Kenneth over at Philippine Genre Stories has been wondering, why hasn't the crime/mystery/suspense genre been popular (or at the very least have a presence) in the country. I'll admit, as far as reading habits go, mysteries aren't my forte. But before I go posting my opinions, I think we should first look back at history.
For the most part, I think the country has lots of stories but the written word is not how they were preserved. For example, we have several variations of the pasyon, yet only a few versions have been committed to paper. So I think I am being fair that the print tradition we have today only truly started during the colonial era under Spain. I mean yes, we have a tradition before the Spanish came but I think efforts to unearth them and deliver it for public consumption only came afterward. And perhaps one of the earliest novels we as Filipinos should know about (or supposedly have read) is Noli me Tangere, a product of that period. And in my ways, I think what the literati is expecting from today's modern novel is a Noli me Tangere--socially relevant and socially apt.
And then we fast-forward to the 20th century which is easily country's "golden age" of Filipino writer: Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzales, F. Sionil Jose, Gregorio Brilliantes, etc. And honestly, these authors have become household names, the textbook answer so to speak when you're asked who are the country's writers. There are a few exceptions of course such as Francisco Balagtas and his epic Florante at Laura (but I consider his work more as poetry and that's not a topic I don't want to discuss at the moment, mainly because poetry is a field I am quite ignorant of) but for the most part, the golden age of Philippine literature seems so recent (and in fact some we still have the chance to meet some of the writers from that period).
We then have our modern writers: Butch Dalisay, Alfred Yuson, Jessica Zaffra, Charlson Ong, etc. Each has made a mark in their respective fields and we recognize them for it. But my main point in looking back at history is that we in terms of written literature, we're still quite young. That's not an excuse as to why we have so little works (or so little genres if that suits you better) but rather to show how we don't seem to have the time to cover everything.
In terms of fiction (as opposed to non-fiction), our produced works (or those accepted by the literati) has been quite limited. There's the realist fiction which I think our institutions have been placing a lot of emphasis upon. Fantasy I think has made a name for itself not just because of our roots but because how it managed to sneak into religion and into children's lit, as well as the various surrealist fiction out there. As for everything else, that's up in the air but let me tackle some genres.
Romance: Having never read one of the so-called Tagalog romance novels, it's also the most cited genre in terms of reading by the masses. I don't think there's one great romance novel which Filipinos unite under (but I'm ignorant so I could be mistaken) but the genre is prevalent nonetheless.
Horror: I think it's only lately that we're seeing horror develop as a local genre. What used to be the domain of komiks and film is slowly making its way into the printed word, thanks to Psicom Publishing's line of books. Of course the literati might argue the literary quality of the said stories but isn't that the case with the romance genre as well? Romance I think has found its niche while Horror is on its way to finding one.
Gay Lit: Again, I'm not as familiar with this particular genre but suffice to say it's there and it's found its niche. Perhaps it's not necessarily a mass-consumption product but it definitely has a following and has some respectable authors attached to it.
Children's Lit: It's far from overwhelming but we do have a strong presence of children's literature. The question posed by many children's authors nowadays though isn't in its presence but whether it'll continue to develop and grow or will it stagnate?
Speculative Fiction: My problem with spec fic is that it's either popular or not depending on how you interpret it. If you count surrealist works and mythologies and the like, then spec fic has had a long history in the country. If not, then what you have is a genre that's on the rise, starting to find its voice thanks to a very vocal Dean Alfar.
What I find interesting that most of the genres I mentioned above only developed recently (the past three or four decades?) yet in terms of Philippine literature, that's already a long time. So what about the other genres such as crime or suspense of mystery? I think for that, you have to break new ground.
I don't think crime or suspense of mystery isn't popular. I think the problem is that it hasn't been given a chance. Aside from Smaller and Smaller Circles, what are other mystery stories written by a Filipino that you know of? And at the end of the day, it doesn't need to be about literary acceptance. I mean if that were the case, then romance and horror would have died out long ago yet the former has turned into a cliche and the latter is being sustained by what matters most to a publisher: sales.
Of course we might get stuck with a chicken-or-the-egg question: which should come first, a mystery/suspense/crime publisher or mystery/suspense/crime authors? If anything, I think that is what's stopping us. The latter might simply not write them because they think there is no market while the former might not set out to publish them because they don't have a pool of writers or don't think they have a market for it. The former problem can be solved while as for the latter, the only thing I can truly say is we won't know until we try.
And this observation, I think, applies to any other genre. It's not that we've had a long history of fiction that's been tried and observed to fail. I think it's the opposite: that we're still young in terms of fiction and we haven't yet tested the waters. If there's any breakthroughs that's going to happen in the market, I think it's going to be in this era, when new publishing genre such as horror or speculative fiction are being introduced into the market. Of course success is a relative term. Some determine it by sales and I don't think even a lot of our literary-accepted novels fulfill that criteria. Some determine it via the acceptance of the literati of their work and you can always strive for that. The important part I think is to be clear on what you want to accomplish and how you'll go about it.