformation and mistakes. every single article that i’m able to verify, they’ve made some mistake somewhere.

  8. Tessa, I do agree that her emotional connection (or lack thereof) to literature has very little to do with her intellectual ability to analyse it. I certainly don’t think the prize should be taken away from her or anything like that, and am sure she won it fair and square based on the merits of her essays. But although I don’t deny that she was a very good A’level literature exam candidate, I still wouldn’t describe her as a “good literature student” in the wider sense of those words.

    Interesting point about the actors, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Are any of these actors good? (Pardon my ignorance, am not very knowledgeable about acting beyond just watching it.)

  9. The way we are reacting to the article indicates that the latter said more about literature than Miss Wan herself.

    I feel really sorry for the reporter if s/he was trying to downplay the value of literature with the prove that someone can win a prize in “that category” even if hey, you don’t have to read it! I would feel even more sorry if it were Miss Wan’s intention to prove the point that by reading more of non-fiction than fiction, she is not an “airy-fairy-stuck-in-the-tales” student — a stereotypical mythical discourse of the humanities in our society, of which she is yet another unfortunate victim.

    My question is this: would a similar report come up if it weren’t the Angus Ross, but a prize-winner of a totally different discipline? Will our reactions be the same after reading that a Mathematics/Biology/Accounting, just to take a few examples, student who topped the country/region and yet s/he does not read more than 3 (albeit very badly written) Mathematics/Biology book in 2 years?

    If we hesitate on the above alternative scenario, that’s beacause of the beautiful conundrum: literature has that uniqueness of never being really a textbook. Whether a lit student is reading by the beach with a paperback or in the library chewing and highlighting the same book on the eve of an exam, chances are he or she is on both cases taking the task carefully and seriously. Yet at the same time, having a hell of a time. Hence our shock and dismay, that this student is not reading something in her discipline when it is something so immensly rich and pleasurable, which all of us devour and we do not need a degree, let alone a prize, to well do so!! I wonder what this comment box would be like if the same was reported on a prize-winner for not reading enough accounting textbooks in his or her free time.

    That being said, I actually dare to hope that it would deserve as much furoe, because I know and believe that every discipline draws out the passion in a few and erases the distinction between work-reading and leisure-reading.

    Maybe I’m dogmatically idealistic when I say that. After all, a discipline cannot be defined by the Cambridge Os and As exams, and that practical criticism is really one baby small step to knowing lit.

    This is long, and I apologise. Maybe at the back of my head I recall occassions when I myself have confessed — “as a literature student, I don’t read enough fiction.” And for me it was always a n unbelievable and guilty utternace. [Disbelief that literature has so far, and guilt that I still owe something to the canon even if I’m turning sideways to it.]

    Once someone responded to that, and said “luckily I’m not a lit student, or I’ll be doing so much lit for work it would take away the pleasure of reading it outside work.”

    I’m afraid he cannot be further from the truth in saying that, because there is no official working text in lit. Besides, there is something literary in every text; words not not allow pleasure to be cornered.

    However I didn’t quite reply to the friend then, because if we want to begin to ask “what is literature?” trust me, we’ll be here forever.

    And we wouldn’t want that, because our time can be made for something else, like reading, for example. :)

  10. wah, Shao, that made a lot of sense!!

    unfortunately i am one of those that find literature too tiring for the enjoyment of fiction. i often find the accepted attitude towards fiction in literature classes is “slightly bored, i’ve seen stuff like this before elsewhere, i’m being cynical coz i have to and oh by the way what lovely metaphors” kinda thing. i don’t want to pick up metaphors and hang them out by their toes to dry. i want to let them work their magic on me, and the heck with what the author wanted me to think!! :P

  11. like calmone, i suspect the problem stems from the practices of the local media, where people are often quoted out of context or have their statements rephrased, although i only have evidence of this for papers other than the straits times. but at the same time I am, and this is dependent on the fully-retractable best-case scenario image of her i have in my mind, incredibly pleased that she’s acting like an arrogant teenager (as all teenagers should) and fucking up the establishment with her anti-epistemological stance. go team cosmo!

  12. I guess what really irks most people is the fact that she was quoted as having “passion” for literature and in the next breath is contradicted by the next thing by saying that she doesn’t read it often. All this said and done, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t read – although all I can say about her choice is fiction is… urm… heheh. I guess what she means is she doesn’t read classic literature, stuff like.. I don’t know… Charles Dickens? However, it still does annoy me that she was quoted as not having read anything fiction other than Dan Brown.

    And the whole criticism thing versus being able to CREATE it rings true, but I think here the passion for the subject (minus your ability to destroy because most people become pretty adept at that once they learn how to) is what we’re really arguing about… (and yes I agree that Shao has made many good points)…and so…the whole not reading to keep originality as put fwd by the whole keeping acting original by not watching other actors… well, actually I’m just wondering, but HOW is it POSSIBLE to avoid it? As in, I’m quite sure Candice doesn’t live in a void, so it just seems… highly unlikely to me that she hasn’t read any fiction book OTHER than Dan Brown. *shrug* but like everyone here has pointed out, our papers are famous for misinformation. Anyway she’s actually a fairly nice person. Hm.

  13. Having been a victim of gross misquotation by a newspaper (not the Straits Times), I think that misinformation through editing on the journalist’s part is highly likely. Maybe Dan Brown is the journalist’s idea of literature.

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