Fast food criticism

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There is nothing more fascinating than watching how social media brings out the worst in us, and especially for the literary establishment, how people who are in the business of words can be the worst examples of shooting­from­the­hip and being irresponsible and unthinking, from calling someone an asshole to suggesting that he’s being paid to do criticism.

What is hilarious is that this recent snafu happened mostly in the minds and hearts (I kid you not!) of literary establishment people. And while we expect the defensiveness and sensitivity, it was certainly still a surprise that a 74­character critique of a fast food fiction anthology could get them all riled up.

That is, book designer, writer, and all­around book producer Adam David’s commentary on the call for submissions to the second installment of one fast food fiction anthology. He said: “Will probably be just as full of empty calories as real fast food!”

I actually LOL’d when I read it, but soon enough I realized that I was alone in doing so. Someone had taken offense – along with the literary establishment – and they were taking to Facebook.


My tendency, when faced with criticism from someone whose opinion I don’t care much for, is to raise my eyebrows, flip my hair, and say: kebs!

But that didn’t happen. It was apparently time for the annual show of insecurity, courtesy of the literary establishment. One could not but clap in glee.

This old menu
For the sake of transparency, Adam is a friend. I’ve worked with him on the two books of Angela’s, EDSA Uno Dos Tres (2013) and Revolutionary Routes (2011). I began helping out with his alternative book fair Better Living Through Xeroxography in 2012; and have since been influenced by the kind of work he does outside of the literary establishment, which is constantly evolving and always about a process of learning. The latter is why I appreciate Adam as a cultural worker, no matter that I might disagree with him. We don’t need to agree on everything in order to be friends.

I didn’t need to agree with him in order to find that comment about empty calories absolutely funny. I LOL’d and moved on, forming my own assessment about the same call for submissions. This was not a dismissal as it was a conclusion I was drawing based on the history of literary anthological production in this country.

Which is to say I asked: Why? This publication is part two of an anthology published in 2003, and one should be able to ask why it warrants a sequel at all. Because a new anthology altogether could be done, with a new vision that takes cognizance of the writing of (fast) fiction in the past eleven years.

No dice. The 2014 fast food fiction is premised on editors who “feel the time has come for more” as they “crave for solid fiction morsels to chew on and muse over.” Without a clear vision for it, this enables the practice of editor­is­king, with choices unquestionable because the anthological task is not articulated from the get­go.

Even that is so 2003. Of course anyone can want “stories that strike the heart and mind and leave <them>, somehow, nourished” and “stories that demonstrate the unlimited possibilities of the form.” And yes, they can say this is how open they are to the variety of submissions that might come in. But one can argue that this kind of liberalism was for

11 years ago, when it was new and exciting.

In 2014, fast food fiction is just old, its revival problematic because it does not promise a reconfiguration that takes into consideration the years that have passed. We complain about musicians that live off reviving songs, or about Enteng Kabisote’s sequels and prequels, and the soap opera’s archetypal portrayals. We complain about repetition and redundancy in cultural production all the time. Literature is not exempt.

Too, this new generation of mainstream editors now in positions of power to create literary anthologies, can –and should – do their elders better. Let’s start by not serving readers the same fast food, when that has been criticized to death for its lack of nutritional value.

Fast, foolish, furious
Ah, but this discussion spiraled down quickly enough. Because instead of thinking Adam’s commentary to have been grounded in a clear critical stance that was valid, his critique was taken as an insult, an affront, to the book’s editors. And so instead of engaging with his critique – which was not just that 74­character status –time was spent calling Adam names (asshole, mokong, career troll) and presuming things about his personal life (“hindi siguro masaya ang buhay nito!”) and his body of work (“he writes poems in the shapes of bacon and eggs” and should be dismissed says a mainstream news anchor of TV5, tsk tsk tsk!). This namecalling and bashing they justified as something that “goes with the territory.”

This justification is not surprising, but it’s absolutely wrong. This kind of personalan and kuyog do not go with the territory of doing criticism; it only goes with the territory when you’re doing it in this country, particularly when you speak about government or the literary establishment. Because they take things personally – those in Malacañang and the members of the literati, both. Adam’s comment was considered to be “mocking someone else’s work,” and he was dismissed as someone who isn’t the target market of this anthology.

But pray tell, who is? With nary a clear sense of what this anthology is going to be, isn’t it that all of the public is its target market? With nary a clear vision for this anthology, how can anyone at all say that Adam’s critique– any critique of it at all – is about “the work”? There is no work to speak of because the editors are waiting for submissions. One editor says: “As we do not (as yet) have a manuscript… we cannot pretend to tell you what we think it is… or isn’t.”

Which is precisely the problem, isn’t it? Because this way of anthologizing without a vision for the final product, this task in itself, has already been put into question. Because we can do better than the editors before us, and this new generation empowered by the literary establishment are in a position to do better.

And if doing it better is not the point, then facing criticism better might be. Why offer one person’s head on a silver platter to an audience ready to pounce, because you’ve taken his critique personally? Why fuel a comment thread that is about ganging up against one person. For whom is this exercise, and towards what end?

In the end it was nothing but a grand display of foolishness, where it is revealed that there is no “work” to talk about and anthological production is not problematized, where taking it personally is justified and calling someone an asshole and career troll are validated, and where a 74­character Facebook status means the world.

It was all too quick and easy. One wishes those in the business of words can do better than fast food.

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