Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Essay: A Reaction to A Reaction

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

Bhex has written a reaction to my previous essay on Philippine speculative fiction. In her essay, she writes it from the stance of a Filipino writer.

Much of her thesis revolves around the idea that both in the past and the present, local publications do not reject stories simply because they have speculative fiction elements or because they lack Filipino elements. I don't really disagree when it comes to that part, although it is distressing that she was quoting an excerpt from my essay which led her to that supposition. I mean in my essay, it's not like I didn't mention the numerous Futuristic Fiction winners. Or writers like Gregorio Brillantes and Joy Dayrit and Alfred Yuson whose stories have speculative fiction elements and certainly predate Dean Francis Alfar's work (and they ought to have been published somewhere...).

And while we're on the subject of "Literary" local publications, this year's Philippines Free Press award for fiction went to F. H. Batacan's story, "Keeping Time", which is a speculative fiction piece. (And for the record, the current fiction editor of The Philippines Free Press, Angelo R. Lacuesta, has gone on record to say that he "happily dismisses notions of genre.") So no, I never claimed that local literary publications rejected speculative fiction stories. Perhaps that could have been a reasonable interpretation based on the quoted passage alone but hey, that's the problem when you read excerpts and not the entire essay--a writer's thoughts and beliefs can be misconstrued.

So where did the problem originate? A mutual acquaintance posted her own reactions to my essay and it is the same quote which Bhex was referring to. If you read the comments section, the author of the post posited the theory that her fiction would have otherwise been deemed unpublishable in magazines like The Philippine Graphic and The Philippines Free Press. It's probably more appropriate to claim that Bhex was responding to her interpretation of the essay. Maybe the title of Bhex's "A Reaction to an Essay on Philippine Speculative Fiction" should be "A Reaction to A Reaction to an Essay on Philippine Speculative Fiction". Not that I don't mind the extra hits coming from her blog, but let's give proper credit where it's due.

That aside, there are some complaints that I have with regards to her essay (the rest of her article is advice on writing and one's path as a writer).

First is her sentiment that as a speculative fiction writer, she never felt guilty about writing stories that Filipinos might not enjoy reading. To that statement, all I have to say is good for her. However, there are some local writers who feel that is a concern. Alfar struggles with it. Joseph Nacino, in the comments section of my essay, wrote this: "This is whether it's secondary worlds with no political agenda (i.e. entertainment) OR spec fic with a political agenda (i.e. Filipino-ness). My thinking is: if you can do both, then I think this excuses you from having that particular angst."

I don't think it's a phenomenon that one dismisses so easily. Personally, like Bhex, I have no qualms with writing spec fic without political agendas. But just because it is not my experience does not mean it is absent from others. Some authors will have an issue with it, others won't. But for those that do, it's certainly a hurdle to overcome.

Which brings me to my second point. She claims that "...but to say that before now, Filipino writers were not free to set their imaginations loose, because their big bad professors/teachers/mentors were going after their heads? No. This is unfair and disrespectful to the institution of Filipino literature."

I don't think writers in the past were restricted to letting their imaginations loose, but I do think that they were discouraged from pursuing writing that deviated from the norm. For example, in Bhex's own essay, she shares her experience: "...I clearly recall that it was Sir Butch Dalisay, a teacher of mine at Technical Writing and now a supporter of spec fic, who said at the workshop that he thought writing fantastic fiction seemed “frivolous” and that there are already so many interesting prompts in real life one could write about."

Now I don't now about you but "frivolous" isn't exactly an encouraging adjective. This, of course, has changed as Dalisay these days does encourage writing speculative fiction (and if everything else has truly remained the same, there is that--a professor/author who formerly discouraged spec fic writing now encourages it). However, there have been instances when the inclusion of spec fic elements has called the legitimacy of the story into question. Alfar, in numerous talks and anecdotes, shares how his stories were taken apart during workshops due to their lack of social relevance. And while not directed at spec fic, Kenneth Yu, publisher of The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, was similarly discouraged by his professor when he submitted a Filipino mystery short story for class.

As much as the idea of the suffering author is romanticized--the type that must endure much criticism and discouragement from his peers before finally acquiring literary acceptance--is that really the kind of atmosphere we want to cultivate? Sure, there are strong-willed and determined writers out there who will write no matter what anybody else tells them or thinks about them but how many meeker writers are we losing simply because they were discouraged? Or writers who have yet to develop their own confidence and style but are shot down before they can discover themselves? And this goes for whatever genre or sub-genre you're writing for, not just speculative fiction.

And to put it bluntly, not everyone gets the same amount of criticism. Some writers are more pressured than others. For example, when it comes to Philippine speculative fiction, the spotlight tends to be on Dean Francis Alfar (for good or for ill), even if there are other talented, Palanca-winning spec fic writers out there such as Ian Rosales Casocot or Luis Katigbak. Personally, I don't get flack for my stories--because they're obscure--although there's a certain local demographic who take much offense at my essays. So a discouraging atmosphere for writing is not something I want to cultivate and that's clearly changed in the past few years in the case of spec fic, if nothing else other than the sheer number of new avenues open for publication.

In each issue of Story Philippines and The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories for example, there's at least one (if not more) story that can be classified as spec fic. Compare that to a publication like Philippine Graphic or The Philippines Free Press which only publishes one story each issue (but does so at a more frequent rate). What are the breakdowns for the past few years? Are spec fic stories the exception or the norm, especially back in the 90's?

There's also the prestige associated with the various publications. Your reputation as a writer is different if you get published in The Philippines Free Press as opposed to Philippine Speculative Fiction. I'm not saying one is better than the other but it's certainly different--and in the case of the latter, it's as reputation that wouldn't have existed a decade ago. (I won't even go on a tangent about the current feasibility of imprints such as Anvil Fantasy or anthologies like Tales of Fantasy and Enchantment.)

Oh, and if you want me to be more concrete about one of the biggest differences between back then and now? Currently, there's an active campaign to promote spec fic stories. There are actually authors and publishers stating "we want your spec fic stories!" There is undeniable encouragement opposed to passivity (at best) or discouragement (at worst).

Lastly, since we're on the topic of dispensing "writerly" advice, here's what I have to say on the subject matter: study the goals and market of the publication you're aiming for. I mean Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for example isn't suddenly going to publish a non-mystery, fantasy short story. The publisher of Story Philippines, a quarterly* fiction magazine, has mentioned that he's looking for stories that are entertaining. Whether they happen to be spec fic or not is incidental (and looking at the magazine's history, there's usually at least one spec fic story in each issue).

*in practice it's actually less than four issues a year.


Anonymous said...

charles, i did read your whole essay. i even said on my blog that it was worth reading. but don't you think that paragraph (actually the entire last section) goes against your thesis to begin with? nowhere else in your essay did you point out that there was any actual oppression against writing speculative fiction, except there. it jumped out at me even before EK quoted it.

i think the last part of your essay contradicts the rest of the piece, honestly speaking. and i do wonder why you wrote such things, if you didn't truly believe or agree that speculative fiction writers in the country used to suffer some form of censorship that prevented them from writing things that they want to write about - to be more specific, because they feel that literary critics or their teachers would disapprove. if this was indeed what you meant to say, what's wrong with my saying that i think people should stop thinking like this?

although i will admit (and have admitted to EK) that i was spurred on by what she wrote to add the second part of my post. it should probably have been a post on its own, but since the original issues were related, i thought it best to lump it all into one place.

Charles said...

Oh, that's where you have me wrong.

I do think spec fic writers were discouraged or ghettoed. (That's not the same as not getting published--ever!) Yes, once upon a time, I do think many literary critics and teachers disapproved.

And that's the part that I responded after the fourth paragraph of this essay--but that you only touched a small part in yours.

As for the relevant parts in my original essay, I did point those other parts out, with words like "literary credibility", "strong emphasis on realist agendas", and "how we interpret texts". Or how about my last sentence?