19 JUNE 2007
THIS MONTH'S FEATURES
FACES OF CHANGE AND CHANGELESS PLACES
You think superficial. I say, quite interesting. Useless crap, you say? I think, give it a chance.
Of course I understand why it’s easy to dismiss what has come to be this country’s version of chick literature — these are dismissed as mere “bestsellers” elsewhere in the world. It does, after all, use everything that is considered uncreative or easy by literary standards. It follows the formula of a young, urban, liberated, working woman, with her life spread out in front of her, and possibilities as far as the eye can see. It highlights the search for happiness, usually toward the arms of a man, while showing how urban women actually and really want to identify themselves with a career and a life beyond just the conventions of love and family. Given such, it is inevitable that every chick novel also works toward that perfunctory happy ending of finding a man, finding oneself, and finding contentment in the process.
But I insist that Philippine chick novels, particularly the ones that have come out of Tara FT Sering’s editorship of Summit Books, deserve a second glance. For not only did Summit Books start off what has become a Philippine chick-lit industry — with other publishers producing their own brand of chick novels — it also started it off with a bang. Summit Media gave out its first novel for free with the October 2002 Cosmopolitan Philippines issue, along with a survey: would readers like more novels like Sering’s Getting Better? The answer, obviously, was yes. And regardless of whether or not we doubt surveys, Summit Media’s response was telling of an audience waiting to be tapped. That is, a Filipino audience willing to spend their good money on books.
This in itself is a surprise, given the often heard lamentation of “no one reads!” in this country, as well as what is always seen as the impending death of the publishing industry: paper’s become too expensive, presses are closing, workers losing jobs, no one’s buying our books. And yet Summit Media did not only start selling novels at P150 (the same price as their magazines), it also sold it everywhere, from the Booksale stores in every neighborhood to the magazine stands that have sprung up in every corner of the metropolis. It was obviously catering to an audience that was reading in English and was wanting to read about the lives of chicks from our context.
I know, I know. Now I’ve allowed you to think that chick literature really is only about selling out to the popular, to what it is the market wants. Maybe it’s even easier now to dismiss these novels as crap, given the chick formula it must adhere to. In fact, I bet that imagining these texts to be non-existent is all that you’d like to do, because really you don’t read them. After all, since these chick novels have found a market, then doesn’t this production in fact end up debunking what it is the literary establishment wants us to believe? That no one reads in this country, and it’s not their fault at all?
Here’s the reality check: The mere existence of popular literature in English proves that the literary establishment just might be doing something wrong, or is just unwilling to compromise its rigid notions of “art” and the “literary” to actually gain readership within our borders. Or maybe this proves that, for the most part, the audience that it imagines is not here; there is after all a whole Fil-Am enterprise — if not an American audience — that it feels must be tapped.
SUDDENLY, IT makes sense, this insistence that these novels are not worth reading. Because they’re not “literature” and aren’t worthy. Because it’s just chick lit and is really just about sticking to what is a pre-set formula. Because it’s nothing but popular culture.
Not only are Sering’s novels and the ones published under her wing witty and funny, they are also comfortably written in an English that is ours. Ours enough that it’s able to solidly create an urban Filipino woman’s world that’s familiar, where Makati and Ortigas are career centers, and people shop in the malls as well as the tiangges. Where popular culture becomes everything, from the clothes we wear to the movies we watch, cable television to local stars, kabaduyan to clichés, pop songs to TV commercials. Where conversations are inevitably and truthfully in Taglish with a smattering of gay lingo to boot, and everydays are lived in laughter because of idiomatic expressions and linguistic accents that are so obviously urban Pinoy.
And yet it’s not just language that would’ve allowed these novels to keep its readership. Beyond the familiar and reader-friendly English, these chicks are real to us: they could be every other middle-class Filipina that we meet. And while for the duration of the novels, they are quite focused on the goal of finding a boyfriend, in the process, they are in fact shown to be more than just shallow, boy-crazy girls. Within those pages are the Pinays of this new millennium who recover from breakups because they realize they are worth more than what they were getting in their relationships. Pinays who go in search of “the one” while finding that their standards are changing and evolving because they do deserve more. Pinays who struggle with the expectations of their traditional families, created by what is purportedly a religious society, and what are the fixed and rigid expectations of Filipino women. For good middle-class measure, these Pinays also deal with these insecurities and tribulations through shopping and pigging out, drinking and partying, crying and wallowing, sleepless nights and television marathons, and almost always, in the company of good friends.
So while it is limited by a set of requirements, these novels’ contexts keep it from being anything but formulaic or old. There is nothing cliché about M.D. Balangue’s novel Mr. Write (2003), which works with the search for a secret admirer, recovering from heartbreak, and becoming obsessed with the possibility of intimacy with an acquaintance, all at the same time. Set in graduate classes in the University of the Philippines (complete with its expectations and bureaucracy), the novel is riddled with quotes from cultural theorist Roland Barthes as well as from popular songs and romantic movies. Abi Aquino’s Drama Queen (2003), while walking the familiar path of falling in love with one’s male best friend, is still a layered story as the dimensions of financial (in)stability and fame (the lead character’s a struggling actress finding her space in the world), as well as dependence, become issues. Even Maya Calica’s The Breakup Diaries (2003) is a welcome respite from the seemingly easy advice that magazines give to women. In diary form, the whole book focuses on what is the slow and painful process of dealing with having someone figuratively die on you, and in the end, finding the self in the form of a career — with, of course, a makeover.
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