Don’t Judge An Anthology By Its Introduction aka Things That You Cannot Help But Notice
Questions on motivations colour the reading
By Anne Seah
Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover aka Dead People, Flying Fishes And The Ones Who Missed The Boat
Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover aka Dead People, Flying Fishes And The Ones Who Missed The Boat. Such a title pre-empts hasty criticism. It escapes quick dismissal; demands and ensures a thorough reading before any judgement can be justifiably passed upon it. Definitely a clever marketing strategy, considering that the book is produced by final-year Mass Communication students of Ngee Ann Polytechnic and features the writing of these relatively unknown names in Singapore’s literary scene.
So even though more established writers such as Suchen Christine Lim, Aaron Lee and Cyril Wong, to name a few, are featured as well, the rhetoric of the book’s title proposes a reading where the divide between known and unknown writers is suspended. The four different cover designs that the book is available in, and the perforated book covers, continue this rhetoric by further emphasising that regardless of the appearance of the book, the work itself remains, awaiting evaluation. In other words, the rhetoric of the book’s title and packaging requests that the lesser known writers be given an unbiased reading.
Fair enough – if the book is indeed what it proposes to be. Instead, slippages in discourse indicate that the book perpetuates the very condition which it claims it had set out to rectify.
At the onset, the book declares itself as a utopian enterprise. Lecturer and editor Desmond Kon proclaims in his introduction, “Passing Off As My Own”, that the book’s “one political agenda [is] to do good”. Kon writes on for a few pages more, but never once does he spell out exactly what it means to “do good”. So, one is left to assume that his ruminations on education that follow dwell on his idea of what it means to “do good”. Peppered with phrases such as, “authority is democratised,” “establish egalitarian working relations,” “It’s about reaching... the final absolution in power relations,” Kon’s discourse appears to indicate the flattening and equalising of power relations between teacher and students as the “goodness” which he attempts to achieve, both in his day-to-day teaching and through the process of producing the book.
Such an undertaking is no doubt laudable. However, it is one that has failed, and one that was perhaps doomed to failure right from the beginning. Instead of achieving and representing egalitarian power relations between teacher and students, known and unknown writers, the production, publication and circulation of the book function to reify authority and hierarchy.
Kon begins the book with an introduction entitled “Passing Off As My Own”, followed immediately by the question, “When don’t we plagiarise?” He then continues the discussion of the issue of plagiarism, asking, “Sometimes I wonder which one of my students has become my thief? Which one took an idea, word, personality, truism, irony, joke, worldview, and passed it off as their own?” His anxiety about being plagiarised by his students indicates an obvious fear of being usurped of power via the act of plagiarism, despite his professed aim to equalise power relations between teacher and students.
Kon’s discourse on plagiarism is also intermeshed with Biblical references. His doubts are repeated and juxtaposed with metaphysical ruminations on “absolute truth”, “good” and “evil”. He writes:
So, arguably, the crux of Kon’s conflict lies in the tension between anxiety about being subjected to plagiarism by his students and his spiritual need as an educator, and as a Christian, to “always do the good and right thing, like the sting of original sin.”
It becomes evident towards the end of his introduction that Kon negotiates and resolves this conflict by reinstating his position of power as the figure of authority. In the last paragraph, Kon draws a parallel between God’s relationship with him and his own relationship with his students. Arguing that his students plagiarise from him in the same way he plagiarises from God, Kon further aligns himself with the figure of God by claiming to accept his students and their acts of plagiarism, theft and betrayal with the main theology of Christianity – love.
In fact, it is arguable that Kon not only aligns himself with the figure of God, but even goes as far as to posit himself as God – at least in the hierarchy of relationships between teacher and students. Kon’s language regarding himself and God becomes increasingly ambiguous and more and more slippery as he writes, “As ultimate Objective Moral Law Giver, I do believe God has the last word on all things.” Who does the “ultimate Objective Moral Law Giver” refer to here? God, or Kon? Such a con-fusion is surely telling.
Attributing the origin of his students’ work to himself, appropriating his students’ work and positing himself as the Author, it is no wonder then that Kon has entitled his introduction, “Passing Off As My Own”. Kon’s discourse has demonstrated how apt, albeit ironic, his title is.
Indeed, the writings of Kon’s students in the rest of the book repeatedly reveal weariness with the act of writing, showing that the book is an enterprise owned more by Kon than any other writer in the book. In “Stream of Consciousness,” Aaron Lye gives his reasons for writing, ending significantly with, “I write... because I’m told to.” In “It”, Anne Ng Soong Yi writes of the lines “[settling] into a dead, flat scrawl.” In her untitled poem, Ng sums it all up with just one line, “Doodle, meddle, fiddle, scribble, scratch, trash.” (The literary merit of such a poem is another issue.)
The rest of the book, made up of poems, short stories and essays dwelling on the act of writing, is mostly inconsistent. Take, for example, the writers Stanislaus Jude Chan and Ivan Ke. They are the joint authors of “Receipts,” arguably the most startling and effective poem in the book. Instead of the openly declarative style of most of the poems, “Receipts” examines economics in relationships via clever repetitions in language and imagery. Disappointingly, however, the other poems by Chan and Ke in the book are not executed with the same degree of subtlety.
Likewise, Wena Poon’s “Your New Best-Selling Persona” is also more of an exception than the norm. Its humour signifies its recognition of and engagement with the politics of the act of writing in the face of modern-day consumerism, feminism, cinema, technology, America... the list goes on. The multiple issues dealt with far exceed the scope of a book review, and would take many more essays to discuss and examine.
Inconsistency, however, is not the critical flaw of the book. Taking into account that the book is an anthology, inconsistency might even be argued to be inevitable. The book’s critical flaw, then, is the massive undertaking which Kon has impregnated it with in his introduction. To quote George Orwell’s statement, “No book is genuinely free from political bias” and yet obfuscate the political agenda of the book – that is Kon’s critical fallacy. Indeed, don’t judge a book by its cover.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003