What ails Sri Lankan Literature | Daily News

What ails Sri Lankan Literature

Sri Lanka can be proud of having world class writings both in English and Sinhala (and in Tamil too, no doubt, about which I am unable to comment). However, during the past few years we have been facing a serious decline in our creative fiction and critical studies. The time has come to consider the reasons for the decline and take remedial measures.

Sinhala literature in all forms, poetry, short stories and novels evolved in leaps and bounds beginning with Martin Wickramasinghe, followed by Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara, and later by Simon Nawagattegama, Mahagama Sekara, Arawwala Nandimitra, to mention just a few. Unfortunately, very few outside our country had heard of them, and even the universities teaching world literature are not aware of their works. This is so even when Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra had been translated into English. Our English literature too had evolved over the years and here too, even the readers in our neighbouring countries were not aware of them.

However, what is coming out in Sri Lanka today as literature is pathetic. It is a crime against our environment to waste so much paper and get people to pay exorbitant prices to buy such books. It is the book publisher, the National Library and Documentation Board and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs who should take a greater interest to encourage good creative works and to give them proper guidance on publishing. There is an urgent and important need for a proper editorial guidance service.

At present, to my knowledge neither the publishers, nor the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, are concerned about editing and even proofreading what they publish. There is only one private organisation and a few individuals who undertake the task of editing creative works. Recently a young writer sent his book to a person in India to get his novel edited.

“A major obstacle to the development of creative writing in Sri Lanka generally has been the absence of good publishing houses. The kind of institution that would encourage and nurture beginning writers, appoint experienced literary editors to advise them on such matters as the structuring, editing and (in these days of computers) formatting of their work, and do their best to secure for them a readership at home and abroad, has simply not been available,” Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne wrote in 2002. Today, 17 years later the situation is still the same.

Creative works

Moreoever, reading some of the books published in the recent past it is apparent that some publishers are ready to publish anything if the author is prepared to pay the cost of publishing. Often these are just ‘vanity books’ and it is unfair to expect the readers to buy such books.

It is difficult to see any benefit for the writers, or an improvement in their creative works, due to the annual awards given by several organisations. The plus factor is that writers and the publishers receive financial benefits with the increase in their book sales. There are several negative factors. Readers and librarians are tempted and encouraged to purchase the award winning novels, ignoring other works that are equally good, or sometimes better. Very often the new prints are sold at unreasonably higher prices, while in reality the prices could come down, due to the increased sales volumes. Cost of publishing would be much less for reprints.

The standard of the award winning books are also often challenged by critics after the awards. One reason is because of the lack of transparency of the evaluation process. The organisers or the judges should be able to come out in the open to justify their selection and more importantly to answer the writers and readers as to why all other books have been rejected. When we see the number of books published annually, many of them running to over 500 pages, it would be a herculean task for the judges to read all these books, from cover to cover within a very limited time period. If there are 150 Sinhala novels, it would come to about 75,000 pages. Could anyone read all these books within a few months? I believe every writer who has published a book has a right to know why a book is rejected, because he or she also has a right to consider their book as the best.

Literary awards

Another unfortunate issue is that sometimes awards are given to manuscripts, which never get published, and nobody outside the panel of judges has an opportunity to read these works. This means the judges can get away with anything. The organisers apparently do not bother if such award winning books ever get published.

Literary awards, with always a deadline for publication, in a country where publishers are not interested in evaluation or editing of their publications, lead to a glut of trash, which could not be considered as literary creations. The gullible readers, enticed by the book cover and the blurbs buy such books at very high prices, only to be thrown away after reading a few pages. The annual publication deadline, or publication before the annual book fair, results in writers rushing through their work, with the only aim to submit the manuscript to the publisher in time. There is no room for editing, proofreading and sometimes even to read the finished book at least once before publishing, either by the author or the publisher. One glaring error in a novel published last year was that a female character is introduced as the only sister of one of the main characters. Later on in the story she is described as the daughter. The child born to the woman thus becomes the nephew on one page and the grandson on the next page.

One excuse given by critics is that our writers do not have enough experience or exposure to create new works of fiction. That is a fallacy, because there are many writers who have produced great stories, created new themes or presented old themes in a novel way. Yet unfortunately sometimes the final outcome is disappointing, some of them have made very poor works either because they are in a great hurry to complete the book, or they do not read their work again before submitting for publication.

We do not have a Sahitya Akademi as they have in India and Bangladesh. We do not have a branch of the International English Literature Association. We do not have literary associations or reading circles. We do not have real book reviews. All we get are write-ups about a few books written by friends or attacks by others done out of spite. Readers are not aware of new books published, there is no promotion or marketing of published books. Even though many booksellers have branches all over the country, very few books reach the shops beyond the city limits.

Another unfortunate situation is created in our country by our writers and academics by failing to appreciate the really great works, either because of jealousy, or because they do not bother to read such works. Recently when I mentioned the works of Mahagama Sekara, a well known Sinhala academic laughed and asked me what is so great about Sekara. That is why our literature gets confined to our small island and the world is not aware of how great our literature is.

In the coming Literary month to be followed by the Reading month, let us discuss these issues seriously, and openly in the best interest of Sri Lankan literature. 

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