It has been the subject of much hand-wringing and consternation. The percentage of Singaporean students opting for Literature as a GCE O’Level subject has been steadily dropping over the years. In fact, from 47.9% in 1992, it has plummeted to an alarming 16% today. While there could be a plethora of reasons for this drastic change, it is highly likely that it stems from some fundamental misunderstanding of the subject by both educators and students alike: that literature is reserved only for those who excel at English, that literature means having to read excessively, especially excessively boring books, and the list goes on.
But I certainly protest! Beneath the words of Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickens, Joyce, Woolf, et al. lies something very simple:
We encounter stories daily, if we do not miss the forest for the trees. Text messages from a friend gossiping about an old acquaintance, a newspaper report on a crime, a product advertisement, or even an episode of the latest Netflix series. We encounter stories about heroes of our time, the direction of the economy, political earthquakes and historical tensions. Even with the growing resistance against literature as an examinable subject, it is undeniable that stories, with or without our awareness, form the tapestry of our lives. They are the way we understand ourselves and the world.
The renowned philosopher Richard Kearney writes in his book On Stories that “stories are what make our lives worth living.” He adds: “They are what make our condition human.”
The desire to tell stories is a primordial human impulse that can be traced back to ancient times even before the advent of writing. Deep in the woods, elders, chieftains and village honchos used to spread myths and sing songs as a means of passing down traditions to their young – a practice that we now understand as oral tradition. Today, with over 6,000 living languages and vast technological development, we can tell stories in myriad forms for myriad reasons – through videos, podcasts and electronic devices.
Here is a perplexing question: Why do we write stories in the first place?
As a writer, I find that writing is a valuable form of catharsis that allows me to recalibrate my mind after a particularly impactful experience. It is also a means of delving into a different world, pushing the very boundaries of perspective.
More significantly, many do not realise that writing is an act of power. Writers have the power to provoke thoughts and emotions in complete strangers – their readers.
Even for the ostensibly more practical-minded, storytelling is an indispensable 21st century skill. Why do some products resonate with consumers more than others? Why do some people become icons of our time? On the most basic level, why do some people impress at interviews, while others flounder?
It appears that stories allow both writers and readers to make sense of their own experiences, to organically understand their place in the world. Perhaps only then can we begin to be truly self-aware, leading constructive and meaningful lives.
Before I wrap up this story, I do have one final proposition: I believe that the solution to cultivating love for literature once again is to build a conscious culture of sharing one’s thoughts and experiences through writing stories. After all, we need not regard literature with a ten-foot long pole if we accept that stories circumscribe our lives in more ways than we realise.