In about three months, Filipino writers will be celebrating what has been referred to as “The Oscars (or for a more Filipino analogy, the Famas)” of the Philippine literary community. This is, of course, The Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Recently, I have encountered a few ideas about literary contests in the Philippines that I would like to respond to in this piece.
(I will not credit the person or persons who expressed these ideas because, knowing how personality-oriented some people are, I would rather avoid baseless, and base, speculations regarding my motives in writing this piece.)
The Palanca Awards is not the only literary prize in the Philippines. There’s also the National Book Award and, notably, the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Awards. The Madrigal-Gonzalez is, I believe, a boon to first-time authors. It gives, along with honors, a prize of P50,000—a very good incentive to write that second book.
My friend Angelo Suarez recently reminded me on an FB post that El Bimbo Variations is “an awesome, formally gratuitous book by my very good friend Adam David”.
El Bimbo Variations was awarded the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award by the U.P. Institute of Creative Writing back in 2009. Angelo and his co-judges decided unanimously to give the award to David’s book—so it must be a very awesome book that I, unfortunately, have had no chance to read.
Based on information on the Internet, I might even like it as much as Dumot by Alan Navarra, a fabulous book that I have read and enjoyed a lot.
Incidentally, when I googled “El Bimbo” and “El Bimbo dance,” these were among the photos that popped up:
Honestly, I can’t decide which is more horrible: the mega-tiyanak on the left, or the smiling face of David Hasselhoff on the right? Why is he smiling that way?
Okay, let’s get cracking.
Are literary contests reliable?
The first idea I’ll respond to is this: “We all know that the National Book Award and the Palanca Awards are unreliable measures of literary merit.” That is a substantial charge against the Palanca Awards, which has been around for 62 years.
Well, if that idea were true, it seems I wasted my time in this contest. Time to turn our Palanca medals into shuffleboard pucks—who’s with me?
If the National Book Awards and the Palanca Awards are “unreliable,” then maybe all Philippine literary contests—including the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award, for example—are unreliable.
Here’s why: the Philippine literary community is small, and will inevitably draw upon a common pool of experts—usually made up of professional authors and academics—to judge in the various competitions.
A survey of the jurors who determined the winners of the Madrigal-Gonzalez prize (in the past eleven years) would show that most of them, maybe 80 to 85 percent, either served as judges in the Palanca awards or are Palanca award-winners. It’s likely that the judges who serve at the National Book Awards have the same qualifications.
It’s logical to suppose that the integrity and reliability of a contest, as a measure of a literary work’s merits, are dependent on the judges’ qualifications. So, with all three competitions drawing jurors from the same pool of experts—what would make the other two contests less “reliable” than the Madrigal-Gonzalez?
Writers judging writers
It takes a forceful, grunting, ballsy exertion of one’s ego to be a writer. Why? Well, you have to first assume that your writing is actually worth a reader’s time. Why should anyone put in time and effort to read your work, when he or she could instead be watching video clips of Sen. Lito Lapid voting “guilty” at the Corona impeachment trial?
Now just think: how much more ego does it take for a writer to judge another writer’s work?
This is why, in my view, writers who judge other writers’ works must put in extra effort to be fair.
Let’s consider the situation described in the previous Inkcanto: Can a writer, when serving as a judge in a literary competition, make an impartial judgment if the work that he wants to win is authored by his friend?
My stand is this: a juror can be dispassionate during the process of judging a friend’s work in a competition; he or she can be open-minded enough, and fair enough to all the contestants, to weigh the worthiness of each entry—without giving in to personal biases.
I did just that in the few literary contests where I served as a judge. As a result, no close friends of mine won in those contests—except once.
In that single time, my friend’s work received an honorable mention; and that was because one judge, Prof. Jose David Lapuz, persuaded all his co-judges—including myself—to give the special prize to my friend’s work. So, to all my writer-friends: I am useless to you as a juror.
I believe in presuming, in good faith, that all the judges in a competition are able to exercise integrity, fairness and objectivity as much as they can—unless there is evidence to the contrary.
My only requirement on myself , if I were a judge—and I happened to think that my friend’s entry really deserved the prize—would be to disclose to the other judges my friendship with the author. Is that a strange requirement?
I think it’s only fair that I let my co-judges know about the friendship, so they could weigh my enthusiasm—and possibly, compromised judgment—toward the work, against whatever merits they might find in it.
On the other hand, if I keep my friendship with the work’s author a secret, then I might be deceiving my co-judges. I might be giving my friend an unfair advantage over the other contenders. But that’s just me—other judges may have a different view.
The Palanca Awards’ jury system
In the Palanca awards, the identities of the contestants are concealed from the judges’ knowledge. This helps level the playing field, to be fair to all contestants—the judges can better assess the merits of a contest entry based on the work itself, not on who wrote it.
This system, of course, is not perfect. It’s possible that a writer, sometime earlier, had shown part or all of the work to another writer who, by coincidence, later gets chosen to judge in a competition. Certainly, that judge would recognize the work once he or she reads through the competition’s entries.
The identities of the judges in the Palanca awards are also kept secret. The Palanca Foundation does not reveal them to the public until the awards night. The judges are chosen only after all the competition entries have been submitted.
In contrast, as far as I know, the jurors in the National Book Awards and the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award already know who the nominees are from the outset. The identities of the books’ authors are not concealed, as per the rules of these contests—obviously, it would be impossible to conceal the identity of the author of an already published work.
I’m not saying that the Palanca Awards is fairer in its judgments than the latter two: ordinarily, there is always a way to ensure fairness and—as much as it is humanly possible—to judge in a competition with impartiality, no matter what rules the judges have to work with.
Pragmatic, yet cynical
This next idea is related to the very first one we discussed. “If literary contests are ‘unreliable’—and are, ultimately, a farce—it is perfectly fine to join them and put one’s winning record in a CV, in order to get some ‘extra-literary’ benefits.”
Examples of these benefits include: a job, a freelance writing gig, or even the chance to sparkle socially (like a Twilight vampire) by projecting one’s persona as brilliant, artistic and cool. Totally.
It follows from that perspective then, that one’s motivation in joining the competition should be, primarily, exploitative.
I don’t agree with that idea. Totally. It’s a rather inconsistent, douchebag move to participate in a contest that you deem to be a charade—no matter what “benefits” you believe you are getting.
Just think: how different is such a perspective/attitude from, say, that of a pastor who preaches about God’s love—but who, in truth, is only in it for the money and the power?
Let’s imagine how a very cynical writer would behave in the Palanca awards; he receives the award onstage, goes up to the podium, and then tells everyone:
“Thank you for this award. I believe this entire event is silly due to the competition’s unreliability as a measure of the literary merits of my work, as well as the works of others.
“Still, I shall gladly take this honor, the certificate, the medal, and your money, run towards the bar, grab a bottle of vodka, and go home before any of you recover from the momentary shock.”
Where does this dismissive, jaded, cynical, mercenary, and exploitative attitude end? Is it limited only to when one is joining a contest, or does it also apply when one is dispensing his or her duties as a juror?
Would such a judge perform his duties because he truly believed in fairly determining literary merit (in all the contestants’ works, not just one) or would he have some ulterior, exploitative motive?
Awards and livelihood
Having said all of the above, let’s consider the impact of literary awards on a young writer’s career. If you are a young writer and you receive an award—then you are definitely going to love it. You will use whatever benefits result from being recognized as a writer of competence, or even brilliance.
After all, the recognition puts you on the radar, so to speak, career-wise. It’s something you can build both your reputation and your career on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing all of that. If a young writer doesn’t capitalize on his or her victories, then this could happen:
But what about a writer who takes a cynical attitude towards the awards he has received, declares them a sham, and then, in a complete about-face, uses these honors on his or her CV?
In doing that, you are asking an employer or client to hold you in esteem—for something that you yourself do not believe in. If the awards are unreliable, then why use them as proof that your work is worth the client’s money?
If they really are unreliable, then putting them in your resume would be a deception—because the proof of (your) competence that they present is no proof at all.
Why resort to flaunting impressive qualifications that you neither believe in nor truly deserve (going by your logic)—just to get a job or a freelance gig? Are you not, in a way, making a fool out of your employer or client?
I was a judge in the Palanca awards in 2002, the year that “Jolography” won First Place in the Poetry in English Category. I and my co-judges, poets Ricky de Ungria and Tony Jocson, unanimously gave that First Prize to “Jolography”.
All three of us judges had no idea—all throughout the weeks when we read and re-read the entries, ranked our shortlists, and then met for our deliberations—who wrote “Jolography.” It was truly a ground-breaking work back then.
In the initial shortlist that each judge prepared, “Jolography” was easily at the top five. I was excited about the work, and I recall that Ricky and Tony thought early on that we had a real winner in our hands. Tony was in the U.S. at the time and was communicating with Ricky through email.
The Palanca Awards night when “Jolography” author Paolo Manalo stepped onstage to receive his award was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was because I knew that he truly deserved the award, and that we three judges dispensed our duties with integrity and fairness.
In closing, I would wish that other young writers take the less cynical road when it comes to their writing, and the awards that they receive for it.
I hope they choose to be gracious when receiving such honors—and even if those honors are not given, they should always remember this:
If one’s writing is good enough, it is its own proof of merit. Your writing stands on its own strengths or collapses from its own inadequacies. No judge and no award can change that.
As the American poet William Stafford once said (and I am paraphrasing), “A poem [or any piece of writing, for that matter] creates its own authority.” I like that. Accomplishing that makes someone truly an author.