June 2007
Literature and Literacy

Chicks rule!

CHICK lit books are geared towards young, urban, single women. [photo courtesy of PSICOM Publishing]

N.B.S.B. (No Boyfriend Since Birth). Love hurts. Hearts heal. Relationships are overrated. Marriage or living in? Promiscuity versus loyalty. Every girl needs a gay best friend. Better pay or fulfilling job? M.U. (Mutual Understanding). Shopping! Vacations. Self-worth and confidence. Self-love. Single — not an old maid. Falling in love with your male best friend. The search for Mr. Right. H.D. (Hidden Desire).

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.

FORMER Summit books editor and National Book Awardee Tara Sering [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

I say, give it one chance and read it. And prepare to be surprised.

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.

THESE NOVELS, all published in 2003, had as its predecessor Sering’s freebie novel Getting Better, which clearly set the tone for the kind of writing that would come to be known as Philippine chick lit. Sering, an oft-anthologized fictionist who has won prizes for her short stories, is a product of the creative writing program of the University of the Philippines, and was Cosmopolitan Philippines’ editor in chief before becoming book editor of Summit Books.

I do not doubt that Sering’s background in creative writing informed the manner in which she sank her teeth into the conventions of chick lit. Because while there is a formula to stick to, her opening salvo was anything but. There is nothing formulaic about starting a novel with the month of June, and the contingent pressure on Filipino women to well, become brides, quick, before it’s too late. Here, Sering writes in the second person, engaging the Pinay reader in the struggle of being single in this country, particularly when everyone else is getting married and even when one is just considered to be “of age.” The Pinay reader who would have grown up hearing about marriage as the end-all and be-all of existence, would easily get hooked by this story, because really, even in the age of annulments and marital abuse, marriage is still seen in this country as “paglagay sa tahimik” or “settling down.”

Having kick-started the now productive industry of Philippine chick literature, there is no doubt that Sering has set a standard for the kind of chicks’ stories that need to be told — and how they can be told. It does not compete with any of the other popular romance novels a la Valentine Romance and Precious Petals Romance, which obviously have a different market; neither does it pretend to be all feminist or liberal or even elitist when it talks about the middle-class Filipina. Instead, Sering set the standard for a realistic reckoning of how middle-class Pinays live and are merry, how they may become miserable and inconsolable, how they struggle with society and learn to deal with it, and how they go through a process of finding themselves given those limitations. Highlighted by these novels is a Pinay who, for the first time, is owning the chick label and living it out on her own terms, with her own money, within her own spaces. It almost seems as if the man is secondary.

“Pinay chicks rule!” these novels unabashedly say. No apologies. No disclaimers. They disengage themselves from the literary establishment’s rules and regulations, as they recognize the Pinoy reader who does exist in the Philippines — but who has yet to get interested in what is considered as “real” Philippine literature. Of course there are limits to what can be written in these novels, but if there’s anything that Sering’s handling of Summit Books has proven, it’s that there is always the option of dealing with the formula and seamlessly going beyond it. Ideally, toward more realistic portrayals of Pinay chicks’ lives — diverse and varied as they are.

Given this, it is entirely possible that Sering as the brain of Summit Books has become that one chick ruling the worlds of many Filipina readers. And while she has yet to be acknowledged as someone who rocked the literary world, she undoubtedly has changed the dynamics of its existence. Because chick literature in her hands has not only become proof of a Filipino readership; it is in fact testament to how the literary establishment can face up to the challenge of getting an audience that is here, in this country, and actually be read by those they speak of. This task must not be dismissed as easy, or as something that only really means “selling out” to the popular. That Summit Books ceased publishing (temporarily?) chick novels upon Sering’s departure from the company is a measure of how tapping and keeping this audience is no task for the weak chick (or hunk for that matter).

Because when female students’ eyes light up at the mention of a Sering short story (published in a book by the University of the Philippines Press), then that is no doubt a measure of her readership — and credibility. The contingent reaction to NVM Gonzales or Franz Arcellana is, after all, blank faces. What Sering has done is to blur that line that divides “real literature” from popular literature, because she is unabashedly both. Now, there is no dismissing any kind of text — any book — as just a love story, just a comic book, or just crap. The beginnings of chick literature in this country tell us that we shouldn’t knock it. At least not until we’ve opened that hot pink book cover, and taken a peak inside these chicks’ writings, and their lives.

Most importantly, because of Sering’s brand of chick lit, there’s now a higher probability that a Philippine book will be picked off of a bookstore shelf, not because it’s required reading, but because there is renewed interest in reading literature that is our own.

That, to me, is how chicks rule.

Katrina Stuart Santiago is finishing her thesis for an M.A. in Philippine Studies at the U.P. Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas. She does freelance writing and editorial work on the side. Much of her time is happily devoted to teaching writing and literature at the Department of English of the Ateneo de Manila University.