Thursday, June 16, 2005

the palanca awards syndicate

Once in a while, someone, usually a writer who has never joined the Don Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature or who joined but lost, makes noise and says that the competition is rigged.

The theories state that there is a syndicate; that the judges give awards to their friends or students, breaking the anonymity of the blind entries by the use of a clever code; that certain blacklisted writers, mavericks who are not part of the established literati, will never win; that the collusion between judges and participants is so entrenched that winners are determined even before all the entries are in; that the Palanca Awards are an Old Boys’ Club; and so on and so forth.

All these are spurious and insulting to everyone who has ever won a Palanca Award or who has ever judged for any of the categories. If any of the terrible things I’ve decried above have actually happened or happen, they certainly did not or do not happen to me.

I first joined the competition way back in 1990, the first year I ever heard of it. Encouraged by my mentor, playwright Wilfredo Guerrero, I submitted a play. I did not know any of judges and the judges certainly did not know me – I wasn’t anyone. My play received an award. And so did the one I entered the following year. And again I didn’t know who the judges were beforehand and they were certainly not my friends – in fact, I had no writerly friends of that sort during that time, writing mostly in a vacuum. My first two winning plays were very different from each other (one was a choreo-poem, the other was a gay play set in a motel room written in realist mode), so it wasn’t even as if the judges who liked the first play based on style awarded the second play based on that preference.

I was asked to judge the One-Act Play category once or twice of the following years. I received a huge pile of the submissions, and I plowed through them all. I was not familiar with any of the entries and certainly was not privy to any code. During deliberations, my co-judges and I talked about the entries we felt deserved an award, and revealed our personal short lists. Our lists were the same. We were doing our jobs, and not awarding friends or students of ours.

In 1994, I won a pair of Palanca Awards, again for two very different plays. One was a long-form musical, the other was a one-act comedy. That’s two different sets of judges, none of whom knew I was entering or what I was entering. I did not know the judges and didn’t ask anyone. (Once, I overheard someone ask Butch Dalisay directly if he was judging the Palancas that year. “I can neither confirm nor deny,” Butch replied coyly.)

I didn’t join for the next 9 years, prioritizing business and everything else above writing or competition. As far as anyone could tell, I had vanished off the radar. When I won 3 Palancas in the last two years for my plays and fiction, it was not in anyone’s interest to give me the prizes. I am still as maverick and “non-establishment” as they come. Hell, I don’t even stay that long at the awards ceremony, operating in more of an eat-and-run manner. I do not hang around to make plans for next year (“Hey! If you’re a judge next year, let me win. If I’m a judge next year, I’ll let you win.”). I'm not as well-connected as I appear to be; in fact, apart from the comics creatives I usually work with, I'm so out of touch with who's who in the Pinoy world of letters.

And I do not need "help" to compete. Let my writing win on its own merits and not because you like me.

Every year, around half or so of the awards are given to first time winners. Any previous winner can become a member of the board of judges for the category they won in (the obvious exceptions are the very young categories like Futuristic Fiction).

It is too easy for losing participants to sour grape over their losses. But attributing malice to the awards is not a particularly healthy way of dealing with the fact that your writing needs improvement.

And as for the writers who say bad things about the awards but have never joined themselves, I think it’s their way of assuaging their own fear of failure. Better for them to say that the system is rigged than to risk exposing their shoddy writing to a panel of judges and being told, in no uncertain terms, that they need to write a better play, story, poem or novel.


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