Sunday, July 22, 2007

Never Judge a Book by Its...Title

Ok, I admit it, I googled myself. Shameful, I know. I caught myself in a weak moment. Curiosity got the better of me. To be honest I googled not just me but also my book, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, a collection of short stories set in Malaysia. I wanted to see if it was creating any kind of buzz, even if it was merely a single bee.

Then a blog entry caught my eye and caught me by surprise, too – so that’s what people are thinking about my book! A Malay student at Universiti Sains Malaysia, whom I don’t know, wrote about her conversation with another Malay woman who worked at the USM bookstore about my book. By the way, isn’t Internet a wonder­ful way to eavesdrop on private thoughts made public?

I won’t mention the student’s name or her blog to protect her privacy, although by the fact that she wrote it in a blog instead of in her diary, she was hardly keeping it private. To make it easier to follow (and less confusing, and to help distinguish between the two speakers), I separated the lines and added quotation marks. The teacher in me also cleaned up some minor grammar mistakes, though I left in a few “u” for you.

A year ago (how was I to know?), the student posted in her blog: I just bought a storybook after 4 years of buying and photocopying chemistry books! Thanks to [my friend], who succeeded in influencing me lately to read more books. We need to brush up our English! Her influence really hit me hard on my brain. It's true. I have not touched any fiction or nonfiction books for a VERY LONG TIME. At last, on the 17 of March at 1.15 pm, I went to USM's bookshop to buy a storybook entitled Lovers and Strangers Revisited written by Robert Raymer, a lecturer in my [university] teaching Creative Writing.

I went to the counter to pay for the book and the cashier suddenly looked at me with a blunt look on her face.

“Who recommended this book?”‌ she said to me, her right hand holding my book.

I looked back at her with a blur curved smile on my face. “A friend of mine. She just bought that book yesterday. I found it really interesting...”

And then she got a little bit excited, and we started a short conversation as she seemed to be so deadly interested about the book. Actually, I've never talked to her before cause she looked a bit serious most of the time.

“What do u think of the title? Do u feel uncomfortable when u look at the title?”
I didn't get the idea of her asking me like that.

“Don't u feel a bit shy (or ashamed) to buy this book when u looked at the title?”‌

I looked at her with my sleepy eyes and said, “Why, it’s just a book.” (Small grin again)

“Yeah that's right!” she said. “I answered the same thing too to some customers who felt uncomfortable to buy this book cause of the title.”‌

In my heart, I never knew some people are like that! It’s just a book...‌.

Then she continued, “Yeah…the contents are more important than the title, right?”

“Yeah, right! Anyway, the title doesn't reflect the cover of the book. Unless the cover is ... you know. It just didn't make any sense why these people felt uncomfortable about it. ‌ A sketch of [the KL railroad station] is the cover illustration which is so dull.
“I just read half of it,” ‌she said with a friendly smile.

“I just read ‘On Fridays’. It was really interesting and I bought this book to read his other stories.”

“I like ‘On Fridays!’” Now she sounded more excited than before. It makes me feel like I was there! Her eyes glowed with excitement.

And me? Yeah me, too. “I think it's worth to buy.” ‌

I smiled at her as she handed the book and walked out from the bookstore as she was saying salam to me. I walked hurriedly to my hostel as I was hungry and I got a class at three. In my heart I was really happy, not because of the book but my conversation with that cashier.
                                                               *  *  *

After reading this blog entry, I had to smile, too – so that's why the book wasn't selling well at USM bookstore! People were too embarrassed by the title. Sounds like others would stare or glare at them for even picking up the book (let a lone trying to buy it!), as if to say, "How dare you read something like that! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?"

But as the blogger had pointed out, wasn’t the cover a giveaway? A boring railway station – no hint of scandal or bad taste there! I chose the railway station because one of the short stories is set there, “The Station Hotel”. (Ok, the main character was having an affair.)

When I chose the original title back in 1993, I was trying to find a way to tie in all of the stories; some of the stories were about lovers and other stories about strangers, so I chose Lovers and Strangers, after the title of one of the stories. Later, while hawking the book at two book fairs – KL and Singapore – I suspected that I chose the wrong title. Men would see the title and dismiss it as “romance”.

Several stories, I admit, are about affairs. But other stories are not. “Symmetry”, for example, is about a little girl finding a dead cockroach in someone’s empty glass of tea. “The Watcher” is about an elder Chinese man rediscovering life through his great grandson. Even the story that the two women liked, “On Fridays” is about a man feeling lonely after sitting beside a Malay woman in a share taxi, but nothing happens – they never meet. This story, by the way, has been published nine times in six countries including France and USA.

Now the title of the heavily revised collection is Lovers and Strangers Revisited, and the story “Neighbours” due to be published in the US in 2007, has even been chosen by the Ministry of Education to be taught in SPM literature in 2008. Obviously they didn’t let the title of the collection bother them. Nor did they judge the book by its cover – nor should we. Covers can influence you to pick it up and browse through it – that's the whole idea.

Also, we should never judge a book by the controversy surrounding it. Read the book for yourself, or at the very least skim through it to see what the fuss is about. Most people who make alarming statements about a particular book or about its author haven’t even bothered to glance through the book, let alone read it! They just jump on the not-so-literary bandwagon and let their emotions carry them away.

As for me, I greatly appreciate the fact that this student – after years of not buying any fiction – decided to buy my book. I feel honored. I also liked the fact that she had this semi-literary conversation with this other woman about the book, and they both liked the story “On Fridays”. If only more Malaysians would read and discuss books! But there is hope, judging from this blog, and other bloggers out there discussing the books they’ve been reading. I’m also glad that my book was able to bring these two ladies together. And to have them depart as friends, with smiles on their faces. What more can a writer ask for – other than being at the top of the bestseller’s list? Still, this blog entry made my day. Perhaps I should google myself more often, or at least my book, to see if anyone else is buzzing…

* As an update, when I switched publishers to MPH I got a new cover.  The book also went on to win an award.  And now it's coming out in French.

** A revised version of the above article found it's way into Tropical Affairs.

***Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 


MayaKirana said...

Hi Robert
Interesting! Googling for oneself is called 'ego surfing' haha. Well, thanks to the Internet, we now have alternative ways to gain feedback on ourselves and in your case, your books. I think it's quite delightful to know that someone blogged about her experience buying your book and then sharing that experience honestly. By the way, the men I know usually cringe if they see the word "love" on a book title. But the way I see it, your title works both ways. It would titillate and get people to pick your book (if they're highly curious about the lovers and strangers bit) or it would make some shy away.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks. Sometimes the ego needs a boost; then there's curiosity...Of course if people ego surf all the time, there are other words for it ranging from narcissism to paranoid!

sarawakiana said...

It is interesting to read any blog from Sarawak and especially yours!

I am afraid I have not seen your books on the bookshelves of Miri! Perhaps my next trip to Kuching would enlighten me.

Since I have not been able to discuss your book with others perhaps the title is enough to make me buy it.

BorneoExpatWriter said...


Thanks. Soon I'll be hooking up with MPH books (they're opening a store in Kuching and I hope Miri too) so my books will be easier to find in Sarawak. In the meantime, if you give me your address (sent it via my contact/email from my website: I'll send you a copy. RM30 with a free autograph!