I read Adam David’s “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making”—published in the May 2 issue of the Philippines Free Press—with much interest, not only because of David’s trademark comprehensive, grim-and-determined criticism, of which I am a fan, but also (and maybe more so) because of the bewildering—no, let’s make that questionable, laughable, absolutely uncalled for—note appended to the essay by the Free Press editors. The note, which precedes the essay, reads: After much discussion, mostly on the nuances of censorship and editorial prerogative, we decided to run this piece unedited (that goes for Mr. David’s title and subhead). An article by the FREE PRESS editors in relation to this will appear next week.—The Editors.
But first, an overview of the essay. “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making,” aside from serving the practical purpose of clarifying which manuscript version of Miguel Syjuco’s Man Asian Award-winning novel Ilustrado was reviewed by David a few months back (as requested by Syjuco), also—and more importantly—addresses matters arising from David’s essay on self-publishing, “Better Living Through Xeroxography,” which, in a nutshell, urges young writers to grow up—a feat that can be achieved, David argues, through committing literary patricide. To mature as a writer is to do away with one’s ridiculous attachment to Parental Approval—to divest oneself of the need to be anointed as the next big thing to hit our tiny literary world by Edith Tiempo or Ophelia Dimalanta or Cirilo Bautista, to forego any dependence on “Krip Yuson’s breezy, blurby blessings” or “Marjorie Evasco’s limning reaction paper introductions” (as David puts it, reiterating his point in “Mistakes We Knew”) for validation, and ultimately, to venture into self-publishing, a viable alternative to mainstream publishing, which, in case it isn’t yet obvious, is controlled by “our literary Mommies and Daddies.” And “Mistakes We Knew,” in many ways, is reiterating what should already be obvious upon reading “Better Living.” David is an aggressive critic of blind devotion to established writers as well as the reverence for mainstream publishing and corollary disdain for self-publishing (which, when termed disparagingly, is called vanity publishing); his point of view assumes that the young writer has the capacity and ambition and intelligence to take matters into his or her own hands, and so yes, as David himself points out, to ask “Sino ba siya para sabihin ang mga ’yan?” is to miss the point.
I also contribute reviews to the Free Press, having been invited to do so a couple of months after David started the same gig. Despite a full-time job and a bunch of jobs on the side, despite the time I barely have to work on my next book or cook decent meals or learn how to drive, I welcomed, yet again, another labor of love (knowing fully well that the pay would be dirt cheap, possibly even nonexistent). As someone who, like David, laments the absence of reviews that are actually critical—that actually explore books thoroughly and break them into parts and study their intentions and articulate the strengths and flaws in their execution—it seemed only right to take the opportunity to do so, especially when it just landed on my lap. The problem is, as the editors’ note to “Mistakes We Knew” so reveals, the Free Press is not interested in such reviews, and even goes in fear of them. I am pretty sure the editors would not have so quickly, so ubermegadefensively, distanced themselves from the views expressed in David’s essay (and they are certainly distancing themselves, what with the reference to censorship and the promise of a response), had the views been noncommittal a la Sunday Inquirer Magazine’s capsule reviews of books in their annual reading issue, or dripping with praise and goodwill, a la press releases masquerading as reviews. What peeves me more is how unnecessary the note is. In the first place, the byline is Adam David alone—not Adam David and Angelo Lacuesta and Ricky Torre. Why the eager beaver denial of something you didn’t even write? Last I heard, the Free Press, like any respectable publication, is, as its name so proclaims, free, that is, it runs essays carrying different perspectives, something readers ranging from undergrad lit majors to literary giants like F. Sionil Jose or Marjorie Evasco can be reminded of in the event that they are upset over David’s reviews. They can even be invited to write critiques of David’s critiques, which, if done well, can also be published by the Free Press.
Which leads to what peeves me most about the note. I work as an editor myself and the job description includes preparing articles for publication, which means, among other things, that any qualms about the content of an article, any quibbles over the way an idea is phrased or argued, any concerns about tone and syntax and structure, are wrestled with and resolved prior to publication. The editor is the writer’s boss. They do their disagreeing behind the scenes, but once an article is out, it is understood that the editor may (possibly) not completely agree with what it says, but he or she is ready to defend the author’s right to say it. And really, in this particular case, what is at stake? What’s there to lose? Not to belittle David’s views, but it’s not as if he’s making aggressive statements against a dictator who can holler “Off with his head!” (and the heads of his editors too). I don’t expect the Free Press editors to promote David’s views; I’d actually be surprised if they did. But the fear of being associated with his views just seems so OA. It’s also totally uncalled for to bypass the editorial process, only for the editors, as the Free Press editors (a choice which emphasizes the hierarchy in the editor-writer relationship, we’re not talking plain individuals debating an issue here), to publish their qualms and quibbles and concerns about the article in the following issue.
But okay, we’ll take discussion where we can get it, and so the editors’ response comes in the form of Angelo Lacuesta’s “Polarity Is Interesting But” in the May 9 issue of the Free Press, an essay so haphazardly written it practically flaunts the certainty of its seeing print; it doesn’t bother to earn its keep to be published. The article by the Free Press editors in relation to “Mistakes We Knew” doesn’t at all mention it or David, which makes “Polarity” the essay equivalent of parinig. There is some talk about being in a marriage seminar, about being a fellow at the Silliman workshop, about being in an international writing conference, about being a panelist at the Silliman workshop. And then, a statement: “It’s not that I’ve turned mellow, or yellow, but it’s certainly more relaxing and more productive than taking sides in any given dialogue between the ‘speculative’ and the realist,’ or between the ‘marginalized’ and the ‘mainstream’ or even in the rift between ‘commercial publishing’ and ‘vanity publishing.’” And then, another: “Besides, I’m generally uninterested in making discourse. I think that I would rather generate a collection of thoughts rather than assume a position of thoughts. I mean, polarity is interesting, and I suppose it makes for good conversation, or even exercise.”
Discourse, to begin with, is unavoidable. And then, if you are a published writer, let alone editor of a prominent magazine, it is important. To say “I’m generally uninterested in making discourse”—given one’s position of power as one heard and capable of making others heard or not heard—is downright wrong. But okay, let me employ the benefit of the doubt here and instead say the statement is imprecise (by virtue of the appearance of the term “polarity,” I suppose this statement means to say “I don’t like engaging in heated debates about ideas” or “ I don’t think one idea necessarily has to be pitted against another” or something—which might make more sense, since discourse is treated as a given, and it is the manner of handling or approaching it that becomes subject to discussion), and consequently, irresponsible (you can’t say something and then not expect us to take your word for it). It is a cavalier dismissal of dialogue which, yes, can take the form of debate; combined with the statements that follow—the vague “I would rather generate… rather than assume a position” (what is “generate a collection of thoughts”? what is “assume a position of thoughts”? how are they different from each other? why prefer one over the other?) and the condescending “polarity is interesting…” (as if the collision of ideas were as inconsequential as an odd piece of furniture meant to serve as a conversation piece over wine and cheese)—and what you get is a perspective that shamelessly favors mindlessness over active thought and reduces taking sides to mere troublemaking. I can almost hear “Why can’t we all just get along?” as a follow-up statement, or “Let’s agree to disagree” or “To each his own,” platitudes that shy away from dissent and disagreement, which are instinctively written off as noise rather than seen as occasions for the difficult, valuable work of articulation.
I think of the director David Cronenberg who, in his film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, aimed precisely not to contribute to what he called “the cinema of comfort,” the glut of movies made to confirm rather than interrogate our notions of ourselves. I think of Georges Bataille who, in Story of the Eye, went, without fuss, where none of the surrealists of his time could go, who succinctly described Dada as “Not idiotic enough.” I think of Louise Gluck snobbishly lobbying against sincerity in poetry, or Robert Hass calmly distinguishing between poetry that finds its place in history and poetry that finds its place in literature, or James Wood passionately arguing against what he calls the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, or Joseph Saguid providing a close reading of and subsequently expressing disappointment over Khavn dela Cruz’s Guhit ng Talampakan. I think of that funny-harsh assessment of the mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that came out in the New Yorker, or the angry assessment of Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff in the New York Times, etcetera, etcetera. Fierce critique makes us think of what we read and how we read, what we write and how we write. Fierce critique insists that we don’t slack off, don’t dismiss, don’t ignore, don’t zone out. It is not out to please, or comfort, or affirm. It demands that we break habits and take risks and question our choices. It is not out to rub our backs and kiss our asses and tell us everything is perfectly alright.
By the looks of it, there is no room for fierce critique in the Free Press. Nothing we can’t do without. All it means is it’s time to take the party elsewhere.