Friday, September 23, 2005

What ails the Filipino novel?

Response to Ian Casocot's two-part essay, A Dream in Novels.
Dear Ian:

Thank you for your two-part survey on the shape and state of the Filipino novel. As an amateur writer and confirmed bibliophile, I look forward to sampling some of the works that you mentioned in your article. I do, however, have my own theories as to why things are the way they are. Permit me, if you will, to share them with you and with the world at large.

While Rizal's influence is considerable, I think you overstate his role in the shaping of the Filipino novel. The Noli and the Fili are colorful windows into the past and an essential part of our culture and history. But as novels they often feel like pale imitations of Alexander Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo: the narrative is weak and unwieldy (at least in the translations I've read) and the characters, with some exceptions, are mere caricatures. I like to think that we've outgrown the form if not the content of those novels.

Yes, there is a problem with the excessive bent of our literature towards social realism, but even that is only a symptom and not the cause. Social realism, if written in the right way and for the right audience, does not need to be tedious, as the works of Pearl S. Buck have shown.

I think that the heart of the problem of the Filipino novel lies in the attitudes of the authors writing them. Filipino novelists, at least the ones I've sampled, miss their mark by a wide margin. Why? Because they do not write to entertain, they write to win an award or the praise of critics.

It's an oft-repeated excuse that Filipinos are not a reading culture. But I think that is simply not true. If it were, specialty stores like Powerbooks, Fully Booked, A Different Bookstore, and Ink and Stone would have no business at all. And neither would bargain bookstores like Book Sale and Books for Less, nor hybrid shops like National Bookstore. There is a reading audience out there. They're simply not reading Filipino literature because authors and publishers have not made it interesting for them.

Filipino authors can get so caught up in their art that they forget that they have to write for an audience, and in fact, that they effectively have to sell to an audience. If you look at the bookshelves which line the Filipiniana section, you'll realize that there's very little concept of packaging let alone marketing. Perhaps they expect the strength of critics' praise to sell the books? I don't think so.

I think that Summit Publications is one of the few local publishers that understands this concept, and that is why their line of chick lit books are selling briskly. They've identified a target audience, they've put together the product, and they've packaged accordingly. Unless other authors and publishers understand this, we will always have a paltry output of Filipino literature.

It's in this spirit that we need to review the admonition "Primum est vivere" and turn it on its head. Filipino authors, if they expect to earn a living from their writing, cannot simply expect to do so as a privilege of their talent. It is something that must be earned. One does not need to be a full-time writer to write a bestseller or a masterpiece: John Grisham wrote his first novels while working as an attorney; Stephen King made a living as a security guard while churning out his short stories; even J.K. Rowling had to squeeze in Harry Potter in between her duties as an unemployed single mom. The luxury of writing full-time comes at the end of one's journey as a writer.

(And I might add, there is another meaning to "Primum est vivere." If one is to write, one must first live in terms of life experiences. Literature taken from life experiences, I think, will usually be far richer than literature conjured in a garret.)

So, do I look forward to reading Filipino novels? Not particularly. I won't pick up the novel simply because it's Filipino. I'll pick it up because it's compelling, because it's amusing, because it's exciting, because it's startling, because it's fresh, and because it has the picture of a bug-eyed monster slobiverating over a scantily clad nubile. In short, because it's entertaining.

And if it pains Filipino writers that they have to pander to my plebeian tastes instead of the connoiseurship of an established critic, well, tough. Because, unlike the established critic, I vote with my wallet. So do the hundreds of other reading Filipinos like me.

Here we are now. Entertain us.