Saturday, July 27, 2013
Faithful readers of the newspapers I write for may have noticed that, save for the rare occasions when I could bring myself up to the task of column-writing, I have not published anything for the longest time since January.
The official reason that I have given my editors is one that seems quite understandable. After many years of churning content for this space week after week without fail, I had claimed “burn out,” which happens to the best of them. “I have nothing more to say,” was my excuse—which is, of course, easily discounted given the many and sundry posts I make in Facebook or Twitter: all those short observations and rants and what-not that betray a life constantly reflecting on one thing or other. I do have a lot of things to say. I just didn’t want to write them down in a column anymore.
Perhaps I got tired of being a cultural critic, especially for something aimed for the permanency of journalism. Anything on newsprint smacks of the heavy responsibility of the legitimacy we attach to print media. (“Big words,” Sarah Geronimo’s Laida Magtalas would have quipped at this.) Social media postings, however, seemed to me more ephemeral yet also more direct, eliciting instant feedback, which is also easily drowned in the constant deluge of information the Internet is capable of making. I think of social media as a kind of “hit-and-run” writing. I reveled in it.
The life of a critic who is also a creative writer and a sometime cultural advocate is an existence etched in schizophrenia: you have two hats to wear, but only one head. Having both hats often confused me. I know it is often quite delicious to dish out as a critic, but always with the knowledge that with such snark, one must also be able to take in, as an artist, what is dished out to you.
But I have always considered myself a fair receiver of bad notices—and God knows I have received many of them, in withering workshops, in less-than-stellar reviews, in apologetic rejection letters, in painful negotiations with an editor over a manuscript. I have always considered these things as necessary wrangling to achieve a semblance of good craftsmanship in my work—and such a perspective has helped me achieve some of the triumphs I’ve had. In 2002, I was told there wasn’t much of me as a young writer—and so I went ahead and penned a story that won me my first Palanca, and edited an anthology that garnered my first nomination in the National Book Awards. In 2008, I was told that my best stories were behind me—and so I went ahead and wrote one that won for me a first place finish in the same contest, and later secured long-list honors in the Man Asian Literary Prize. You cannot please everybody, I’ve learned—but that doesn’t mean what they say becomes the ultimate statement of what you can do. And sometimes people write bad notices because they have an axe to grind: those qualify for the lowest forms of opinions. Being able to distinguish useless snark from helpful negative notices takes time and maturity.
I have been writing criticism since I was a Mass Communication student in Silliman University, starting with a column I named “Cynosure for Attila”—which belied the arrogance typical of one so young. I thought that what I had to say could be sword or wand, depending on my mood, and it was directed to what I considered to be a small world populated by philistines, for which I must have thought of myself as a kind of messiah. (How arrogant I was, and how young.) In the mid-1990s, I wrote a review of a local production of West Side Story
, directed by Evelyn Aldecoa, in The Weekly Sillimanian
. It did a perfect demolition job calculated to hurt—but not a day that had passed since then have I not regretted the poison of those words I penned. It severed a professional relationship, which also had repercussions on so many people that lasted for years. Only very recently were many of those broken bridges healed. In time, Ma’am Evelyn forgave me. In time.
A few short years before she died, she cast me in an unstaged production of South Pacific
, and I also worked with her on the program and marketing of 2010’s Godspell
. In time.
I’ve thought about that episode often—and whenever I’d write a scathing review in this space, I’d think about the matter for a few days, and I eventually ask myself: What for?
To wield words with such bludgeoning effect is power given only to a privileged few. I should have a perfectly good reason for snark. When my columns evolved to spaces that reviewed not only shows and music and film but also food, I realized just how unbearable the responsibility was. Everywhere I went, people expected me to say something—about their show, about their food, whatever—but what if I did not like any of these?
The late film critic Alexis Tioseco grappled with this question once and came to a conclusion, which formed the core of his kind of criticism. He realized he could use his words to champion what he loved—and if he didn’t like something, he wouldn’t write anything at all. His silence was the ultimate arbitration of a work done badly. And I did that for a while, and even championed in my columns the many artists I felt deserved the spotlight, no matter how briefly it shone on them. I wrote about them because I loved their works, and I believed in what they could do.
This bit of monologue from food critic Anton Ego in Brad Bird’s brilliant Ratatouille
(2007) is still the best approximation of what criticism is and should be about: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the ‘new.’ The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends…” That last bit rings true, and I shall strive to always remember this.
I’m going back to regular column-writing, because there are many new things that deserve friendlier pens.
Labels: criticism, life, writing
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