Reading seems less than fashionable among Indonesians, especially when it comes to fine literature. People searching for a good book, often complain that there isn’t much choice in a market dominated by romance, cheap humor or life in the fast lane.
Works with substantial artistic and intellectual value seem to have very little commercial value in today’s Indonesia.
For affluent Indonesians, today’s fast-paced lifestyle, the ubiquity of social media and mobile gadgets also have changed the way people read.
Still, data from the Indonesian Publisher’s Association’s (Ikapi) shows that there is a demand for Indonesian books, especially children’s and religious titles. Indonesia also has internationally acclaimed literature that is both enjoyable and a source of national pride.
Some of those works, such as Ahmad Tohari’s novel “Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk,” have sparked renewed attention after being turned into films or stage plays.
But there is also the fact that for the grassroots majority books remain a luxury item. For working class Indonesians leisure reading is not a mass activity.
The Oral Tradition
Why aren’t Indonesians reading? In a recent interview, arts educator Tom Ibnur said that our predominantly oral tradition is one reason.
Ibnur said that in the West, literature preserves culture and allows for reproduction and self-study.
By contrast, Indonesian culture values strong personal relationships with masters of tradition just as much, if not more, than the skills themselves. Without the former, the latter would be pointless. Stories weren’t written for individuals to read alone, but to be discussed, “felt” (“dirasakan”) and “lived out” (“dihayati”) within a community.
This oral tradition, according to Ibnur, is one reason why Indonesian culture is so diverse — it can be interpreted differently by millions of individuals. The flip side is that gurus become like knowledge gods and apprentices have few written records to consult for knowledge. This may explain why the Indonesian education system is designed to make students dependent on the teacher, and hardly encourages a joy of reading.
Afrizal Sinaro, the chairman of Ikapi, agreed that the education system contributes to the lack of interest in reading.
“Say 3,000 copies of a new literary title are published. I doubt they would sell out within a year since students aren’t really interested in reading them,” he said.
But Afrizal did not fault the oral culture. “Oral tradition is part of our heritage, and we need to protect it. We need to establish a strong literary culture to balance oral traditions.”
Afrizal pointed to several factors that inhibit the growth of a literary culture. First, bookstores have limited distribution networks and titles only have a short shelf life of three months or so before unsold books are returned to the publisher.
“Even major chain bookstores have limited space,” Afrizal said. “And yet new books keep appearing. How will they reach people? They don’t have the networks that allow books to reach the masses.”
Additionally, the high price of paper, low purchasing power and minimal government assistance in distributing books further complicates the situation, Afrizal said.
“It’s no wonder that books are still a luxury product for many people. They struggle to feed their families, much less enjoy books,” he said. But ironically, reading good books may illuminate a path to a better future. But people can’t access that future unless someone provides books for them.
In many countries, classical literature is an essential part of public education. Unfortunately, neither the Indonesian government nor most of the populous has an appreciation of the classics.
Classical literature publisher Pustaka Jaya was once synonymous with excellent quality literature in the late 1970s through the early 1990’s. And Pustaka Jaya’s founder Ajip Rosidi has been a prolific writer of poetry, short stories, essays and memoirs since the 1950s.
Good Times, Bad Times
With funding from Jakarta’s long-time governor Ali Sadikin, Ajip founded Pustaka Jaya in 1971, and went on to publish major literary figures such as Chairil Anwar, W.S. Rendra and Sutan Takdir Alihsjabana.
In its heyday, the publisher’s titles made their way into schools, libraries, intellectual circles and grassroots communities. But despite past glory, the company is in ashes due to financial mismanagement in the 1990’s.
In its cramped and worn-out office, cultural treasures are piled up and ignored on dusty shelves. Two old printing presses, still used occasionally to print small books, are crammed into the same room. The office has no window, air conditioning or telephone lines. There is no Web site.
But somehow, Pustaka Jaya still retains six faithful full-time staff. One of them, Sahala, has been working there for 27 years.
“Pustaka Jaya is in a rise-and-fall cycle,” he said. “But we’re still publishing books. The revenue fluctuates like crazy. We could go a month without any orders, and have many orders the following month.”
But there are thriving Indonesian publishers whose titles capture today’s zeitgeist, and are popular with young people. GagasMedia, a publisher known for both “chick” and “teen” literature, is among the current leaders.
Windy Ariestanty, GagasMedia’s 32-year-old editor-in-chief, brushed off the idea that Indonesian literature is having a hard time. She said that she is tired of having the market blamed for the paucity of “literature” as previous generations saw it.
Saying that young people don’t like “good reads” is an excuse, said Windy. “Publishers and writers refuse to admit to their inability to produce good work that people will actually read and pay for.
“If all I did was follow the market, I’d have nothing to differentiate me from other publishers. Logically, there’s no way to find out whether or not a book will sell until it is actually published,” she said.
Trends, said Windy, are created when publishers research what the public wants and embrace readers as a source of inspiration.
Social media is a primary way that Gagasmedia communicates with its readers, she said. It enables the company to publish books readers want.
Gagasmedia’s best-selling authors include Raditya Dika (comedy), Moammar Emka (romance / investigation) and Eric Tiwa (psychology / adult humor) along with others who capture popular cultural trends.
Their books may be a striking departure from the tradition of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s masterworks or Chairil Anwar’s patriotic poetry, but they are likely the new face of Indonesian literature.
Will such newcomers go on to international acclaim? Does it matter? If they get people to read, that is at least half the battle.