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The Importance of Being Earnest – a fitting tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Arts Festival February 6, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Literature.
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It seems that in 2011 alone, there were several revivals of the Oscar Wilde evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest. A casual search online uncovered productions by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, the Wingspan Theater Company in Dallas, and Rose Kingston Theatre in the UK.

The enduring popularity of the play is due in no small measure to the steady barrage of clever wordplay, one-liners, acidic barbs and throwaway witticisms it maintains throughout; but the universality and contemporary relevance of Wilde’s commentary on social hypocrisy and human duplicity would probably have a lot to do with it as well.

It is only fitting that the Hong Kong Arts Festival should choose Rose Theatre Kingston’s production directed by Stephen Unwin as the lead drama for its 40th anniversary.  With such a superb script crafted by Wilde, any half decent theatre company would be a good box-office draw and make a success of it.  That is not to belittle Rose Kingston.  Its performance is taut, fast-paced and well thought out.

I can’t help thinking that Lady Bracknell is Wilde’s favourite character – she gets most of the best lines and the most distinctive profile.  Carol Royle is just offhandish enough to be amusing, but not too disdainful to be repulsive.

Daniel Brocklebank as John Worthing and Mark Edel-Hunt as Algernon Moncrieff are credible well-heeled layabouts.  Their fight over muffins for tea at the end of the second act is hilarious and symmetrical with an earlier spat between Gwendolen and Cecily.

Faye Castelow oozes refreshing and brainy youth as Cecily, fantasising about engagement with John Worthing’s imaginary brother.  Kirsty Besterman, by comparison, presents Gwendolen less elegantly.  Their vituperative contest in thinking that they are engaged to the same man by the name of Earnest is a vivid reminder of Algernon Moncrieff’s prescient remark in the first act that women call each other sister “when they have called each other a lot of other things first”.

The set is almost minimalist but faithful to the Victorian historical context.  The large amounts of space provides plenty of room for walking about, but with a small cast the stage does look a little empty and under-designed.  The costumes also follow a similarly simple principle, light-coloured and graceful for the ladies.  The men’s are more colourful, with the contrast between Algernon’s beige suit and John Worthing’s total blackness in mourning for his invented brother particularly striking.

The Importance of Being Earnest suggests parallels with Shakespeare for me.  Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew’s obsession with the name Earnest as qualification for amorous attention harks back to Juliet’s famous line “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Surely the disguised identities and lovelorn couples could have been inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Yet any suggestion that Wilde was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare would no doubt draw scorn from the Lady Bracknells of literary criticism.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Rose Theatre Kingston, directed by Stephen Unwin

Sunday 5th February, 2012

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival

The Brave New World of Books – a layman’s view April 9, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Books, Communication, Language, Literature, Marketing, Reading.
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I have always had an interest in books, but should have read more than I have.  My excuse?  That the books that matter are too bulky.  The arrival of e-books has totally destroyed this excuse.  My iPad now carries Oscar Wilde Complete Works Ultimate Collection (140+ works), Works of George Bernard Shaw (30+ works), James Joyce’s Ulysses, War and Peace, and The Works of Mark Twain (24 books in a single file).  It weighs exactly the same as it did without them.  Some of the books were even free to download.

The world of books has gone through wrenching change in the last few years.  Prognosis, diagnosis and predictions aside, we don’t quite know what it will look like when the dust settles.  Yet the new world already looks exciting to some, and frightening to others.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of some of the players in it, the world of books is not that different from other industries.  Some generate the product ideas (the authors), some manufacture the products (publishers and printers), some distribute them (booksellers) and others consume them (readers).  There are the usual intermediaries, such as literary agents and editors who work for publishers.

So what does the new world of books mean to all these players in the industry?

Authors

Many published and aspiring authors feel that they are the most oppressed people in the world.  They toil for years to develop their product (the book), only to get serial rejection letters from publishers and biting comments from editors.  With the increasing popularity of e-publishing, authors feel truly liberated.  They don’t have to ask publishers for permission, or beg editors not to change their work.  They can now choose to self-publish anything they want, provided they are prepared to put up with a lot of extra administrative work.

Yet like karaoke, which gives people who can’t sing the illusion that they can, e-publishing gives authors who can’t write or tell a story a similar illusion.  This blog post you are reading could be a case in point.  As the quantity of published material in the market goes up, the general quality comes down.

In other words, authors can now bypass publishers as gatekeepers of “quality”, but there are no more or less “good” authors.  It only means that the work of more bad authors gets out into the market.  Let’s face it, some authors who publish their own works electronically now may not be worthy of publication at all.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some authors also complain they earn less per e-book than they do the physical equivalent.  All we can hope is that a larger number of e-books sell to make up for this shortfall.

Publishers

The manufacturers of books – the publishers – have never been short of raw materials.  They have always been inundated with more manuscripts than they can handle in several lifetimes.  Their trade is also fraught with sometimes substantial risks.  How many titles have they published which don’t even cover the cost of printing, not to mention the occasional advances and huge marketing and distribution costs?

E-publishing has cut the cost of production for publishers to the bare minimum, although physical production probably accounts for a small part of a publisher’s total cost.  A few printers will go out of business.  The cost of distribution has also come down, as there is no real physical handling of an e-book.  Besides, there are now more cost-effective channels for promotion, such as social networking.

The price of an e-book, however, is sometimes 20% cheaper than its paperback equivalent, and sometimes even more expensive.  As e-publishing guts a publisher’s business of costs, book pricing doesn’t seem to have fallen proportionally.  Publisher profitability should have gone up, and the business should be less risky.  Although publishers are also vulnerable to literary agencies selling rights direct to new-world retailers such as Amazon, as Wylie did last year, this doesn’t seem a widespread threat yet.

As purveyors of quality products the reading public wants to buy, publishers should feel secure in their jobs, as long as they continue to keep close to the taste of readers, insist on quality writing, embrace new media and don’t get too naïve about forking out huge advances for celebrity appeal.

Literary agents

Authors love to hate literary agents.  They need them to get to a decent publisher and a wide market, but simply getting to them is a five-year project itself.  With the right confluence of temperament, a literary agent will remain an author’s best friend.  This sometimes cantankerous and oddball breed will likely continue to thrive, and behave just as obnoxiously to the unfortunate writing low-life that dares cross its path.

Booksellers

By all accounts, booksellers seem to have hurt the most.  In an article in Fortune magazine dated June 21, 2010, Borders CEO Michael Edwards defends the raison d’être of bookstores: “If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer…consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives…The next chapter is up to them.”  For Borders, that next chapter was Chapter 11, in February, 2011.

My personal experience may be a curved mirror of reality, but it should nevertheless make booksellers stand up and take notice.  Browsing in bookstores is no longer a pastime.  The few physical books I have bought in the last year have either been bargain end-of-the-line titles, or ones I need to share with others.  A few months ago, I saw a title in an exhibition which appeared to be on sale, around 20% cheaper than in bookstores.  There and then, I looked online, found and downloaded an electronic copy at almost half the already reduced price at the exhibition.

Predictions about the demise of anything are usually correct in direction but wrong in timing.  Die-hard physical book lovers will be far bigger in number and slower to change their habits than futurists envisage.  Bookstores will die a slow, painful death.  A few may even survive.

Readers

For the already overloaded reading public, it’s now harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Who cares?  We have always made bad choices anyway, and can now do so at lower cost.  Nor do we need to find bigger bookshelves to house those unwanted and unread titles.  As a life-long reader, I find the immense convenience of e-books simply irresistible.  Similar sentiments may even drive up general readership, and give the book industry needed impetus for growth.

In conclusion

As a reader not in any way involved in the book industry, I am excited by the changes I have seen, but would like to see more.  I want more titles to be available electronically, and at the same time as the hard copy comes on to the market.  I want pricing to come down further.  I’d hate to get caught in the commercial maelstrom, though.

André Brink at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival says literature in South Africa is “exuberant“ March 14, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Literature.
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“Language,” André Brink says, “is the starting point of literature, an invention in and through language.”  As someone who writes in both English and Afrikaans, he should know.  He tells me that since the transition to multi-racial democracy in South Africa, more literature is written in Afrikaans, often seen to be the language of racial oppression.  It is perhaps not so surprising, since Afrikaans was, in the words of Brink, “shaped in the mouths of slaves” which in a process of “creolisation” became the language of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century.

In a wide-ranging, erudite and stimulating lecture at the 2010 Man Hong Kong International Festival, held recently at the University of Hong Kong, Brink talks about South African fiction after apartheid.

He begins by observing that apartheid  has not been eliminated, but is “receding”.  “The road to freedom for the creation of literature,” he says, “still has to be walked.”

According to him, the most obvious characteristic of post-apartheid literature is probably its more “inward” nature, a perceptible shift away from engagement in the political field during apartheid when the urgency of politics “necessitated a direct response”.

Themes relegated to the background during the apartheid years emerge into prominence after the transition, bringing “electricity to the scene”.  However, this does not mean a rejection of politics, but rather a “re-imaging” of the political.  Brink cites the works of J.M. Coetzee as examples in which politics features but its personal interpretation gives it substance.

For Brink, however, the private and the political do not constitute a dichotomy, but are rather “positions on a sliding scale.”

Brink attributes the state of South Africa today to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) , which held a number of public hearings into atrocities committed during the apartheid years.  “Testifying in public about private horrors,” Brink says, “pushed the limits of storytelling.”  Historiography, which had been monopolised and usurped by the ruling government for political ends, has been liberated – many histories are now possible.

Another aspect of the post-apartheid literary world in South Africa is the withdrawal of writers into themselves in a way more typical of their solitary profession in other countries.  While during years of apartheid, writers got used to working together, they now work more alone, although the memory of that “closeness and solidarity” still remains.

Feminism, or more generally the female experience of the country, offers a domain for the new South Africa.  Affirmation of femininity in many works denotes a shift in consciousness and awareness.  Call Me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo, Call me not a man by Mtutuzeli Matshoba and The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele are fine examples.

At the same time, there appears to be an “appropriation of voice” – the fictional impersonation of man as woman or white as black.  Brink refers to his own work in which he as a male author “poses” as a female narrator.  He calls this “appropriation” as he wonders aloud about the difference between “speaking on behalf of” and “speaking in solidarity with”.  In the re-interpretation of history, the master narrative devised by white male historians gives way to the re-discovery or re-definition of “an infinity of South African histories”.

It may appear to some that the notion of “magical realism” is new to literature in the post-apartheid era, but according to Brink this has always been a key element in the oral narrative tradition in African folklore – ancestors have always interfered with the present.  As an example of magical realism, Brink recounts the story (apparently told by Justice Goldstone) of a black worker for the opera house whose job it was to lead some camels from the zoo to the theatre during performances of Aïda.  Stopped en route by a white constable one day, and in response to the question what he was doing, he said, “I’m taking the camels to the opera”.

In conclusion, Brink uses the word “exuberance” repeatedly to describe the state of South African literature, which he says is “on the verge of an explosion in creativity”.  This exuberance is an expression of joy in the “rediscovery of literature and its possibilities” – literature as “indomitable energy of the human spirit”.

Thus spoke the master, and baie dankie.

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