Egads, Moral Responsibilities?


Mark Athitakis recently wrote a tidy post that manages to cover the too[?]-enthusiastic critical reception of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, whether negative reviews have proven to be a dying breed, and the moral responsibilities of book reviewers—which bore, in the comments section, a thread about female Philippine writers, and what responsibilities female Philippine book reviewers have to aforementioned FPWs.


What moral responsibility there may be, applies only to the text and my sensibilities as a reader [in relation to that text]. This includes the structural frontiers it builds a home in, or dares to explore. This includes the reader’s response when that book is in his hands. This is the reader’s history brought into the now that the text demands. This is form and affect. This is [Franzen’s] Status and Contract Models converging to present a book that is not only technically impressive, but also has the capacity to touch something in you before wringing it dry.

I know that all sounds a lot. But this is what I, as a reader [and half-hearted reviewer] do not have any responsibility to: The author’s role in furthering a nation’s literature. ** My review’s possible promotion of a nation’s literature. See, that’s incidental.

If the novel can stand on its own to a reader—pity the collective grade inflation—these little triumphs will happen. I don’t believe in keeping mum of a book’s faults because the author happens to live in the same country as me, or has the same gender, or everyone’s saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to the printed word—or because my corner of the internet could stunt the already creeping development of a nation’s literature. I have my biases, but those are not among them.


I’ve finished reading Freedom. I found much to love about it, but found much to grimace at as well. I am not American, but my reading has been largely so. Modestly, let me say: This is not the Great American Novel we are hungry for. [My money’s still on The Corrections—that’s where much of Franzen’s investment in his characters shine.]

I will probably read The Tiger’s Wife if it reaches these here shores. We’ll see what happens then. I’ve been burned by hype many times before.


During its heyday, I posted a thumb-twiddling review of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado. I hate that post, beating around the bush as I did, preferring to sound haphazardly ditzy than to lay it all out on the table and say, as clearly as I could, “Hey, this began as a good book, but it buckled under its slapdash postmodernism. It was ambitious—it sought to define the state of Philippine literature [and the condition of those who jumped ship], as well as the bursting-at-the-seams culture we possess but is our curse to never get rid off, should we want to—but, ultimately, Syjuco couldn’t control his own story.”

I could even say, “The arrogance within the pages rankles somewhat—I am one of the illustrious, our protagonist proclaims, good-bye, archipelago of lost voices and assimilated traditions. But I, in my esteemed throne as Reader for the Moment, can forgive that since Syjuco, up to a certain point, retains a degree of self-deprecation.”

I could say all that, instead of tacking on disclaimers such as: “You could say I like Ilustrado because I am a Filipino, and, possessed of the patriotic fanaticism particular to nations that has long lived with the image of being marginalized.”

I mean, in its very existence, Ilustrado has shouldered responsibilities left and right: a door to the future, dare we say the much-needed resuscitation of more ambitious Philippine Literature, kicked open; a role model, unwilling or otherwise, to a generation of Filipino writers, and possible coming ones; and, most pressing, perhaps, the responsibility to be good. It’s not common for a Filipino writer to get thrown into the literary melee overrun by the West. Come on, you know that. How many Filipino writers do you know? How many have you read? I, myself, am afraid to count.

We need Ilustrado, I am sorry to say. It’s a terrible thing to assign a novel, minding its own business. Curse of the third world. Very much like pasalubong—an obligation to give something back, not unlike Prometheus and his fire [yes, I read that analogy somewhere]. Oh, the illustrious.

Still, I celebrate Syjuco’s success. I am glad that a work by a [contemporary] Filipino author is out there, winning awards, getting shortlisted—and, by a select few, lauded as the gateway to the as-yet-unexplored wonders of Philippine literature.

But I wish I’d been more upfront about the book’s failures instead of upholding some half-assed concept of my moral responsibility as a Filipino, as a Filipino writer, as a Filipino writer who happens to have girl bits.


For what it’s worth, I’m a girl, a published writer, born and raised and currently living in the sweltering Philippine Islands, a reader-blogger. But, really now?


** The Philippines and majority of the rest of the literate & literature-reading world greatly differ. Books are novelties—discourse more so (perhaps silly when you put it into context). The generality here, in this 95%-literate nation, is that books are too frothy a pursuit when you’ve got to go out and sweat under the sun to feed yourself and your family (burgeoned, by the way, by the overshadowing Catholic Church). Roughly 40% of the 95-M-strong population of this country is below the poverty line. We’ve got bestsellers here—we’re a country of uneasy romance novels and comic books and chick lit and joke compendiums—majority of the nation has thrived on genre. We read, yes, of course we do—but to engage in debates about the merits of, say, Angelo Suárez’s last poem in his The Nymph of MTV relative to Alfred A. Yuson’s The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café—isn’t this the kind of intellectual pursuit relegated to some-time poets and professors and literary-world hangers-on? But that is neither here nor there.

7 thoughts on “Egads, Moral Responsibilities?

  1. Nice post, and nice comment over at Mark’s. I’d sort of like to write about this myself, but I’m sure I won’t. But I get so frustrated…no, almost disgusted…by these arguments that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I’m not in the business of saying nice things or mean things; I’m in the business of writing about books. About what they do (and don’t do), how they do it, how well it works, etc. I’m trying to learn something here, myself, and I don’t see how you can do that if you need to hold yourself back from full engagement.

  2. …aaaaand, as I was saying the other day, saying “nice things or nothing at all” about a book just because you happen to have the same roots as the author is counter-productive to the purported agenda of “advancing Filipino literature”. It stunts the growth of the community of writers and readers; it has the potential to kill that urge to write the best goddamn book one can write, by sending the message that being oppressed is enough to be read, and liked.

    You know what’s productive? Integrity is productive. The truth is productive. And in our seven-thousand-odd islands, (I suspect this might be the case anywhere else,) challenging the writers to write the best goddamn book they can come up with– saying, “you better bring your A game, kapatid, because I’m here and my friends are here and if you do not move us, we won’t lie for you just because you’re brown”– that is productive. ‘Yun ang agenda, ganu’n magpatupad ng agenda.

  3. I do think that when people write about books about and by authors from their country or background, they do tend to write more critically, just because there is a vested interest and because they think more upon the themes. I know I do that, and I agree that it ups the game. Doesn’t make it easy though!


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