Saturday, December 01, 2007

Insult to Injury: the Death of Pinoy Lit




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If you're the type of person who has the attention span of a goldfish,
can't imagine stories without pictures,
and generally are the type of person responsible
for the slow decline of intelligence in the Pinoy society,
then don't read this.

If you are the type, but still venture forth to trudge
through this text, then you are a visionary idiot,
and any attempts to refute my thoughts will be met
with equal - if not greater - force.

If you are a kindred spirit,
then feel free to trade ideas with me
for the good of the written word.

These are just my thoughts, not
gospel truth. Dissect them, question them
there is no right or wrong
for those who know.



I was never a fan of Butch Dalisay. Wait, let me correct myself - I was once a fan of Butch Dalisay, whenever I read his Penman articles on the lifestyle pages of the Star, but back then, I hadn't read any of his 'serious literature' yet. Which is to say, that I was just reading him as a columnist, not as a writer - and yes, I differentiate literary writers from all other walks of the craft; writers are elitists and egotists as a rule, since the profound ability to slog through all those words takes a lot of patience and thorough reading, since once in a while, some genius of a wordsmith decides that the best way to write a literary piece is to play with the words to give more depth to the content - which, in the case of the Ateneans, as according to one Ken T. Ishikawa, was usually the case, resulting in beautiful poetry with very, very little depth whatsoever.


Which makes me glad that I reached my writing maturity in the loving, alcohol-laced arms of UST and the Thomasian Writers' Guild.

Just recently, my father sent me this link, which led to one of Butch's more recent articles, which he entitled "Why We Don't Write More Novels (But Should)." You can read the article here. Now, he puts forward some very, very good points, which I would like to sum up in four rather short sentences:
  1. Pinoys don't earn much from being novelists in their own country (Jessica Hagedorn is a genius for migrating to the U.S. and publishing her crap from there)
  2. We have very little vision
  3. We rarely get out of Manila, which, for its melting pot of cultural goodness, can dull the visual edge of a writer who doesn't dabble in the mad arts of drug abuse.
  4. Pinoy readers are either spastic sons and daughters of bitches with the attention span of a goldfish, or they focus too much on what they see on faster norms of media - either local (Wowowee and Marimar) or on cable (One Tree Hill and American Idol)
He also mentions three very good examples of the Pinoy novel in recent times:
  1. Alfred Yuson's The Great Philippine Energy Jungle Cafe
  2. Vince Groyon's The Sky Over Dimas
  3. Charlson Ong's Banyaga: A Song of War
Which, for all intents and purposes, is to play up the fact that he actually reads good literature, despite writing rather dull stories himself. Which we can't deny the good professor, since he still writes rather well as a journalist.

Now, somewhere in his article, he brings up something about how Pinoy writers that
do write novels tend to try and dwarf the likes of Jose Rizal, Carlos Bulosan, and - gasp! - F. Sionil Jose, which just about covers the greatest writers of varying stages of Philippine literature. Varying stages, you say? Why technically, yes. If you plot the lives of each of the three writers on a timeline that also followed the history of the Philippine Republic, you'd see that each writer was influential during a certain period of the islands' history.
  • Jose Rizal was most influential during the tail-end of the Spanish colonization era, which led to the eventual sale of the islands to the United States during the Treaty of Paris of 1898. His most famous literary works were Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, neither of which were translated into English until much later.
  • Carlos Bulosan was most active during the mid-1900's, and was a labor activist during most of his time as an American citizen, or the lack of it, since the FBI was after him for the organization of labor unions and socialist propaganda. He is best known for America is the Heart and The Laughter of My Father.
  • F. Sionil Jose is an old fart who writes better short stories than novels but is regaled for the sheer magnitude of his Rosales saga. He is bald, fat, and looks like a penguin. He is also partly responsible for the first - and possibly the last - literary award this humble author has ever received in his life. This humble author would also wish that this bastion of post-war writing would just keel over and die, since nothing - nothing - ever changes in the tone of any of his novels. Or the story. Or, for that matter, the main character. Either that, or he should just focus on his short stories, because I really like them.
All of the three aforementioned writers are geniuses in their own right, some more than the others. Rizal painted a fantastic farce of the Spanish occupation, Bulosan knew how to weave a story just right, keeping the elements in check without going overboard in the tension or the descriptions, and Sionil Jose is such an enduring monolith that he probably sold more books than Nick Joaquin, it shames me to say. But Butch Dalisay - the subject of this essay - did a pretty bad number on me when he mentioned all three writers in a heartbeat, because these three, or rather, their styles of writing is the one thing which, in my opinion, is driving Pinoy literature into the Jurassic.

That is, the sheer reliance on cultural heritage. And now I know a lot of writers will hang me for this.

But before you hang me, please let me just point out why this sheer reliance on the
rich Philippine culture is slowly going to erase the good Pinoy fiction from the face of the earth.

-- First of all, times are a-changing. If you'll notice, mini skirts are becoming shorter and shorter, Willie Revillame is combating the popularity of Tito, Vic and Joey, and the attention span of people are becoming so short that soon, you'll need a tape recorder for every individual on the street just to remember what you were thinking about.

Think
Memento. How are you going to catch the attention of a 'reader' who can't even sit through the old T.V. Patrol, back when Kiko Evangelista and Noli De Castro regaled everybody with their stylish business suits, no-nonsense attitudes, and treat-the-news-like-somebody-just-died braggadocio? If they didn't put Arnold Clavio into the GMA 7 nightly news, or if it weren't for Kuya Kim Atienza and Pia Guanio (or was it TJ Manotoc?) on ABS-CBN, people would hardly watch the news. You have to always have something to feed your audience these days, and that's hardly any different when it comes to writing a novel. Why do you think writers like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, or even Stephen King manage to sell truckloads of their stuff? Because it always offers something different! Sex sells, and so does a vivid imagination! Books are, at their very core, a medium of entertainment, and if you can't entertain with a story about a kid riding on a carabao mourning the cultural loss of his brother to his city-slicker of a girlfriend, then what makes you think you're going to be able to sell the exploits of generations of hacienderos on a fictional province to a public that's getting harder and harder to please by the day?

That is, without massive representation; more on this later.

-- The focus on language is a killer. This is, I think, a sickness that almost every Pinoy writer, with the possible exception of Bob Ong and Pol Medina Jr., is infected with. And it's a very understandable plight: what kind of writing has bad, well, writing? When you write a story, you rely on a variety of figurative devices to set the mood, to paint a picture, to move the story forward. You can't have a living, breathing story without good writing, and that's a fact. Those things just don't happen.

But then, how many readers do you writers personally know that are willing to tread through a quagmire of onomatopoeias? Do you even know anybody who can tell a vilanelle from verisimilitude (which isn't even on the same page) - or, for that matter, an Elizabethan sonnet? I tried lending Don DeLillo's
White Noise, one of the most fascinating novels I have ever read, to a friend who managed to survive Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase - and he promptly put it down. Couldn't stand the deep language.

Let's face it. The deeper the language, the more you're bound to lose your audience. And the old school of writing - Rizal, Bulosan, Jose - tends to focus on the
old style of writing, writing as if you were trying to catch the fancy of somebody who could understand advanced literary forms. Which, naturally, is stupid, but that doesn't stop the founding fathers of the contemporary school of writing in the country from drilling in the importance of language, seemingly over content. If the gods of Pinoy writing actually read through contemporary literature, they'd see that writers like Sue Grafton, Tom Clancy, and Robert Jordan have been peddling their books on the shores of more countries than the number of stars on the American flag, they'd realize that maybe language isn't the biggest thing to focus on.

-- There's a surprisingly vivid lack of content in Pinoy writing, so much so that it actually kinda looks like a gigantic bruise pulsating in the midst of the torso that is Pinoy literature. That Ken Ishikawa comment on Ateneo poetry fits like a glove when applied to most of the novels and short stories you can find in the Filipiniana end of the market today. Or maybe it's just me. But whenever I pick up a book or read a story from the Pinoy end of the literary spectrum, it always sounds so bloody lame, it nearly makes me cry. Take these select cuts from the
Philipine Speculative Fiction III anthology:
  • Pedro Diyego's Homecoming
  • Carmen and Josephine
  • Facester (which is so damnably chic)
  • In Earthen Vessels
Of course, there are other, better titles in the anthology, such as this impressive mouthful that caught my eye:
  • The Death and Rebirth of Nathaniel Alan Sempio
but my point remains that in the title alone, the story fails to grab the attention of your readers. Maybe if you were carting your wares to people who had more time to read stories due to the lack of television or Internet at their disposal, you could - but on this day and age, we hardly live a life that isn't one way or the other wired, so you've got heavy competition.

Now, yes, I know Dalisay says that he tries to deviate from the sweeping and generalistic content that his three historical examples have provided by delving into the detective short story - but his stories still strike me as nothing new. And neither, for that matter, do most of the current Pinoy stories out there. Barring the ineptitude of most writers (myself included) in providing a halfway decent title, the stories just tend to circulate on simple themes such as love, sadness, regret, or moving on, and rely instead on a deluge of figurative language to push the story forward - which only brings us back to my previous point. Whatever happened to the slow slide into desperation due to totally unexpected reasons? Where are the ghost stories that just really serve to scare (normal Pinoy horror stories don't count)? Does everything always have to teach something, Mr. F. Sionil Jose? Can't literature just be counted as such because it keeps somebody entertained?

I think the biggest thing people have forgotten about literature - both readers and writers alike - is the fact that the very first function of any media is to entertain, because once you have captured your audience's fancy, you can begin to draw him into the meatier parts of your tale. Otherwise, your story is a failure. It is made of win and awesome, but a failure nonetheless.

-- And finally, marketability. I don't think that when Nick Joaquin was writing
The Woman Who Had Two Navels, he was thinking of releasing it as an impeccably memorable piece of Pinoy literary history. Just like everybody else, he was in it for the money - writing is, after all, still a job, no matter how altruistic your later intentions may be. The biggest problem Pinoys have in selling a good, publish-worthy novel is that they know who they're aiming for - and half the time, they're aiming for people who can understand them too, which isn't that big of a group.

Now, take people like Haruki Murakami or Neil Gaiman. These two gods have all the mental faculties to spin a good yarn, and people from all walks of life read them. I've encountered people who've read their works, people who, in a million years, I would never have expected to walk within a mile of what the literary critics call 'good writers.' So what is it that these guys have that helps them sell their image to a varied public?

I don't know the answer, at least, not fully. But I've been in the Internet marketing business long enough to know that a good campaign is enough to draw as much attention as you'd ever want to a single product. Now, this isn't to say that we commodify a work of art - but consider this. Here's a good piece of literature that you've spent years on, and when you release it, it ends up gathering dust in one corner of the
La Solidaridad bookstore. Which is the dumping ground of the rarest books this side of the country, discounting the existence of Booksale and National Bookstore (Fully Booked and Powerbooks is for the designer crowd; for really good reads, you gotta go deep into the bowels of the earth, like a dwarf mining for mithril).

Now how would that feel?

Writers often forget the beneficial properties a good marketing edge can do for their works. And I'm not just talking locally. I'm talking international syndication, or whatever the equivalent is for novels and such medium. If you're after spreading the word, then what better way to propagate than to go global? If you're after talking and interacting with as many people as possible, then this is the ticket. Wanna make money? Jeezus. GO GLOBAL.

Again, I say: I really dislike Butch Dalisay. I gave a series of reasons for this earlier, counting the fact that he was a better journalist than he ever was a fictionist - and this is a matter of opinion, but I think I'm snooty enough to have a somewhat trustworthy opinion - but after reading this otherwise well-crafted article, I have to say that he's something of a hypocrite, because he's an established writer criticizing a system that he himself is part of. He's somebody the newer players in the game look up to for guidance, and here he is, playing the fool by touting inferences as to what could be turning the Pinoy lit scene into something resembling a dying animal. And for that, my hatred for him grows even more, because his own literary backbone does nothing to represent a change in the stylistic methods that, according to him, is killing the same animal he - and million other Pinoy wordsmiths - wish to resuscitate.

17 comments:

  1. Dear Martin,

    Thanks for your long take on my piece. I'm sorry you don't like my fiction--you wouldn't be alone in the "I Hate Butch Dalisay Society" (I could introduce you to a few people who regularly remind me how much they loathe me and my work, for this and that reason)--but I suppose that's par for the course in any writer's life.

    Just to clarify a couple of points: when I acknowledged the importance of Rizal, Bulosan, and Sionil Jose, I didn't for one minute suggest that we should continue writing like them. I paid tribute to their largeness of vision--which has little to do with whether their prose puts you to sleep or lights a fire under your butt ;) Anyone who knows me will also know how much I am not a fan of Sionil Jose's rather wooden prose style--and perhaps, in your discernment, we're not all that far removed--but I have to respect his contribution to our literature as a whole. As I've publicly opined, we can rant all day long about how badly we think Frankie writes, but in the end, the best argument is to write what we think is a better novel (and I've yet to do that).

    Second, if you've ever been in any of my classes (not that I suppose I can teach you anything you don't already know), you'll know that I've always urged my students to write something current, something entertaining (and hopefully something insightful), something that can be read and enjoyed by ordinary people. Do that, but do it well. As someone who's had to write for a living since age 18, I don't have a problem with something like "marketability." I live the word. If the fact that my own fiction isn't all that marketable makes me a hypocrite in your eyes, so be it. I can live with that :)

    I look forward to seeing your own fiction, and wish you well in your own work.

    Sincerely,

    Butch Dalisay
    jdalisay@mac.com

    PS / Take a gander at the continuation of last week's column, which is coming out in the Star tomorrow, and which I put up on my blog this morning.

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  2. Hey sir Butch!

    No offense towards your writing in this blog - I'm not much of a writer myself, and I still do enjoy reading your column; this is, on the most part, just me ranting. Half the time, my opinions belie what I actually know. And just because I don't read you doesn't say much about you - you're just not my cup of tea, so it does nothing to detract from what your work has achieved, because it's one thing to have a non-reader criticizing you, and quite something else to have a fan knocking your work.

    And yes, I actually got that you were discouraging the emulation of dinosaurs in Pinoy lit, but that doesn't do anything over the fact that the public still doesn't read your work (neither do they read mine, or even Cholo Goitia's, or Angelo Suarez's). So, as far as trying to push forward an entirely new generation of literary awareness is concerned, we aren't doing much because we haven't really reached the optimal audience, not locally anyway. I know that deep literature is harder for the general public to swallow, but I'd like to think that there was a way to make high literature more accessible. Pol Medina did it with Pugad Baboy, after all. What's stopping the wordsmiths?

    And I would have liked very much to attend a class of yours; I believe that we can always learn something, even from people we dislike, or criticize, or even plain abhor.

    Btw, Frankie writes awesome short fiction, but his novels are like the proverbial dead horse. I'd rather read his shorts.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this humble opinion on what you've written; I never would have imagined in a million years that you would have stumbled upon this; otherwise, I would have been less, ah, scathing hehehe.

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  3. Hi, Martin, thanks for that quick response, no trouble here at all. If all my critics were as articulate as you, we'd long have had a real, fruitful debate going (which should really involve more people--teachers and publishers included, since they're the ones who determine what people read).

    Don't apologize for being "scathing"; drawing blood is part of the exercise, and I'm not too old to be treated with kid gloves (at least I think--I'll scream when it really, really hurts ;) )

    Let's have a beer one of these days and sort our preferences out. Maybe we'll find someone we both really like, and drink to that.

    Cheers,
    Butch Dalisay

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  4. Haha, a friend just asked me if she could come along when we get that beer. Which sounds like a fantastic idea, sir Butch :D Just say when.

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  5. Hi. Read your post. May I recommend some short stories written by Pinoys that were submitted to publishers abroad, were accepted, and now are placed side-by-side with other stories written by non-Pinoy writers?

    http://www.strangehorizons.com/2003/20030106/estrellas.shtml
    http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/mandigma_10_07.html
    http://www.magicalrealism.co.uk/view.php?story=23

    I hope you find these stories a good read, as well as those in the magazine I publish. Perhaps you can try out The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories to see. If not, well, we can only try harder. :) In any case, I believe in the Pinoy story-telling talent.

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  6. Thanks Mr. Yu! It's always great to read good, new Pinoy fiction, and I also believe in the Pinoy's potential (I'm Pinoy too, after all). I just don't like the fact that the stories aren't as well-accepted locally - I like dreaming that one day, I can survive off my stories, and to do that, you need to have a receptive public locally, at the very least.

    Thus my attempt to question the same potential I'd like to believe in. Or to put it simply - this is why I bitch, haha.

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  7. Thanks, Martin. I know a number of people who share a few (though not all) of your opinions, and who don't express them in the same strong tone that you did. These people actually think content isn't too big a problem, that all kinds of stories (whether so-called lowbrow or highbrow) can exist together, and that the problem is more of marketing (there! that's one of the opinions they share with you). And yes, they like Butch Dalisay's stories a lot too. But I do hope that those three stories I mentioned above are more to your liking. Please do attend the Dec. 8 launch of Philippine Speculative Fiction III so you can meet some of them. Thanks again.

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  8. Sounds good; I'll see if I can make it. :D

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  9. kaliwang,

    An important book doesn't have to be entertaining to read. It's even reasonable to say that the next great Filipino novel would be treated the way Noli was treated by the Spaniards, as a subversive text.

    My opinion is that Filipino writers, especially prominent ones like Dalisay and Yuson, want to prove they can write in English first, hence the emphasis in "language." Language, in my opinion, is the appreciation of a writer's style, in which case, the writer's style is what critics mean when they write about "his language." The way I understand Mr. Dalisay, "language" to him is something more than style. It has a mystery unto itself, much like a religious icon, and this is the pitfall of writers like him. There is nothing mysterious about English, unless you are new to the language. What is mysterious is the meaning that the English conveys, especially when the "language" is literary.

    The truth is, there is only one acceptable English in the Philippines, and that is the English as used by foreigners. Filipino English is not acceptable. We do not allow an idiomatic that is more natural to Filipinos to evolve. Filipino syntax when used for authenticity's sake is often mistaken by editors as uneducated English.

    Which leads me to the conclusion, that in the same way Republicans try to social engineer Americans into behaving "more like Americans" (sorry, got your link through MLQ3's blog), Philippine editors and Philippine literary institutions engineer writers into writing more like Americans and Europeans. It's not that we are incapable of being original and relevant to our Filipino people, rather publishers are short-sighted. We can write original literature but who would publish it?

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  10. that's a pretty good point re: the significance of language in local writing. but i don't think that's all of it.

    i'm not really into subversive writing - i've always been after something entertaining when i read, first and foremost, so you could blame my own mindset. i read rizal because i found his dialogue hilarious and his characters endearing. i'd rather read nick joaquin than edilberto tiempo. i like to take the phrase " . . . relax with a good book . . . " seriously, with an emphasis on relax.

    i'll probably have a bit more to say about that one of these days, when i feel like pushing myself to write a blog post that actually requires me to think hehe.

    man, i should stop writing balderdash and start polishing my posts. -_-

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  11. any writing that is against the established order can be subversive. The other doesn't even have to intentionally be subversive.

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  12. I meant "author" not "other." I wonder, though, what it is in Dalisay's writing you don't like. You mentioned they were dull. Besides that, what else? I don't think you have explained your point of view clearly enough. What makes good writing? Its entertainment value? What else? Surely not every good book is entertaining. I disagree with Mr. Dalisay, who, in my experience, is fond of patronizing young people at the expense of educating them properly. What is in Sionil Jose, Rizal that isn't in Dalisay and how does Dalisay compare to other contemporary authors you mentioned, i.e. Krip Yuson?

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  13. Let me rephrase that, I disagree with Mr. Dalisay that you have explained your judgments of his work satisfactorily. Just out of curiosity, can you give a lengthier critique of his literary works? I'm curios.

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  14. Wow, whopping questions. Haha. Hit me with your email and I'll send you my point of view via that channel.

    Just for the record, though - I don't think he said that I explained it well, he just pointed out that I raised some points to ponder. The operative phrase being "I don't think ..."

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  15. Bro, publish your point of view here.

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  16. I can sum it up in three words: I get bored. I speak for a generation with a short attention span (although I theeenk I have more patience than most), and personally, whenever Catholic or Filipino values and ideals - i.e. revolt against an oppressive society, family feuds, etc - are brought up in a local text, whether as a plot device or as a MacGuffin, it turns me off, more often than not. I've slogged through some, like "To Be Free" since I thought at the time that it was important to know who my seniores were, and most of Nick Joaquin's works because really, old Nick rocks, but on the whole, I don't find most stories interesting. You said that an important book doesn't have to be entertaining to be read: then who would bloody read it? Entertaining is a broad term, and can denote both positive and negative connotations. You want another word for it? Sure, let's use the word interesting, something you'd expect from Asimov, or Gaiman, or Murakami. I love Salman Rushdie's books; I devoured "Fury" but never even got to chapter two of "Midnight's Children." Same goes for Don DeLillo - I swear, if "White Noise" were a whore, I'd masturbate to her any time, but I hated hated hated "Underworld."

    Sure, everybody calls different things interesting, but like I said, you're living in a world where people absorb information faster than people from two generations ago (although the absorption isn't as effective), so you're going to have to find a way to connect to these new people; they're your new readers.

    I seldom critique writers because I'm usually too lazy to indulge in the intellectual debate that's sure to ensue - case in point, which is why it took me really long to get back to you on this, and I actually am regretting airing my thoughts about Butch's articles, because really, I keep myself out of the writers' loop for a reason, and that's to avoid people who spend too much time on making an intelligent endeavor out of the simple act of storytelling, no matter how much I enjoy it on occasion (o, ha, self-admonishment for the win).

    And what's with you refusing to post your email here? You toot your horn, you own up. Else I will delete all of your earlier posts - this IS my blog, after all. You owe me at least that much respect. Or you don't respect me at all (I find this highly likely)? Haha!

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  17. wow.

    ang tatalino niyong lahat.

    good for all of you! haha! :D

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