Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Essay: Is Philippine Speculative Fiction Marginalized?

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

One topic brought up at the recent Philippine International Writers Festival is whether Philippine Speculative Fiction is still marginalized. There are those of the opinion who think that it's not anymore, that it's rather mainstream. I beg to differ.

Before I start, I'd like to clarify that we're talking about Philippine Speculative Fiction rather than say, Western Speculative Fiction like Harry Potter or Twilight (in which it is a futile effort on my part to even attempt to disagree). Nor is it, say, Speculative Fiction in television or Philippine comics (which in itself is probably in the margins as well).

I think the first example that Philippine Speculative Fiction is marginalized is one of the panels held last February 11, 2009 entitled ATBP: Writing Off the Mainstream and has the following description: "Gay/lesbian literature, chick lit, "spec fic", Chinoy lit , and all that jazz. What alternatives exist to straight, realist, mainstream lit? Is this kind of "pigeonholing" good or bad—or, when is it good, and when is it bad?"

Philippine Speculative Fiction certainly didn't dictate that it'd be included in that panel. The ones in charge of the festival (which we assume is the "literary center") did. Another thing that if you read the description carefully, it's only Speculative Fiction which is in quotation marks.

And then let's talk about the actual genres discussed. The initial Chick Lit books had an initial print-run of 10,000 books (succeeding ones had more). During the panel discussion, it was mentioned that three Chick Lit books published in Singapore authored by Filipinos made it to the best-seller lists. If it's just economics we're talking about, Chick Lit doesn't seem to be in the margins--at least compared to other genres. The Philippine Speculative Fiction series apparently has a print-run of 500 books. I estimate a lot of the Fiction (with a capital F) have a print run of 1,000 to 2,000.

Gay literature on the other hand seems more successful than Chick Lit. Ladlad, a Gay fiction anthology, has undergone ten reprints (I don't know what the initial print run was). Even if we're going by modest estimates (1,000 copies), that's still good circulation numbers. It was even noted that publishers are willing to task a risk with gay poetry collections but not general poetry collections.

Clearly, even by those standards, Philippine Speculative Fiction isn't mainstream. Of course "legitimacy" isn't all about print-run numbers. If that were the case, Fiction with all its realist and social-realist agendas shouldn't be the status quo. There are other factors, which includes the support of the academe, the writers of the previous generation, and the publishers. Heck, why would the said genres be lumped together in a panel called Writing Off the Mainstream if that weren't the case? There are a lot of variables involved which can't be pinned down to one cause. I mean if it was solely reduced to quantities sold, then why isn't Chick Lit accepted as literature, at least by the standards of the academia? And in that sense, Philippine horror, which is admittedly a sub-genre of Philippine Speculative Fiction and probably has identical numbers as Chick Lit, not accepted either?

There's a complaint that what is truly marginalized in the Philippines is a medium like poetry. For example, let's say a poetry book has a print-run of 100 books. Okay, you're perhaps even more marginalized compared to Philippine Speculative Fiction. But that doesn't mean the said genre along with others (Chick Lit and Gay Fiction) aren't marginalized in general. And hey, at least you're being discussed in the classroom and attained some scholarly legitimacy.

It's brought up that Philippine Speculative Fiction is being published in magazines like The Philippines Free Press, Story Philippines, and Philippine Genre Stories.

Here's the deal. I read six stories published in the Philippines Free Press this year and out of those six, only one is speculative fiction. So just because one out of six makes that mainstream? There's market penetration, certainly, but I'd hardly call it dominant. There were two crime stories in that selection, does that mean Philippine crime isn't marginalized? There was also one gay story in the six, does that mean Gay fiction is wholly accepted?

Story Philippines on the other hand as far as I can tell does publish a lot of Speculative Fiction, comprising around half of its content. Of course you have to take into consideration the fact that Story Philippines is relatively new at four years old (it certainly isn't decades old unlike many of the respected literary magazines such as Philippine Graphic or Liwayway). It's been having problems getting released on time (it's supposed to be a quarterly but in the past few years, only two issues were being released every year). There's also its questionable circulation numbers (questionable in the sense that I honestly don't know what its print-run is) to say nothing of the respect attached to the published pieces (which is to say that to the literary reader, they'll hold The Philippines Free Press story in higher regard than one published in Story Philippines).

As for Philippine Genre Stories, woohoo, Philippine Speculative Fiction has its own magazine that it happens to share with the Crime/Mystery sub-genre. Again, the same problems of Story Philippines: relatively young, a horrible release schedule (no offense to the publisher who is a friend), plagued by problems with distribution (I honestly don't see it in most bookstores), and the legitimacy of the magazine was attacked even before the first issue was printed ("Who are you to publish such a magazine?").

Another item brought up: Philippine Speculative Fiction winning awards.

Well, there's the Palanca and honestly, for every Speculative Fiction story that wins an award, there's probably 10 other realist stories that wins the other slots and categories. The only concession to Speculative Fiction the Palancas had was the Futuristic Fiction category which was recently abolished.

There's the Graphic/Fiction Awards, sponsored by both Fully Booked and Neil Gaiman, which is great and all but it's honestly not what I consider a long-term award (hint: those planning a long and respected career in Philippine fiction, don't hedge your bets with this contest). It's honestly an award riding on the name of Gaiman but Gaiman won't always be here. Why do you think we haven't yet heard about the winners of the 3rd Graphic/Fiction Awards considering the entries were solicited last year? Or why the 2nd volume compiling the winning entries haven't been sold? It's admittedly a contest that pays well, with P100,000 on the line, but shall we reduce the value of the competition by its prize money?

I think some people are mistaking "presence" for acceptance. Philippine Speculative Fiction certainly isn't invisible and doing better than some genres of Philippine literature, but it's hardly what I'd call mainstream or taken seriously by the academia. Are we reduced to such a state that we're fighting over scraps? Local speculative fiction might be on the rise but it's not yet at the point where said writers can make a living off of it, or that it's selling in numbers that's extremely lucrative for publishers. Heck, even international Speculative Fiction isn't accepted by the canonical Literati with authors like Michael Chabon being the exception rather than the norm (and as Matt Cheney mentioned , those familiar with both Neil Gaiman and Roberto Bolano is ony a small overlap). And if Philippine Speculative Fiction is the de facto reading material in the country, wouldn't the proponents of the movement like Dean Francis Alfar be making a lot of money by now, or failing that, dictating what kind of content Filipinos should be reading?


pgenrestories said...

I linked up to the PGS blogspot and Multiply. Hope you don't mind. TY.

Pipe said...

Hi Charles! Thanks for sharing this. I've linked to it too and written a response: