Tuesday, September 07, 2004

yes, but is it literature?

Last Saturday over dinner, my friends and I talked about the latest brouhaha in the lit scene.

During the recent Manila Critics Circle National Book Awards (the same awards-giving body that recognized Siglo: Freedom as Best Comic Book), the award for Best Young Adult Fiction was given to Tara Sering for her novellete "Almost Married".

This touched off a firestorm of discussion as to whether or not the book merited the award, started off by Children's Literature author Carla Pacis.

The winner in the Young Adult category was "Almost Married" by Tara FT Sering published by Summit Publishing, the same group that publishes Cosmopolitan Magazine. It is the sequel to “Getting Better” the first book in a collection that has been categorized as “chick lit”. In fact, “Getting Better” and all the little books that followed after, adhere to the Cosmopolitan Magazine philosophy. The title alone of this “winning” book already begs one to ask the question why a teenager would be interested in marriage or being married. The blurb of the book begins with the sentence "After a traumatic engagement to a man who eventually cheated on her, 28-year-old Karen is, once again...” It goes on. “And their year-old relationship rocks…the conversation is satisfying and the sex is great...” And it goes on.

Is this a book a teacher, a parent, an aunt/uncle, or thinking individual would give a teenager? Obviously, those who chose this book as the winner in the Young Adult category are completely and absolutely ignorant of what the term Young Adult means in literature.

This, of course, triggers reactions across the spectrum, from Krip Yuson's column to Lille Bose's blog. Apol Lejano writes in:

First, Pacis disses chick lit as being definitely not literary. Why? She presents as her only argument the fact that "many will agree with me." Hello! Before Einstein came along everybody thought Newton was god, but that still didn't mean time proceeded in linear fashion. Just because you have the numbers does not make your idea right.

The action ramps up, prompting such comments as:

I swear this is going to be the last post regarding this matter. Things have gotten so messy that Carla's original point for writing her article is already lost in the mudslinging.

As Ian Casocot noted in his summary of proceedings (go and see!), other blogs got into the action, including Paolo Manalo, who writes that "Yes, Literary Recognition Can Be Insulting" and questions the National Book Awards itself:

What's bothersome is what Pacis reports: that the award-giving body is "clearly looked upon by many writers and authors" including herself, but by what authority are the members of this body critics, by what literary critical output?

Now, if I understand it right, the entire thing started with Pacis being upset over the fact that once again, the National Book Awards ignored the entire past year's output of Children's Literature and awarded an "oversight" from the previous year instead Sabrina's Cookbook Diary by Fran Ng and Ginny Roces-De Guzman). Not even a single book was a finalist: zero. Pacis writes:

They went on to say, that of the children's books published last year, none deserved to even be nominated. To add insult to injury, they said that maybe this was a sign that the industry needed to improve.

Yes, not even Russell Molina's Isang Dosenang Kuya, the Philippine Board of Books for Young Readers (PBBY) grand prize winner, was considered good enough. Not to mention any of the Carlos Palanca Awardees of the relevant year (that saw print, of course).

Poor Tara Sering was caught in the crossfire.

While her book is definitely not the be-all, end-all of Philippine Literature, it is unfair to question her or her book's integrity. At its heart, it is a romance novel. And the romance novel, as a genre, is part of Philippine Letters, snootiness be damned.

If you accept the authority of an awards-giving body like the Manila Critics Circle, then you accept that fact that someone (actually, several someones) will make subjective determinations on what qualifies as quality literature - because there is no absolute authority when it comes to literature.

Is it wrong to write something that appeals to the masses (simple plot, characters, melodrama, formula, English)? Certainly not. Is it wrong for this text to be recognized and honored with an award? Of course not. Is it right to question the integrity of the book and the NBA? In the world of letters, everyone's opinion is valid as far as opinions go. People can question, should question, sure.

We should question why we write and who we're writing for. We should question how we write and how we get it to our audience. When we question why what we wrote did not get an award...well, that's just not right, is it?

To me, this all sounds like a lot of sour graping - though, happily, in the course of the mudslinging, many items worthy of thought were brought to light.

Honesty time: I have no intention of even picking up Tara's book. Why? Not because of misplaced snobbery or envy (please), but because it is simply not to my taste, not a genre I like to read. But I recognize the fact that she obviously worked on her book. It was completed, published and marketed well. And it won an award.

Whether or not Chick Lit is Lit is beside the point.


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