Resisting the Novel: The Affronts of Manila Envelope

Sasha Martinez

Sasha Martinez Jefferson Cheng

Illustration by Jefferson Cheng.

With the thin, sparse and relatively uncultivated tradition of literary publishing in the Philippines, might curating a literary anthology of our best contemporary novelists depend on more than just picking the right writers?

1. We are culturally averse to standing up for ourselves

“And yet we realize that a collection of writers defined as ‘ok,’ ‘so-so,’ or ‘average’ may not be as appealing. Especially as no one has any idea what an average Filipino novelist might be. The word ‘best’ therefore is a subjective one reflecting the opinion of the editor. It should not be taken as a judgment on the merits of any person or persons who inadvertently and quite inexplicably do not appear in this collection.”

From the introduction to—or, “Important Precautions” heralding—The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists, initialed by Manila Envelope’s publisher David Guerrero.

The literary anthology is in essence an agenda, built as it is on choice and the critical judgment of its editor(s)—produced as it has been through prerogative. Subjectivity, then, is a matter of fact.

Consequently, in having cast a judgment on art, and in contending that one’s decisions merit such tactile a manifesto as a book—no matter how sound those decisions are and how in keeping with rigorous academic and aesthetic standards—there will be protest. It’s de rigueur; everyone has an opinion. And the pressure naturally heightens when the anthology strikes a contract with its readers—as with the weighty claim of the much-vaunted The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists. With such a contract, the debate fixes on the efficacy of that promise.

The trade-off is: The literary anthology, contentious by default, must submit itself to the controversy its very existence arouses—must stand, self-assured, before the scrutiny of pundits (of the armchair variety or otherwise)—and, most importantly, must surface from the fray with its poetics intact, the prerogative defended. Beyond weathering rote commentary on any work of literature—on the quality of the individual pieces, the balance of the collection as a whole,, and the politics attendant every inclusion and the most notable exclusions the eagle-eyed are wont to spot—the literary anthology must remain resolute regarding its agenda in the face of given scrutiny, and, accordingly, stand by the pieces it contains. And it must do so as a book ever silent but final and complete, a book worthy of having been published—it must do so as the last word on itself.

We have no use, then, for an apologetic anthology, one that wounds the very pieces it is supposed to champion—which is, unfortunately, exactly what The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists is. Its glib introductory “user’s guide” and warning—in lieu of a critical précis—begins with: “Please take care when jumping to conclusions. We are culturally averse to hurting anyone’s feelings.” On that same clever note, it proceeds to cast doubt on its own decisions, it suggests that the prerogatives it applied in its assembly were faulty (and chummily begs your pardon for it).

It soon becomes clear to any reader willfully moving forward from such a shaky beginning that The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists—and the Manila Envelope editorial team behind it—stands foremost as a model of critical indifference. And that’s with good literature notwithstanding.

Conceptually, The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists brings together thirteen Filipino fictionists, collecting excerpts from their published novels or novels-in-progress. The thirteen are all but stalwarts—at the very least, their names are familiar ones—their fiction oft-anthologized and bound for the canon in a few generations’ time. There should be no doubt that these writers are accomplished ones, who have for years churned out fiction—regardless of length—that makes any perennial reader feel a little hopeful for the country’s literary tradition. And although TBCFN’s editor(s) can’t be bothered by the prosaicness of semantics—the tag “contemporary,” we are told, “should be applied loosely but comfortably at all times”—the reader should be encouraged to take it to mean as novelists who have been recently published (at least, at the time the anthology was assembled), or whose manuscripts (these being the works excerpted, one must also hazard assuming) are set to be published in the foreseeable future. (Then again, Miguel Syjuco’s biographical note claims that his second novel, I Was the President’s Mistress “is slated for release in 2012.”)

These missteps, taken together, hint rather strongly of haphazard assemblage.

The reader, in the face of editorial carelessness, inevitably resolves to focus on the individual pieces instead, all but ignoring their place in the collective. But the anthology, unfortunately, has been constructed in a way that prevents even this; there is very little opportunity to enjoy the works on their own merit, even within the given and easily exploitable parameters of the excerpted format.

Excerpts are meant to be invitations—they must be on their best behavior and, at the same time, tease the reader into wanting more. There must be a conscientious methodology applied to cutting up a hale and hearty novel: The excerpt has to reflect the entirety—if not provide a snapshot of that entirety’s brilliance. Excerpts, too, must be whole. Arbitrary excerpting is a dangerous undertaking—and self-defeating when it’s in an anthology that is specifically meant to promote structurally and narratively complete (or on-the-way-to-completion) novels. Unfortunately, that seems to be norm for TBCFN. And so the reader must read on, despite tacit unreadability.

Syjuco’s piece, “The Terrorists Have Already Won”—an excerpt from which work exactly, we are not informed—seems to have taken the brunt of such sloppy editorship. The handful of pages is a nitpicker’s dream: Paragraph breaks are nonexistent, typographical errors abound, sectional shifting is unheralded. We’re with our narrator in a writing workshop one moment, and the next we’re in a flashback—only to find out that it just might be the story that’s been discussed among the workshop participants. And then we backtrack and wonder if it were someone else’s story, or if it were a false memory. Or was this simply the night before? Mid-story, readers are forced to raise their heads and wonder who to blame—easy enough, as command responsibility comes into play.

Angelo R. Lacuesta’s “Mabini” suffers less from copyediting oversights, but it simply cannot make for stirring reading—which really does not augur well for the rest of the novel it’s supposed to be a gateway to. We are mostly treated to a family sitting around countless dining tables, recounting stays abroad—to a parade of aunts and uncles and cousins and their coy (if leaden) characterizations. Shouldn’t an editor have stepped in and guided the splicing?

There are, thankfully, exceptions. Dean Francis Alfar’s “Remembrance” is a self-assured, stirringly macabre tale of a boy’s dying and of the town that came together to see him off. As soon as news breaks of young Mateo Nakpil’s fall from a coconut tree, the townsfolk launch into protocol: Someone is tasked with assembling the coffin, another is tasked to gather flowers from his own backyard—and everyone reaches deep into the family chest for a parting gift and lines before the Nakpil house, murmuring the messages they wish for the dying boy to ferry into the thereafter.

Gina Apostol’s excerpted “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata” is an intriguing glimpse into a novel that promises to rewrite a history we’re all quite familiar with—that of Rizal and his role in the revolution against Spain. But Apostol subverts not only the historical narrative, but historiography itself—through a reanimation of the play of form-and-structure, via leaps in voice and points of view, and the clever and highly self-aware use of academic jargon.

Lakambini Sitoy’s “Sweet Haven” is likewise a welcome follow-up from one of the country’s most celebrated short fiction writers—and, here, at last, is the invitation that the reader has been looking for. Sitoy’s lyrical and sensuous language is on hand, best contrasted (as it has always been) against the grit of Manila streets and the rawness of sex. It thrills you, makes you yearn for more—makes you wonder, rightly, what happens next to the illicit-pornography-toting character once she hails a jeepney and caroms off TBCFN’s stark white pages.

2. We deny we’re making a product

The expected resistance to Manila Envelope’s venture, one that should have easily been dismissed: Ours is not a nation of novels (no matter how strongly we crow about that man Rizal inciting independence via two works of fiction); ergo, we have not institutionalized their production—we can hardly expect our writers to regularly churn them out, much less have the largely impassive public read them. There goes “contemporary,” more so “novelists”—as if we had an armory of them.

Manila Envelope

In the face of this resistance, however, TBCFN’s aims had a fighting chance of being noble. An anthology such as this needs to exist, and Manila Envelope took on the cudgels—to boldly proclaim the best of what we have by way of long form fiction, to exalt the writers who take the unconventional-for-our-literary-tradition path and who do so well. Sure, the names on its table of contents are familiar, and some of them are opposite as-familiar titles (with not a few almost canon). TBCFN’s ambition could be forgiven, its irredeemably awkward audacity could be celebrated.

At the very least, this could ideally have been a survey of the Filipino novelistic tradition, an undertaking that is admittedly not unlike trying (almost with hope against hope) to keep burning embers aglow. Say, compare the literature-on-the-diaspora among themselves. Don’t R. Zamora Linmark’s “Leche” and Bino A. Realuyo’s “With Love, Sandra, Queen of Fish Sauce” sound alike, self-conscious about dropping tidbits of Filipino culture in their language and within the narrative? On the other hand, is there a noticeable distancing (deliberate or otherwise) from those local linguistic tics in Sabina Murray’s “A Carnivore’s Inquiry” and Brian Ascalon Roley’s “Anesthesia?” And how do all these stories compare to those that focus on homegrown issues? To what do we credit the weight and the dignity—that almost steely undercurrent—in Vicente Garcia Groyon’s “The Sky Over Dimas” and Katrina Tuvera’s “The Jupiter Effect?” (And note, too, how Groyon’s and Tuvera’s novels have long been considered contemporary classics of the form.) What to make of the family secrets, silently volatile and rife with possible poison, within F.H. Batacan’s “Weight”—and how would that stand alongside the more insular but no less grave concerns of Jessica Zafra’s rather dramatic “Clear?”

All that what-could-have-been, if only The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists stuck to its guns—if only it wasn’t so culturally averse to hurting anyone’s feelings, that it would sacrifice the well-being of the literary pieces that it contains. If only it wasn’t a poorly organized, haphazardly edited, badly-in-need-of-copyediting, lacking-in-spine literary anthology. (At the very least, editors, could you have made sure that the writers’ bios were up-to-date?) If only TBCFN did not end up a poorly constructed collection, one whose clumsy cobbling ultimately does a disservice to the its writers and the people who wish to read them. If only it let the reader actually read the pieces. Note that this is to the extent that no matter how willfully the readers implore themselves to judge the collection based on the stories’ merits (individually or as a collective)—to allow debate on prerogative to be cultivated, to test the veracity of that naturally boastful “best”—the all-too-obvious and painfully ham-fisted methodology by which the anthology was assembled distracts.

All things considered, there’s a comic piercing from the inside: At one point in his rousing soliloquy on the writing workshop culture, the narrator of Syjuco’s short story—wounded by the half-baked criticism the system wills him to receive—bites off, “We deny we’re making a product and convince ourselves that it’s art, because the words are bigger, the emotions sharper, the plots subservient to character. Lit-er-ar-y. It’s all bullshit, you know.”

The Best Contemporary Filipino Novelists is, in essence, a product. And it is this nature that insists itself on the reading experience—not the quality of the individual works, not the critical stance of the collective. And it is a shoddily assembled product to boot, shamefully wasting the literature it is made up of. This rampant editorial indifference, which only built up to a wounding disrespect of the writers and their work—ultimately, this is anthology’s cruelest blow (to the writer, to the critic, to the authors and their work).

Hello, then, Resistance: We’ve gone two steps backwards.

For clarification: The Manila Review‘s literary editor, Miguel Syjuco, who contributed to the anthology reviewed, did not edit this essay.