the house that literature built

thanks, Rogue Magazine, for letting me share this.
something that’s not common knowledge, and needed to be said.

By Katrina Stuart Santiago

There is much to be said about the probability that the writer who has not done any of the writing workshops, has not come out with a book with any of the commercial and academic publishing houses, has not taught at one of the four major Manila universities in the past five years, has not won any major writing prize in the past three, has not been employed by the academe or the publishing industry either, would be brushed off as a non-writer. Or just a not-one-of-us, the “us” being the writing community—the literati—in third-world Philippines. That “us” necessarily revolving around Manila’s academe and the literary stalwarts—and yes, they exist here and now even if you would rather read Game of Thrones any day.

This “us” of course is no surprise, and lest you imagine that this is another conspiracy theory about how the literary sector sets out to ostracize and disenfranchise people who are unworthy, I assure you that it’s so much worse than that. The years have taught me that right here what operates is an unspoken/ unconscious/ unexplained set of rules that have nothing to do with writing skill or literary merit. Right here, what operates is a togetherness that might be premised on friendships, but half the time is just a fascinating display of parochialism and patronage. Here’s a shameless alaga system versus real mentorship, here’s condoning the mistakes elders make because they’ve got past glory to fall back on, here’s a togetherness that banks on closing ranks against the deemed enemy.

Which would be okay if we were talking about the grand enemy that is globalization bringing in cheaper imported books, or the commercial publishing industry making sure writers don’t make money, or the government failing tremendously at funneling support to the arts in general. But no, the enemy is not the system as it is just a person. You or me, depending on who has dared point a finger at—or who has given them the finger for—what can only be a bubble within which criticism is frowned upon, no one’s held accountable, and everything happens with the giddiness of the most recent book launch/contest/workshop and a false sense of relevance.

Welcome to the Philippine literary world, leave your self at the door.

Because here’s a house with its own set of unspoken rules, ones that you know for certain exist because the moment you enter it there’s a sense of propriety and order in the hushed tones you suddenly use to speak, in the silences you’re expected to keep. And you shouldn’t mind. After all, right here your writing will be deemed legit, no matter how uncertain even you are about its merit. Here, all it takes to survive is to keep your critical thoughts to yourself, and (maybe unknowingly) keep your writing within the box of the expected. Here, the question “Is it new?” doesn’t matter as much as “Who wrote it?” Here, creativity is the least of your worries.

Here, all you must know is this: the foundations of this house are as strong as the literary barkada is, in control as they are of the academe and publishing, workshops and contests, everything that would deem anyone a “writer” on these shores. It’s a private literati party, and you’re made to believe you’re lucky to be invited. Know that it takes very little to keep you out of this house. Very few consciously and knowingly walk out that door.

There is after all a sense of security in community here, and the warmth of hearth and home can only be inviting. And you can learn in this space, make friends here, too, but it doesn’t mean that you’re home safe. Dissenting with popular opinion or aesthetic, doing things differently will not only warrant a reprimand or a snub, it could mean being thrown out the window altogether. Just like that, there will be no friends in sight.

Yes, it sounds brutal. Welcome to the real world of the Philippine literati. And much like reality TV, it’s a world where everything—everything—is personal.

Which is to say that any form of criticism is reason enough for you to be seen as the enemy. Questions that go against the grain of established thought, or which bend in a different ideological direction, are taken against you. It doesn’t matter that you talk about the work and not the people; the work is the person who wrote it, and these writers have built this house. How dare you bite the hand that feeds you. Don’t be surprised when “lacking collegiality” and “disrespecting elders” become epithets used against you. Soon enough, out of the woodwork, the monsters of this house reveal themselves.

They reveal themselves in letters written and sent out declaring you persona non grata, telling the world that you should be reprimanded and/or kicked out of the job you love. Or instances where you are told to your face that you’ve got an ideological chip on your shoulder. It won’t matter how fantastic a teacher you are, because outside your classroom talk can and will bring you down. When you find that no matter how wonderful your writing is, you will be without a publisher for your books. And forget about winning contests.

In what we imagine to be the most creative and intelligent of houses, where we’d like to imagine that conversations about culture and society, writing and responsibility, are taking place, right here is tsismis that can be vile and vicious, the kind that can break you. That is if your heart isn’t broken yet by this revelation: this house would rather the elder who commits intellectual dishonesty, than the young asking the most valid of questions. In here, you are as puny as you are negligible, as you are someone who can be transformed into the obedient, unquestioning, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed son or daughter.

It is in these instances that it becomes clear that you’re not one of “them” and it takes a while before you realize that there is much freedom in that, in being away—far far away—from the house that literature built.

Because it means that you dare grow up, you dare stand by writing with which not many might agree, but for which you do find readers. Or haters who are willing to talk to you about it, who will tell you what’s wrong, who will dare question you because they appreciate that you do the same for them. Out of that house you will find that creativity is not about how the workshops or creative writing classes taught you to write, nor is it about finding so much comfort in the writing niche that’s gotten you published.

Out here where there are no comforts, there is also much freedom. Out here is where survival of the fittest actually applies, because they are the most creative, because they are continuously evolving, because they are continuously learning. Out here, people read, they write, they talk to each other and come up with ideas that are different, if not new. Out here, the more daring of writers challenge limitations and transgress institutionalized lines. Out here, the Internet, technology, and the changing landscape of cultural production across the world are not scary things; they are the writing on the wall. Out here, you prove there are readers, and they are beyond Manila, beyond the division between English and Filipino, beyond the familiar academic and cultural institutions. Out here, you see this audience and you want to write the books they might like to read. Out here, writing and creativity find their relevance.

Out here, you find that the great house of multiple sensitivities actually lives off the idea that there are no readers on these shores, that there is no money in writing, because this idea is what keeps that house up. The stronger the belief in the lack of readers, the easier it is to justify the little money that writers are paid for their books, the easier to justify the need to keep to oneself, keep to this house, stay in the rooms many others inhabit. The better, too, to imagine that the audience is America—for we should all want to be published there, after all.

This is why the Pinoy reading public doesn’t care about the literati. It’s because the literati doesn’t care about these readers. And that’s you, the Harry Potter, Hunger Games-reading public, you.

Meanwhile that house sure looks like it’s getting smaller and smaller by the day. And as you grapple with your writing, and think of how to self-publish your book, you look out the one window you, yourself built and see that the house up on that hill is on fire, ready to crumble under the weight of its own monsters. But the literati’s in there and they’re keeping it up—writers, plagiarists, sons and daughters, and alagas, all together now.

You got out just in time.

This article can be found in the April 2012 issue of Rogue Magazine, out on newsstands now! Other essays: How Nick Joaquin shocked polite society by Marra PL. Lanot; Junot Diaz on Writer’s Block, Oscar Wao, and Winning the Pulitzer Prize; “We were enemies of the state.” Butch Dalisay, Jo Ann Maglipon, Ricky Lee, and Pete lacaba revisit their darkest chapter.


  1. From this piece, there seems to be a textbook case of ‘market imperfection.’ A cabal has hijacked the decision-making of publishers, resulting in good authors being ignored (that happens even in the US) and bad authors getting an undeserved good reputation (because a lie told often enough becomes Goebbels’ truth).

    But there is an economics to the publishing industry. It involves intellectual property, is subject to economies of scale, and publishers are gatekeepers to make sure bad stuff don’t get published. Why? Because bad stuff won’t sell, unless some ‘patron’ willingly and continuously loses a bundle buying truckloads of bad stuff and effectively giving it away. That’s actually the thesis of this piece.

    So the solution seems clear enough. No more ‘patrons’ – but in a society with unequal wealth distribution, this solution won’t work. More informed and financially empowered readership – but when the mass of potential readers can’t afford to buy books, this too won’t work. The good guys won’t get supported. Perhaps one alternative is back to the Leonardo Da Vinci days – some feudal patron(s) would finance the good stuff, and then we cross our fingers that these patrons are smart enough not to be fooled.

    Or maybe, just maybe, there are some books that are worth it and on which some profit can be made because of e-books and the web, and a small band of ‘rebels’ can actually put a pox on the silly old guard. This seems a business model worth exploring. VC’s anyone?

  2. “its a good article. i wish it had interviews with writers who have experienced what she wrote. that would be helpful.”

    They’re all afraid of having nightmares, I think. And being Filipinos, they are never sure of their opinions anyway, so why bother. Let’s just wait for the Americans to discover us or something.

  3. appreciate the comments, guys :) on facebook, the response from the writing community, except for a very few (miguel syjuco, for one) is quite dismaying. mostly defensive, “angry” lang daw si katrina, and “bitter”. i’ve been wanting to respond: more like brave (yes restyo!), and if anything else, sad for nation.

      • Angela, if you remember the little fracas I had with one big name (MLQ’s old blog). It was a simple email I sent but the reaction (a column devoted to it) and being blacklisted (I assume) in the two literary publications publishing fiction regularly is quite extravagant, I think.

        One commenter though has a point. This has to be published in a more academic-centered publication, with quotes from opposing writers. The writing in English, generally speaking, suffers from lack of creativity. Oh they try to hide it by going after fads (magic realism, pomo, whatchamacallitism).

        I wish they we can all be brave enough to admit that the dead writers were never good enough, the old ones never smart enough and the younger ones not brave enough.

  4. katrina posted this on facebook two minutes ago:

    response to an exchange among Adam and Angelo and myself two statuses ago, on patronizing comments and the literary world and its writers thinking that i just don’t have anything better to do with my time which is why that Rogue piece was written. —

    sa totoo lang, gusto ko ngang sabihin na: hoy mga bakla, wala na ‘kong at stake sa literary world kaya nga nasusulat ko na ito! wala na ‘kong ilusyon of doing mainstream publishing. nanalo na ‘ko ng Palanca, at wala namang relevance yon. nagturo rin ako ng limang taon sa Ateneo at alam ng mga naging estudyante ko at ni Marlu Vilches na magaling ako magturo, at sapat na yon. alam rin ng mga taong may relevance na na-pulitika ako do’n, na kahinaan ng akademya ang nagtakda ng pag-alis ko do’n dahil “inciting to rebellion” raw ako sabi ni Margot Orendain.

    siniraan rin ako ni Krip Yuson do’n early into my teaching career. may sinulat akong response sa essay ni Patricia Evangelista noong 2006 (2007?) tungkol sa demokrasya, na pinost ko sa Plaridel egroup. ang ginawa ni Krip sinulatan niya ang chairperson ko at sinabi rito na dapat akong pagsabihan for being too critical.

    last year nang sumabog ang kuwento tungkol sa pag-plagiarize ni Krip, ako ang sinisi niya, dahil raw inggit lang ako kay Patricia Evangelista at galit ako sa pretty girls, kaya raw sinulat ko ang tungkol sa plagiarism niya. higit pa sa paninira ni Krip tungkol sa’kin, sana bigyan naman niya ng sapat na respeto si Pat, na sa tingin ko’y higit nang nalagpasan ang limitasyon ng kanyang literary mentors.

    soon after graduation sa DECL sa UP Diliman ko gustong magturo, at bongga kong naitawid ang demo do’n sa aking pagkakaalam. pero sa interview pinaginitan ako ni Preachy Legasto nang sinabi kong “there is a lack of rigid criticism in the academe.” at nang sinabi niya what about Carol and Neferti, sinabi ko na, well they’re not in the Philippines, so they can say what they want and not endanger their jobs. nung sinabi niya what about Edel, sabi ko “well we keep Sir Edel in his proper place and ignore him most of the time.” suffice it to say na hindi ako natanggap sa DECL, kahit na sila mismo ang nagturo sa’kin para mag-isip in this manner, para maging kritikal sa mismong sistemang gusto kong pasukin bilang bright eyed bushy tailed daughter nila.

    noong nanalo ako ng Palanca noong 2008, kinongratulate ako ni Krip sa smoking area. nung nakapasok ako sa UST Varsitarian Criticism workshop noong 2009, nagbati kami ni Preachy. nung pumunta ko sa defense ng last batch of lit majors na tinuruan ko, including @Petra Magno at @Andrea Macalino, lumapit sa’kin si Margot at humingi ng sort-of sorry. pinuri ko si Pat bilang indibidwal na media personality for selling out in the right direction of a human rights cause, sa yearender ko para sa GMA News Online nung 2011. sa ganang akin, wala kaming issue ni Pat.

    nung sinulat ko ang Manila Lit Fest review last year, naramdaman ko ang paglayo sa’kin ng ilang tao na otherwise ay tinuturing ko namang kaibigan. naisip ko no’n, kung pati tayo na mas batang henerasyon, ang mode natin ay ang panatilihin ang literary system na nasa Burn After Reading, wala na talagang pag-asa. ang mga tunay kong kaibigan — at marami sila, ‘wag kayong mag-alala — ay kaya ang panulat ko. ang mga tunay kong mambabasa — at oo meron ako no’n — nakikita ang positibong mga art at theater review, higit sa sanaysay na ito.

    i produced Revolutionary Routes. and was in the notable list of the Da Capo Best Music Writing for 2011, the only Filipino on that list. recently, an opinion piece up at GMA News Online was quoted at length in Time Magazine and New York Times online. google it.

    which is to say: nagsusulat po ako nga isang documentary, nagmemaintain ng ilang website na hindi sa’kin, nagboblog, nagre-revise ng proposal para sa isang SEA art project, nagpeprepare para sa pagfacilitate ng writing workshop, kasama sa Bliss Market art project ni J Pacena II, nagsusulat ng art review, nagsusulat ng book review, tumutulong sa BLTX ni Adam David sa mga reading project ni Honey de Peralta, nagsusulat para sa gmanewsonline, sa, sa, sa Rogue.

    marami akong ginagawa, putangina. the mere fact na gusto ko pang pagusapan ang literary world ay measure hindi ng anger o bitterness kungdi ng hope. umaasa ako na it can get and be better. i’m tanga that way.

    • I was hoping Syjuco would actually teach them a little lesson, pero nagpabingibingihan sa ibang section sa Ilustrado. Dapat siguro bastusin na sila.

      May sarili talagang mundo at kalaban yung kung sinuman na gustong tirikin yung bula.

      • Miguel Syjuco: If I may chime in: wrong or right, bitter or called for, isn’t it great that an article like this is getting us thinking and discussing and looking closely at ourselves and what we do? From the little I’ve seen abroad, I actually think that “the establishment” (with its predictable and universal insularities, limitations, etc.) is the same everywhere, not just at home in the Philippines. But isn’t that the way this dialogue that is literature works? — one generation challenges the previous generation’s stances/statements, until they too become the establishment, to be challenged by the subsequent generations? Isn’t the reaction to (and even rejection of) the old guard just as important as learning and leaning on them as we find our way through this lonesome, lunatic thing that is writing? Personally, for now I choose isolation so that I can train, and make mistakes, and slowly learn to be a better writer (and then learn from the reviews and reactions to work later published), but I never would’ve had the courage or ability to do so without the encouragement (and even sometimes opposition) of those in the establishment–the national writers workshops, the book launches in Balay Kalinaw, the casual conversations in the offices of the UP creative writing center, the anthologies, etc. Established writers like Krip and Butch, Jing and Jimmy, Rofel and Danton, and even those before them like NVM, Nick Joaquin, Bulosan, Garcia Villa, and all the way up to Rizal — all were the foundation for my aspirations and reactions and even rejections. More power to Ina Santiago for getting us talking about this. I hope she won’t limit her statements to this provocative, if sometimes vague, article, and will expand what she has to say into a larger and deeper work that will further add to this important conversation. Isn’t literature, after all, much longer than a tweet, blog posting, or magazine opinion piece? Isn’t it a long conversation/debate/argument spanning generations and borders? (from lila shahani’s fb comment thread)

        • Really, then why is a country of a hundred million still not producing its share of strong writing?

          Start talking? A lot of careers and fragile egos depend on silence and willful ignorance.

  5. Hmm.. this is getting to be Feynman interresting..

    How do little Davids deal with a Goliath monopoly? Hit G where it hurts.. I understand the ‘circle jerk’ monopoly doesn’t really make that much money, but what there is they preserve for themselves. But this doesn’t mean that the monopoly is not ‘contestable.’ A new kid in the block can play.

    Here’s how. Start a ‘really good’ writers’ coop or union where the rule is transparency. Anyone can join but must expose his/her work w/o any godmothering or politicking. A tough-minded editorial board gets to broker the public opinion the same way that american idols’ judges pretend to lead/guess the public pulse. the bottom line is as always: will it sell? the economic problem is how to minimize search cost, the cost of finding the f. scott fitzgerald/hemingway equivalents, which would likely not be discovered under the present system.

    But this business model will work only if an angel investor/donor will set up seed capital to build the infrastructure of a competitor to the circle jerk monopoly. It can be done although it requires some thought, esp. as to how the investor can recoup on his investment. Then the fun begins.

  6. Tom Coffman (Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power)


    Belated thanks for your kind remarks about the documentary.

    Can we e mail/dialogue on the question of why there seems to be no extensive biography of NINOY?

    Tom C
    808 247 8181