Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join us as we dive into the latest in literary news!

In this week’s dispatches, we travel to Hong Kong to remember wuxia writer, Jin Yong, who passed away late in October. More recently, Hong Kong played host to an international literary festival that was unfortunately plagued by controversy. Elsewhere, National Novel Writing Month kicks off in the UK, even as two large publishing houses begin outreach initiatives, and another lands itself in a Twitter controversy.

Charlie Ng, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

In recent weeks, Hong Kong’s literary scene has been clouded by loss and anxiety. On October 30th, the prominent Hong Kong martial arts fiction writer Jin Yong passed away. His oeuvre of fifteen fictional works spawned numerous film and TV adaptations, and even popular computer games widely played by young and old alike in the Sinophone world. The Jin Yong Gallery at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has set up a condolence point for the public to commemorate the wuxia fiction master from November 13th to 30th.

At the same time, this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival took place from November 2nd to 11th. The festival experienced an unexpected setback when the main venue provider, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, abruptly decided to cancel the venues for two talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian, namely “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” and “Ma Jian: China Dream”. The English translation of Ma’s most recent work, China Dream, has just been published by Penguin Random House, while the original Chinese version is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher. The cancellation provoked a fierce reaction from local literary and cultural circles. PEN Hong Kong issued a statement to express the organisation’s concern over Tai Kwun’s self-censorship and its threat to Hong Kong’s freedom of speech. Tai Kwun finally withdrew the cancellation and restored the events.

One of the festival’s panels, “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” (moderated by Asymptote’s Editor-At-Large for Hong Kong, Charlie Ng), featured a vibrant conversation between Hong Kong writers Ng Mei-kwan, Hon Lai-chu, and Ma Jian on the current state of Hong Kong literature and its possible future developments. The three writers affirmed the uniqueness of Hong Kong literature as a varied body of creative writing that expresses Hong Kong’s identity and experience and is shaped by special historical and linguistic contexts. In the nearly-cancelled “Ma Jian: China Dream” panel, Ma also engaged in a dialogue with moderator Maura Cunningham about his satirical dystopian novel China Dream, which presents a scathing portrait of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s grand vision of national greatness.

Daljinder Johal, Senior Executive Assistant, reporting from the United Kingdom

While December might be the month for selling books, November has perhaps been the month for making them in the UK. This month sees the return of National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo18, which, though an international endeavour, remains as popular as ever in the UK. Of course, October enjoys a wealth of literary festivals to inspire budding writers, but the business of publishing includes more than just writers.

The Spare Room Project was set up to help young interns find temporary accommodation and overcome the London-centric (and expensive!) nature of UK publishing. The project celebrates its second anniversary on November 19th, but has also relaunched with a “fresh identity” with its new sponsor, Penguin Random House (PRH).

Similarly, Hachette has been running a biannual “Insight into Publishing” event, returning this year on November 14th. The event, “Inside Story”, sees sixty people who hadn’t previously considered a career in publishing visit Hachette’s UK offices. Since the industry can seem somewhat of a mystery to outsiders, the event provided an opportunity to learn more about the various areas of publishing. Staff members from across the organisation discussed the range of activities that make up the book publishing process, from pitching a book idea and buying books from agents, to editing, designing, producing, marketing, selling, publicising, and financing the project.

Less positively, independent publisher Eyewear continues to cause controversy since founder Todd Swift’s “Twitter rant” in July 2018. The press received criticism from the Society of Authors (SoA) over its treatment of poets, including contracts “constituting an unwarranted interference with their civil rights.” The company has also recently drawn the ire of American poet and writer Tara Skurtu, who has publicly shared her struggle to receive royalties for her books The Amoeba Game and Skurtu Romania, and her resulting break with the company.

While this story is far from uplifting, it does provide a realistic insight into a vast industry. As PRH and Hachette help to shed light on some of the perks of the publishing business, those who may be interested in joining the industry should also be aware of the potential pitfalls, especially if they lack prior knowledge or experience.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: