Wednesday, June 28, 2006

notes on speculative fiction in the philippines

There are many challenges that face the growth and development of speculative fiction in the Philippines. (Forgive lapses in spelling and grammar - I'm writing this guerilla-style. I'll edit later.)

Lack of Speculative Fiction Writers

While it is true that some Filipino authors, from time to time (or as anthology calls are sounded) write fantasy, horror or science fiction, majority write in the realist mode. Realism, among its many strengths, carries the force of verisimilitude, a sense that what is written about is true. Observations of the human condition are evoked in stories that deal with families and relationships (domestic realism) or in stories set against the greater backdrop of Philippine history or politics (social realism). These stories are powerful because they are perceived (and positioned) as relevant. Fiction that adheres to the truths about Philippine life and daily struggles, big and small, is the dominant mode. This is the kind of writing that we, as young writers, readers and students, are taught to admire and emulate. And there is nothing with that. Except that it is assumed that everything else that is not realism is somehow inferior, not literary, not relevant, not important not crafted, and ultimately not worth reading.

(insert Dean’s long-winded defense and rationale of speculative fiction here).

Writers, being writers, are capable of writing whatever they please. Or whatever moves, makes sense, or excites them. Writing speculative fiction is a choice Filipino writers can make (and do make from time to time). What is lacking? Dedicated Filipino spec fic writers.

Lack of quality fiction

Because of the privileging of realism, there is a misconception that speculative fiction is easier to write. After all, how difficult could it be to write escapist fantasy, visceral horror and future imaginings? Certainly it does not require any craft or techniques beyond a funky idea, exotic vocabulary, lots of action sequences and a mind-shattering sense of wonder? Certainly anyone can write the crap we see on TV as fantaseryes? Perhaps convert my D&D campaign and characters into prose, emulating the multi-book drivel they see on bookstore shelves?

This is the kind of reasoning, this self-fulfilling prophecy, that continues to perpetuate the impression that spec fic is inferior. In the past few years, there have been a spate of poorly written and edited horror anthologies and novellas, obviously put together to take advantage of the spike of reader interest. There is also no movement (or set of writers or groups) that privileges speculative fiction and publishing stories regularly. Stories are sparse and, for the most part, of low quality.

All spec fic should be well-written, with all the craft a writer can muster, paying attention to all things that make fine literature – because spec fic is literature. I disagree with the concept of creating a spec fic "middle ground" - unless what is meant by "middle ground" is actually writing for a target audience. Catering to a specific audience does not entail dumbing down, writing less well, writing like an idiot for idiots (this is the fallacy that most first-time authors of children’s literature need to address: look at the best books for young readers around the world and you will see none of the sad “talking down”). Writing for a young audience requires just as much craft as writing for adult sensibilities.

Writing good spec fic take time and effort, from idea to execution to polishing to publishing. What we Filipino spec fic writers lack is discipline and dedication to craft – which, thankfully, can be learned and practiced. Every story we write must be treated like the last story we’ll ever write, combining talent, ideas, techniques, time and discipline to forge something worth reading. It must be the best we can write.

Only then can we create literature that can stand toe-to-toe with fiction written elsewhere. A third world country should not be constrained to write third world literature, especially since at its core, speculative fiction is all about imagination – possession of which has nothing to do with social realities.

Lack of Markets

Assuming that there is interest in the genre (either by established writers wanting to cross the gulf or by new writers willing to dedicate themselves to spec fic because of whatever reason), they will quickly realize that there is very little out there in terms of local markets. Markets are publications that publish stories (magazines, journals and anthologies included). While markets abroad abound, markets in the Philippines are very few and none of them are dedicated to speculative fiction.

Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic, and Story Philippines (a true rarity, being an all-story magazine) are the three magazines that immediately come to mind. All are receptive to speculative fiction (I’ve been published in two) but are not devoted to genre literature. Story Philippines is the prettiest and pays the best (I got PHP 5,000 for “The Maiden & The Crocodile”), one month or so after publication. Free Press’s literary section is helmed by Paulo Manalo, who is no stranger to strange writing. After Nick Joaquin’s death, I do not know who the literary editor of Graphic is.

The recent call for submissions for a journal was for UP Creative Writing Center’s Likhaan, sounded by Butch Dalisay. He promises excellent pay. I do not recall the frequency of this publication.

Anthologies can offer some payment or copies of the book as compensation. Anthologies by big publishers like Anvil offer money; small press efforts as well as university anthologies offer books. Getting into big publisher anthos is difficult; take a look at any big publisher antho and you’ll see a list of mostly established writers – but it is not impossible. These anthos are usually themed and rarely, if ever, is their theme spec fic (except for horror, which publishers like Psicom, have made democratic – but in a terrible way – bad writing, bad editing).

There is also self-publishing (offline) and blog or digital publishing (PDFs for download, for example).

None of them will replace your day job. There aren’t enough markets.

And there is no publisher that focuses on spec fic. (For now – stay tuned for some interesting news sometime this year).

Lack of Dedicated Readers

Due to the scarcity of quality content and places to find them, there is a lack of readership. People will read what they want if they can find it; otherwise, they’ll pick up what is there. Hence, the awful books to be found on the fantasy, scifi and horror sections of National Bookstore or Powerbooks. We cannot replicate the rabid fan base that science fiction had in America in the golden age, when fans, writers, editors and publishers created their own landscape. Having a dedicated magazine or publication that pays would be fantastic.

The lack of dedicated readers is not equal to a lack of interest. On the contrary, there is great interest in things spec fic (look at the popularity of spec fic films, comics, TV series, etc.). But somehow we need to lead them to better work, to quality stories, to be more discriminating – for example, there is more to fantasy than imagined world novels populated by elves.

Education is the key. Talks, symposiums, lectures, radio and TV guestings, blogging, bookstore tours, classroom discussions, contests – all of these, and more, can be tools. We can also invade writing workshops, teach spec fic directly as college courses, and basically act as ambassadors, evangelists or mesmerists as situations dictate.

We need to overcome the deeply ingrained bias of Filipino readers against Filipino authors, the entire “Stateside” mentality that privileges the West above all. The quality of Philippine speculative fiction, once developed, supported, critiqued and disciplined through craft, can be just as good as or better than our Western counterparts. (On a side note: we also need to print better-looking books, as the generally dismal appearance and paper quality of our local books make us look like lepers next to imported books).

So it is a seemingly endless series of uphill battles to get to where I want Philippine speculative fiction to go. But the thing about impossible obstacles is that with the right people, mindset, tools, resources and timing, they are not truly insurmountable. And we sure as hell will try to do something.


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