Reviewing the Reviewers

Caroline S. Hau

Nabokov 01

When a book gets reviewed, we learn something not only about the person who wrote the book, but also about the person who reviews it.

Reviews trade in a highly coveted currency: public attention. Positive reviews boost sales. Negative ones—certain kinds at least—are even better, serving as lightning rods for public debate on issues of taste and topicality.

A book review can be antipasto or dessert.  It may either whet the appetite or cap a meal. It may be dispensable to those who prefer to go directly to the main dish, but it can, at its best, enhance the pleasures of eating, the way dinuguan pairs with puto, green mango with bagoong, and wine with cheese. You may not need a book review to tell you that a novel or a work of scholarship is good, but an intelligent and well-written review makes you better understand the book, sharing in your delight or disappointment, pointing out things you hadn’t noticed, asking questions you hadn’t thought of, bringing a different perspective to bear on what you thought you already knew, challenging you to change your opinion.

In an ideal world, a book gets the readers it deserves. People read for many reasons, not all of them having to do with the “good, the true, and the beautiful.” A cancer patient in chemotherapy may find more consolation in Agatha Christie than in Fyodor Dostoevsky. A lot more people would prefer ABNKKBSNPLAko?!  overBamboo in the Wind because Bob Ong writes in Filipino, his book is easy reading, and he makes people laugh. (Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind, on the other hand, would rather pummel its readers into submission with its earnest highmindedness and thudding prose.)  A haunted house story may tell us more about wealth, privilege, and poverty than a Palanca Prize-winning novel about the Philippine revolution.

In real life, however, given how small the book market and its readership are in the Philippines, books often go unread if not unnoticed, even by writers, who are either too busy writing themselves or reading non-Philippine writings (mainly English and American). Philippine publishers don’t give out statistics on number of copies sold; the only way one can tell a book is selling is if it goes into several printings. By this standard, we know that F. Sionil Jose’s Rosales saga, Jullie Yap Daza’s Etiquette for Mistresses,and Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War have staying power, while Kerima Polotan’s The Hand of the Enemy and Nick Joaquin’s reportage have found new readers, many of whom hadn’t even been born when the books were first published.

Rarely do Philippine books find a larger audience beyond the home country’s book market and a few area studies departments in American and other universities.  When a book such as Miguel Syjuco’s Palanca and Man Asian Literary Prize-winning novel Ilustrado finds an audience beyond Philippine shores, the reviews from across the Atlantic and Asia can be illuminating, not least in what they reveal about how non-Filipinos read a book on the Philippines written by a Filipino, and how their attitudes and expectations might differ from those of the novel’s Filipino readers.i To dismiss the viewpoints of foreigners (a category that now includes certain groups of Filipinos) because they know little about the Philippines and are therefore unfit to comment on a Filipino book is not only uncalled for, but itself a symptom of parochialism that masks larger issues having to do with who claims the authority to speak and write about the Philippines and why.

If the personal cannot be separated from the critical, it is not for want of trying. In his pioneering study of Tagalog poetry,Virgilio Almario tells us that the literary tradition that developed around Francisco Balagtas’Florante at Laura had specific notions not only about what counted as poetry, but also about the poet’s place in society. In this tradition, poems were viewed as mere extensions of the poet, so that criticism of the poem was taken as criticism of the poet.  Debates—sometimes heated—did occur in the pages of the country’s many periodicals from the nineteenth century onwards, but the professionalization of criticism only began to take root with the rise of mass education and the establishment of literature departments in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world.

Literary criticism in its earliest form was deeply personal, showcasing the reviewer’s sensibility and ideas about what and who are good or not.ii  One need only think of the strained relations between Marcelo H. Del Pilar and Jose Rizal, compounded by Del Pilar’s stated preference for Noli me tangere over its sequel El filibusterismo, to be reminded that even national heroes are not immune to the stings and arrows of blunt opinion.

Part of the “problem” for those who would like to loosen the hyphen between the personal and the critical is that the critics are often writers themselves. In a literary circle this small, the double function of writer and critic largely inhibits reviewers from being truthful about the merits of the literary works of other people. On the other extreme, an exchange in 1914 between Inigo Ed. Regalado and Rosauro Almario over Gerardo Chanco’s Kalihim ng Puso, with Regalado calling it derivative and Almario defending it, quickly escalated into a “Giera Patani” that drew other writers into the opposing camps. The Giera Patani culminated with Almario challenging Regalado to a public debate.iii

A few decades later, there was Jose Garcia Villa, whose annual “Roll of Honor” handpicked the best short stories and poems published in English. Of critics, Villa did not have much good to say. In a 1940 essay, he singled out the “criticastral ventures” of a certain Gilbert Perez, calling the latter’s  “A Note on Realistic Literature” “so alarmingly stupid that only an invertebrate could have written it.”iv  Villa called the “criticaster” presumptuous and ignorant, judging a work of art “not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by its originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by its orthodoxy.”v

A recent negative review of Mario Miclat’s Man Asian Literary Prize-nominated bestselling novel, Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions, by one Gary Vicente was less about the novel—although the reviewer did make some valid points about its flaws—than about the deep fissures within the revolutionary movement of which Miclat had been a member.vi The byline of the review, published online, was clearly the pseudonym of an insider, and the review became an occasion for airing the dirty laundry of the Philippine Left, beginning with highly personal attacks against Miclat himself—his propensity for tooting his own horn while impugning the reputation of long-suffering comrades—and going on to recount the “real story” behind some of the incidents in the novel and pin the names of real-life people to the fictional characters.  Miclat has since responded with a Facebook essay addressed to his grandson Raj, setting the record straight about a number of allegations made by Vicente.vii

One can, of course, argue that the personal and the political are impossible to untangle here because the novel bases its claim to authenticity—its authority to speak critically of the Philippine Left—on precisely the blurring of boundary between author and narrative persona.  But if the novelist writes with an agenda, so does the critic. The heated exchanges between Almario and Regalado and between Miclat and his critic all show the braiding of the personal and political. Just as writers must learn to live with the fact that not everyone will be as enamored as they are of their own offspring, so too must critics live with the fact that those who sit in judgment are themselves subject to judgment.  Those who don’t have the stomach for giera patani can go plant kamote somewhere else. Those who are in it for the applause should try stage or film acting instead.

The problem with Filipino writers today is that some of them seem to think that dealing with big, “relevant” issues—the nation, the masses, sex, politics, religion, death—grants them a non-expiring license to bore. The problem with critics, on the other hand, is that they think having an opinion is all it takes to write a review.

As far as book reviews go, the path of least resistance is the anything-goes approach. In its least articulate form, we have the typical internet blogger who does nothing more than say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, and then just stands atop the soapbox, arms crossed, daring you to say otherwise. Others merely cut and paste from other reviews, content to run a clipping agency.  Yet other reviewers belong to the “If my aunt had nuts, she’d be my uncle” (as Elvis Presley put it) school of criticism, taking books to task not for what they say, but for what they fail to say, about women, masses, gays/lesbians, ethnics or whatever happens to be the reviewers’ own pet concern, the main conclusion being that the book would have been much better if the reviewer had written it.

If the reviewer happens to be a friend, then the review may be no more than a paid blurb or an ad copy. In this case, frank discussions are more likely to circulate within a literary barkada or behind each other’s backs than in print or other media.  There are those who, as a policy, don’t review their friends (which is not to say that, as judges, they won’t reward their friends). Miracles do happen: a review may get author and critic to start talking to each other and clear the ground for fruitful exchange and collaboration; it may even start or cement a friendship.  But a negative review is far more likely to trigger a literary feud, if the feud had not been the pretext for the review in the first place.

And then there’s the cookie-cutter review that tries to ram a book into a prefabricated framework. Academics—products themselves of doughmaking factories called Creative Writing Programs and Departments of Literature—are especially prone to this. They “apply” feminist, postcolonial, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist “theory” to “tease” meaning out of a “text,” the way designers now slap their logos all over their handbags and clothes.  You can tell when the reviews were written by looking at the names they drop: T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling and Cleanth Brooks are to the 50s and 60s what Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler are to the 90s. Catachresis, cathexis, catharsis, hegemony, ambiguity, anxiety of influence, hybridity: imported— and mainly American-processed—terms and names beat local, of course.

A subset of the cookie-cutter review draws on the progressive tradition in Philippine arts and letters to offer boilerplate “analyses”. The ones who helped establish that tradition, many of them activists or fellow travelers, were concerned with carving out a space in which books could be read more critically, against the grain of received opinions that upheld the status quo.  Their influence has percolated down to the ranks of academics and students. In less gifted hands, however, progressive criticism can sometimes degenerate into one-upmanship, in which practitioners—almost invariably middle-class, elite-university educated, and professional—see no apparent irony in exercising authority to pass judgment on books on the basis of whether these books are written “for the masses” (on whose behalf the writer is taken to task for failing to speak), who has the right to speak about the Philippines (the reviewer, naturally), and who counts as “Filipino” (“we Filipinos”, minus Fil-Ams and Filipino intellectuals working abroad).  Substantive issues pale beside the blood and gore of the literary bakbakan among people who would very well have been called “elite” if they were not so busy calling others “elitist.”

It is commonplace to hear people bewail the sorry state of book reviewing in the Philippines. Decades ago, the eminent critic Leopoldo Yabes was saying that criticism was “more a clash of personalities than a clash of ideas”.viii(A minority, however, thinks we already have too much of it!)  The point about writing is that it is both a personal and a public act.  The issue is not one of aspiring to a “balanced” or “fair” assessment of a book, let alone offering a definitive reading of it, but rather, one of starting a meaningful, life-enhancing conversation between reader and writer.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of writers that they wear the critic’s hat once in a while, instead of dismissing criticism as a mere “parasite” of creative writing. It may be too much to ask of critics that they read and write about books with more than their own pet peeves and preoccupations in mind.  But the fact remains that books and reviews are locked in a symbiotic relationship. Without the enthusiastic attention of literary critics, poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Sylvia Plath would have languished unknown to the general public in a world where there are so many claims on one’s attention and so little time to sit down and think.  Writers may draw comfort and support from the company of other writers or declare that they never read reviews of their books (though often a slip of the tongue reveals otherwise) or think their critics unworthy of their genius. But they need critics to tell them what works, or doesn’t, in their writing, to tell them things about their craft and vision that they themselves don’t see or understand.  Critics know what it is like to be moved, perhaps even transformed, by a book, and are forever in search of the next great read, one that may help them, and fellow readers, see things anew and rethink their old ways of doing and being in the world.

footnotes

  1. The diversity of opinions can be gleaned from the following reviews: “a dazzling and virtuosic adventure in reading” (Joseph O’ Connor, “Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco,” The Guardian 29 May 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/29/ilustrado-miguel-syjuco-review); “The pleasures of Ilustrado are not in the rather creaky evocations of the past nor in a rhetoric that grows increasingly sententious as the book goes on, but in its sophisticated and seductive evocation of modern Manila” (Adam Mars-Jones, “ Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco,” The Observer 27 June 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/27/ilustrado-miguel-syjuco-review); “complex, chaotic, confusing and occasionally infuriating. As a debut, it is quite strong, but Ilustrado never really justifies the high level of praise it has received” (Damian Kelleher, “Buckling and Breaking—Illustrado [sic] by Miguel Syjuco,” M/C Reviews: Culture and the Media, 19 July 2010, http://reviews.mediaculture.org.au/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=4027); “an extraordinary debut, at once flashy and substantial, brightly charming and quietly resistant to its own wattage” (Charles Foran, “Shifting Borders,” The Globe and Mail 7 May 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/article1560330.ece); “wildly entertaining…engaging… absolutely assured in its tone, literary sophistication and satirical humor” (Michael Dirda, “Book Review,” Washington Post 6 May 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/05/AR2010050504709.html). In the Philippines, the reception has been varied as well: “an exuberant, complex, and fascinating ride through 150 years of Philippine history” (Grace Talusan, “The Loneliest Thing on Earth,” The Rumpus 25 May 2010, http://therumpus.net/2010/05/the-loneliest-thing-on-earth/); “There’s no doubt, however, that Miguel Syjuco…is conversing with us, posing the age-old questions about who and what we are. Again, the questions may not be new, but rarely if ever have they been dealt with so stylishly” (Butch Dalisay, “Claiming the World,” Philippine Star, 26 April 2010, http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=569708&publicationSubCategoryId=79 ); “It is a most cerebral novel that dares to reflect the Philippines and Filipinos at so many levels and dimensions. Through virtuoso use of language and a dazzling array of fictional techniques, it achieves all of its lofty objectives” (Antonio A. Hidalgo, “A Review of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado,” Milfores Online, http://milfloresonline.blogspot.jp/2008/11/review-of-ilustrado.html); “when it is not being cerebral and is supposedly chronicling the signs of the times, it reads like patronizing, even joking and making fun, of the masses” (Marya Salamat, “Book review: In Ilustrado and Eight Lives Lived, which life is worth writing about?” bulatlat.com 25 September 2010, http://www.bulatlat.com/main/2010/09/25/book-review-in-ilustrado-and-eight-lives-lived-which-life-is-worth-writing-about/); “The book also efforts [sic] to make sociopolitical pronouncements about the Philippines, only they’re made from the tisoy upper crust to the nognog burnt bottom of the buko pie of Pinoy Society—it’s a very elitista book, a very FilAm book”(Adam David, “Pity not the elite but do not condemn them all. Oblique Strategies, March 2009, http://wasaaak.blogspot.com/2009/03/pity-not-elite-but-do-not-condemn-them.html); “We take with a grain of salt Ilustrado’s kaleidoscopic rendition of the elite & upper middleclass history, but to effect a fishlens view to include the diorama of the downtrodden, the peasants, etc. as if their moments can be easily dissected from the exilic distance of Canada & New York (Syjuco’s good intentions, bordering on the naïve, to be able to see things clearly, notwithstanding) is to accept the fallacy of his miscognition, his blindness that has become normative to the common eye” (Edel Garcellano, “The Ilustrado Revolution,” Edel Garcellano: Poems Old and New, 28 July 2010, http://theworksofedelgarcellano.wordpress.com)

  2. Virgilio S. Almario, Balagtasismo Versus Modernismo: Panulaang Tagalog sa Ika-20 Siglo (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1984), pp. 103-104.

  3. Ibid., pp. 104-105

  4. Jose Garcia Villa, “Status of Criticism in the Philippines [Second Installment of ‘The Best Stories of 1935’],” The Critical Villa: Essays in Literary Criticism by Jose Garcia Villa, comp. and ed. Jonathan Chua (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press), p. 127.

  5. Ibid., p. 128

  6. Gary Vicente, “Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions: An Exposure,” 16 November 2010, internet document, http://reviewsremarks.wordpress.com/.

  7. Mario Miclat, “A Letter to Raj (on Mario I. Miclat’s “Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions)”, 17 November 2011, internet document, http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=301910849826596.

  8. Leopoldo Y. Yabes, “Criticism and Literary Growth,” Literature under the Commonwealth, ed. Manuel Arguilla (Manila: Alberto S. Florentino, 1973, originally published in 1940), p. 52.