The books we are reading
One of the more thrilling things about the last Metro Manila Film Festival was the chance to see a trailer for a film adaptation of the novel “Smaller and Smaller Circles.” The book, by the Filipino F. H. Batacan, is hailed as the first Filipino crime novel. In it, two Jesuit priests track down the serial killer responsible for the grisly deaths of boys in the Payatas area. It is praised for its description of realities that are uniquely Filipino, such as the inefficiencies of the NBI and the local police force, and the way that poverty and spirituality are so much a part of our daily life.
Lest this recommendation make me sound like an avid reader of Filipino literature and a staunch supporter of local art, I will also mention that I read the book years after it was published, and with some reluctance, since I wasn’t sure it could measure up to other books in the genre I loved. Detective fiction is a large, thriving, diverse genre. The authors are prolific and the readers are voracious. While some gems stand out among the mountains published every year, I think it goes without saying that the Arthur Conan Doyles and the PD Jameses are few and far between, and that to the veteran reader there are few surprises in newly written whodunits.
I didn’t know until reading “Smaller and Smaller Circles” how much I had been missing out on, and what the literary community might be missing out on due to the meager number of detective or crime stories that we are reading, writing and publishing. Surely there are Filipino authors crafting rich stories out of the cesspool of crime that is the Philippines. It made me wonder how much I had been missing out on when it came to being a consumer of Filipino fiction in general. A recent trip to Mt. Cloud Bookshop of Baguio, famous for promoting local artists and authors, was eye-opening: Among the thousands of authors represented, I was familiar with only a dozen. That I knew so much more about Western than Filipino literature was to be expected but still a bit of a shame, and something that should still be worked on.
Not being a part of the book industry, or any artistic community, for that matter, I can only approach the topic of local art as a consumer of mainstream media who is looking for quality, but who is also deeply interested in things that are Filipino. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The debacle of the recent MMFF which pitted quality, independently made films on one hand against culturally bankrupt, big-budget pictures on the other, has reminded us that Filipinos are capable of not only making quality but of appreciating it, too, and that the stories we tell as Filipinos are uniquely our own. “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” for example, has an origin and a format that is unabashedly Western, but at its heart it would be difficult to mistake as anything but Pinoy. The local mainstream film industry is in for some changes, Tito Sotto and his ilk notwithstanding: an audience fed by “Saving Sally,” “Seklusyon,” “Oro,” “Die Beautiful” and the like will hardly be satisfied with iterations of “Enteng Kabisote” or “Shake, Rattle and Roll” the next time around.
What does all of this mean for the rest of our local artists? While the local music scene enjoys some mainstream attention, thanks to Facebook, filesharing, and online events promotion, Filipino authors are not getting as much mainstream exposure, online or off. Pinoy films can be “trending,” but Pinoy-written books much less so. Recommendations are hard to find for the so-called newbie, since, one assumes, much of the discourse on local publishing takes place offline.
A lot of books are available but the audience is uncertain, and we see young authors cautiously reaching toward genres dominated by Western giants, further upping the intimidation factor. But the stories are there, waiting to be told. As we mainstream consumers—maybe less interested in the politics of art and more interested in the actual consuming of it—clamor for change in Filipino film, maybe we should make a step toward giving new Filipino authors a nod and a space in our shopping bags as well.
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