Wednesday, September 08, 2004

SEPTEMBER 8, 2004 (WEDNESDAY)

In Literary News

This has been going around for quite some time now. And while I am also a fan of Tara Sering and adore her books to high heavens (and yes, I have a copy of Almost Married and a second copy of Reconnaissance somewhere in the bowels of my bookshelves), somehow to categorize her as Young Adult Literature at the recently concluded National Book Awards is somehow insulting to both Tara Sering and the genre in general. Being a reader of YAL - both local and international - it is understandable why Carla Pacis had such a vitriolic (to borrow from Peloy's vocabulary) reaction to such a win. Sourgraping? Perhaps. But she still has a point.

An Open Letter to the Members of the Manila Critics Circle
Carla M. Pacis

This year's National Book Awards has once again been a major disappointment for those of us involved in the creation of children's and young adult books. This year, the members of the Manila Critics Circle have proven that the desire to encourage, support and uplift writing for children and young adults is not enough if it is not accompanied by a true understanding and appreciation of the unique requirements and structures of one of the largest sectors of the international book industry. Children’s and Young Adult literature is not to be treated dismissively or cavalierly as a kid brother or sister. It requires the same due diligence true judges give to any creative or intellectual work.

The winner for the Children's Book category was Sabrina's Cookbook Diary which was published in 2002 and therefore should have won in 2003. However, according to the critics, they had overlooked this book. (Last year, the Manila Critics Circle did not deem any of children’s book published in 2002 worthy of an award. Only two, Carancal by Rene Villanueva and Og Uhog by Christine Bellen were nominated out of more than twenty books published that year.) 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.

I strongly disagree with that statement. The children’s book industry continues to grow with more and more titles published every year. The quality, design and content of the books have improved over the years, a fact that many parents, teachers and librarians have recognized. More and more children read locally published children’s books and libraries are stocked with books we can all be proud of. I can think of many children's books published last year that deserved to be nominated for this year’s National Book Award. There was Russell Molina's "Isang Dosenang Kuya" the Philippine Board of Books for Young Readers (PBBY) grand prize winner, Eugene Evasco's "Si Isem sa Bayang Bawal Tumawa", Lara Saguisag's "Tonio's Wishes", Tahanan Books and Jose Rizal’s "Monkey and the Turtle", Rene Villanueva's "Graindell" and “Teo’s Trash Can” by Grace Chong, all original and imaginative stories, all very well written and richly illustrated. There was also Lampara Publishing’s Aesop Fables which may not be original stories but have been beautifully illustrated by Jason Moss.

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. The key words in the citation were "it is young yet adult"; “adolescent yet sophisticated”, are evidence that they have their definitions of young adult all mixed up. They might have been referring to the "younger adult", people in their 20's and not the 12 to 16 year-olds (give and take a few years) that the local and foreign publishers have identified as young adults or adolescents.

The term Young Adult was coined by American publishers to distinguish the books written for children from ages 1 to 11 yrs. old (the board books, picture books, storybooks and chapter books) from those written for teenagers or those from ages 12 to 16 yrs. old. The age parameters vary and can go all the way to 19 yrs. old for the young adult category and are only meant as guides for writers and illustrators. I do not in fact agree with the term young adult as it can be misunderstood as has happened with the Manila Critics Circle. The other terms for this type of literature were juvenile fiction and adolescent literature. Both have been dropped for being derogatory. Teenage fiction may be a more appropriate term but may confine this literature to the high school audience.

Some examples of great literature for young adults are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Are You There God? Its Me Margaret by Judy Blume. Locally, we also have fine examples of this type of literature, some of which have been chosen by Reading Coordinators in some private schools as required reading. Some of these titles are Pedro and the Lifeforce by Joel Toledo, The Secret by Lin Acacio-Flores, Senior’s Ball by Rene Villanueva, Anina ng mga Alon by Eugene Evasco (which won the National Book Award in 2003) and Miguel and Una by Lilledeshan Bose. The protagonists of Young Adult books are approximately the same age as that of their readers and therefore share the same dreams, problems and issues as their readers. They are generally concerned with concepts such as coming of age, self-identity, heroes and role models. Sex is discussed in young adult fiction, but with more caution and sensibility.

The citation goes on to say "it (Almost Married) pushes the genre in the right direction with this light but profound novel about marriage, relationships, sex, oh yes, sex, women who are no longer girls, and yes, boys who will always be boys". It would have been absolutely hilarious if it were not so horrifying.

And speaking of horrifying, it seems the Manila Critics Circle, an esteemed group of literary writers, is now promoting "chick lit" as literature, which, and many will agree with me, it is definitely not. There is, however, a place for this sort of work but it should be properly categorized.

In all fairness to Tara FT Sering, who I think is a great writer, she wrote a wonderfully clever book for young adults called "All the Right Moves" published by Adarna House which was nominated in the Young Adult category last year. It was patterned after the Choose Your Own Adventure books that children and teenagers absolutely love. In this case, it was a “choose your own romance” and its inevitable consequences.

The National Book Award is clearly looked upon by many writers and authors, including myself, as confirmation of our good work. It encourages and supports the production of quality books in this country that sorely needs to build a population that reads. The number of genres, categories and types of books that have been recognized over the years have increased to include many that may be outside the expertise of the members of the Manila Critics Circle. To consult with experts in specific interests and fields can only be for everybody’s benefit.
In the field of children’s and young adult literature, I would highly recommend Ms. Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, who represents the sector of reviewers in the Philippine Board of Books for Young Children (PBBY) and who contributes articles on locally published children’s book to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Parenting Magazine, and Dr. Nina Lim Yuson, President of the Museo Pambata, founding member of PBBY and contributor to Baby Magazine. That the award is given by a body of distinguished and highly respected writers and critics give it so much more value. They owe it to all of us writers not to waste the goodwill that has been bestowed upon them.

*

And then one of the more outspoken detractors:

More Cohesive Thoughts on Summit Books and Tara Sering
Lilledeshan Bose

I'm sorry this e-mail is late, but while I agree that "Almost Married"is definitely not YA lit and did not deserve to win that category (asa writer of YA lit I am very insulted), I think that is the awardgiving body's fault and not the book's. I do, however, very strongly disagree with Carla Pacis' statement that chick lit is not literature. I think Summit Book's publications are the best books to come out ofthe Philippines in a very long time.

Before I expound, here are some disclaimers: One, Tara Sering is a very good friend of mine. However, I'm not writing this in her defense. Two: I used to work at Summit myself. I know these books were not written for the love of literature, but were, in fact, made to be marketed and sold as Chick lit. Knowing that, however, my personal bias (which I am proud to wear on my sleeve) regarding Philippine literature is I don't care what the Filipino audience is reading. It's enough that they're reading. Maybe they'll eventually develop good taste and maybe they won't. At least the books are in their houses. Three: Say what you will about Summit Publishing--that it is a purveyor of ad-driven, popular culture and the magazine content is sometimes crass, superficial, elitist, cheesy or misogynist--no one can deny that Summit has uplifted the Filipino taste. The quality of their publications--from the paper to the layouts to the content--has raised the bar so high that no other publishing house in the country can come close. Summit created the current aesthetic standard for print publications in the Philippines. More importantly, it has givenits market a venue to see themselves represented in media that isaccessible and affordable. Teenage girls, Filipino gamers, working stiffs, our titas who like to watch gossip shows on Sundays, andrepressed Catholic men all now have their own niche.

I remember life without Summit: glossy mags lived a year and died without anyone ever mourning them. Before Summit Books, before I studied English lit in UP, I never got to read Filipino writers. I never even knew Filipino writers beyond Jose Rizal, Amado Hernandez and my parents' friends existed. I never knew people were writingstories about lives like mine. None of my friends knew Filipinowriters eiher, and after I studied English lit, I found out most books (in English; I think Lualhati Bautista was the only exception) only got a print run of a 1000 copies, max. Most novels were about old men and farmers. It made me think: what was the use of writing the great Filipino novel if no one except students required to read it in obscure Comparative Lit classes had ever heard of them? Summit Books, however, is publishing books about single moms, baristasand coleigalas, girls who want to live on their own, twenty-somethingswho like to travel, have flings, get dumped. They're stories about girls like me, who live in apartments like my friends do, have boyfriends who take them to Tagaytay, just like mine did. Sure, they cater to a niched market. But they're well written stories of women who have their own minds and are fiercely independent. Not only are they empowering heroines, they're also inspiring many young writers who didn't know that we could produce this stuff. Now everyone knows who Tara Sering, Maya Calica, Abi Aquino and Melissa Salva are. Everyone can also afford to buy their books.

And why can't these books can't be considered literature? Is it because they're not about incest in barrios? Because they don't reprazent? Because their covers are pink? Because they're about middle-class girls who went to exclusive Catholic schools? Is it because they're sold in news stands as opposed to bookstores where sales ladieswho don't know the difference between a hairnet and a haiku are manning the shelves? These novels are laugh-out-loud funny, cleverly punny, sometimes cheesily emotional and given to inducing PMS tears. These books are definitely literature that I'd keep on my shelf, right beside my beloved Paul Auster, Lorrie Moore, Stephen Dobyns and Jessica Hagedorn books. The best thing about these books? They are alive. They're discussed in offices, passed around by friends, reprinted by the thousands. Their writers are being paid very good money from royalties. THEY'RE BEING READ BY A LOT OF FILIPINOS.

I also mind the condescending term "novellas" as a description for these books. Sure they're shorter than Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy," but I think this genre is in a stage of infancy. The Filipino writeris taking baby steps, growing with the reader and the book publisher at the same time. Everyone is just discovering what they can do, who the audience is (and that such a huge one exists!). Kudos to Summit for respecting the Pinoy reader enough to print on good paper, making sure that the text is typo-free, that the covers are very attractive, and trusting their writers to come up great stories backed with lots of marketing pesos all the way. As a result, you see Filipinos of all ages--whom everyone said "just didn't read"--saving their allowance, skipping lunch, to buy these books (The magazines sometimes have short stories in them too.) I'm proud to read them, I'm proud to be associated with a company that recognized the Filipino reader wasworthy of good books.

Summit Books has taken the stories of the age and put them on paper.They reflect the period that we live and love in. Her work may not beYA, but I think Tara Sering (who has impeccable taste) is the saviour of Philippine lit.

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