Monday, October 06, 2008

spec fic: literary vs entertaining?

At the recent Manila Book Fair, Kenneth Yu, Jade Bernas and I were part of a panel and spoke about publishing (as publishers of Philippine Genre Stories, Story Philippines and PSF).

I told Kenneth - and the audience - that the editorial "policy" (this is such a slippery word and is a combination of aesthetics, poetics and whathaveyous) of the antho Nikki and I edit is unabashedly literary - which is to say, we tend to publish more stories that she and I consider to have literary merit. This slant (which can, yes, be called a bias) is reflective of our own tastes as readers and writers (aside: Nikki and I have our disagreements on stories, which makes story selection quite interesting). The stories Nikki and I like to read, and those we attempt to write (whether successfully or not - the thing is in the doing and trying again), reflect this.

What does this mean? Personally speaking, the very core of this is my admiration for a well-written story. On one hand, it needs to work simply as a story, on a story level, on a reader level. On the other hand, it needs to, on some other level/s, be more than just a story: I look for "literariness". My taste in stories is deeply influenced by the "what" and "how" elements in the narrative text - how these are handled by the author.

There are at least two levels in a narrative text: something that occurs is related or told in some way. In structuralist terminology the "what" of the narrative is called story, the "how"is called discourse . Story consists of events and existents. Discourse consists of the various elements of transmission. I look at these elements when I read, and along with the sensibilities I've gotten from reading other books and stories plus the deep influence of my writerly growing-up experiences plus my own ongoing shifts in taste plus other things that influence me whether I am aware of these or not (pop culture, music, art, life), and then come up with my opinion on whether or not a story worked - for me. So yes, I do have a preference, a leaning towards well-written stories, literary stories.

But this does not mean that I will squash a story that does not "live up" to what I think makes a good story. There are many stories I've encountered that defy what I think makes a well-written story that manage to move and provoke me anyway (in the very first year of PSF, for instance, Khavn' story floored me). This constant testing of my own boundaries of taste/preference is what makes being a reader and an editor so rewarding. Once in a while, a story comes along that causes an upheaveal in my view of things, and I am left reeling, and smiling. As a reader, I need to be able to read beyond my preferences. And as an editor, I need to be willing to stretch and snap and accept and explore spaces and learn - so that as a writer I can use new techniques, new ways of approaching narrative modes, focalization, representation of consciousness, plot, narrative voice and so on, so I can tell a better story, or tell my story in a different way.

In the same panel, Kenneth said that if Philippine Speculative Fiction is unabashed literary, then his publication, Philippine Genre Stories, is unabashedly not. Jade Bernas said that the main editorial guideline of Story Philippines in terms of selecting which story to publish is that the story must be entertaining. I love these two publications and agree with them - that stories need not be literary, that entertainment is not a bad thing. Does that make PSF and PGS and Story Philippines at odds with each other?

Absolutely not.

There are many different kinds of stories and no one editor should be able to say "Hey, only this type of story is good." I am definitely for a plurality of voices and publish just one antho a year - which should not be taken as the authority. The developing spec fic scene is here because there is Philippine Genre Stories, and Story Philippines, and Philippines Free Press, and Philippine Graphic, and other publications now and in the past. The developing spec fic scene exists because writers were writing fantasy, science fiction and horror earlier than Kyu or Jade or I began publishing. And the spec fic scene (I confess discomfort with this word "scene", but nevermind) will go on because of other editors, other writers, other critics, other publishers. But Kenneth, Jade and I do what we can, publishing spec fic stories that are entertaining or literary or whatever.

The goal, after all, of our three publications is to be read. And it is the reader who has the makes the choice to read or not read, buy or not buy.

The literary spec fic story can and should be entertaining (thought-provoking or moving or intriguing or delightful or funny; in other words, able to engage the reader) as well - my only caveat (which, for what should to me be a non-negotiable, is more and more often happily dismissed by a story that simply works) is that the story be well-written.

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