By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

PRINT’S NOT DEAD. Philippine Literature is not dead. It’s alive and perhaps, livelier than ever before.

Does one need proof?

Of the 57 awardees in the recent 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, 33 were first timers. Two are in their 20s. One winner is a writer on Wattpad, an online community of readers and budding writers where they can publish and share their stories online. Some local publishers — including Summit Media, National Bookstore, Precious Hearts Romances, Visprint, and ABS-CBN Publishing, among others — invest in printing Wattpad stories, Filipino translations of foreign books, pop fiction, and original young adult (YA) stories from first time, Millennial writers, because there’s a demand for them.

Who says nobody reads nowadays?

The Manila International Book Fair (MIBF), which was held from Sept. 16 to 20 at the Mall of Asia SMX, for instance, welcomed a throng of bibliophiles of all ages and from all walks of life. It offered a variety of reading options, from romance to vampires, educational books to erotic tomes. According to the MIBF organizers, the fair, YA, self-help, and pop fiction books were particularly popular. Wattpad original books like She’s Dating the Gangster, Filipino romance pocket books, and international YA books like Paper Towns, P.S. I Still Love You, and Love and Misadventure from authors John Green, Jenny Han, and Lang Leav, sold like hotcakes. The majority of the fairgoers were teenagers.

Amid the flourishing literary scene and the plethora of books in the Philippines, the old questions are still asked: What is literature? Who are the “writers?” What should people read?

There is a great divide in the Philippine literary world: the academicians who care about style, nuance, allusions, and such, versus newbie writers who only want to share their stories.

“Remember that the universities, academic institutions, formal writing institutions, and workshops dictate what is literary, sub-literary, anti-literary, or parang (seemingly) literary,” University of Santo Tomas professor Eros S. Atalia told BusinessWorld. He wrote the book Lapit na Me, Ligo na U, which was adapted into a popular Cinemalaya movie in 2011.

“The institutions look at the poetics, syntax, grammar, structure, etc. I think the academics, the highbrow, [think that] the more the people understand you and the more it is popular, the less it is literature. The fewer people read you, the more it is literature. Only academics should understand you,” he said, speaking in a mix of English and the vernacular.

Then again, not everyone feels that way. Take renowned screenwriter, mentor, and book author Ricardo “Ricky” A. Lee, who wrote Para Kay B, Amapola, and Batang Lansangan, among others, and worked with celebrated film directors Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka. He recently won the 2015 Gawad Cultural Center of the Philippines Sining for Literature award. He said in the interview that he tended to write obscurely when he was starting his literary career. When he decided to give his work to his friend’s students, they complained that it was too profound to grasp, too hard to understand. Since then, Mr. Lee has made a conscious effort to reach a wider audience.

“It’s the duty of the writers to bring the readings to them (the public). At huwag gawing mahirap to reach. (Don’t make it hard to reach),” he said.

Mr. Atalia said that in the Philippines, the standards that need to be reached to be considered a “legitimate” writer are quite high. One needs to go through a series of tests and challenges before he or she gains a spot in the snobbish world of letters.

“For you to be called a writer, you should be published by a reputable publishing house, preferably an academic publishing house, and must have attended a writing workshop, and won at least one award,” said Mr. Atalia, who, incidentally, has two Palanca awards under his belt. He won both first place in 2006 and 2013 for his stories “Si Intoy Syokoy ng Kalye Marino” and “Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw.”

Academia, in addition, questions the depth, relevance, and impact of today’s popular reads.

“The question is, is there depth in what the young write? That is what academics ask, since in their view young writers only write about flirting, and first love, and stories like a campus figure who has fallen head over heels too quickly,” said Mr. Atalia, who is also popular among the young writers thanks to his hit books Wag Lang ‘Di Makaraos, Peksman (Mamatay Ka Man) Nagsisinungaling Ako and Taguan Pung: Koleksyon ng Dagling Kathang ‘Di Pambata, among others.

So what becomes then of the inexperienced Millennials writing YA and pop fiction on Wattpad who only want to tell their tales?

“I think everyone has a story to tell,” said Marcelo D. Santos III, “And, yes, anyone can be a writer if they want to. Nasa readers naman kung sino yung tatangkilikin nila eh.” (It’s up to the readers who they want to read).

Mr. Santos, a popular personality on YouTube and Facebook, has written three YA National Bookstore bestsellers, including Para sa Hopeless Romantic, Para sa Broken Hearted, and Mahal mo Siya, Mahal ka ba Niya?

He said on his Facebook page that to write romance stories is his crusade. Being a writer shouldn’t be limited to those with a literary background or not, he told BusinessWorld.

“I don’t have a formal writing education. I learned how to write by reading and watching films. But as time goes by, I consciously educated myself on the techniques and style in writing. I join literary workshops and read books on how to write,” he said.

Mr. Santos is one of the young writers who have revolutionized the local book world by exploiting social media. His books started out as videos he shared on YouTube which he called “Love Story on Video.” His stories and their soundtracks amassed a huge following. Soon, his YouTube fans requested he turn his stories into books. He self-published, and would sell his books at a friend’s guitar shop and a salon spa — until a small publisher saw his books and published them professionally. Now they are bestsellers at National Bookstore.

He is currently working on his fourth book. He said he is inspired by authors like John Green, Nicholas Sparks, and Mitch Albom. “I get story inspirations from the stories and secrets my friends tell me, while some are from my personal experience,” said the 25-year-old writer.

When not working on new books, he posts inspirational quotes on his Facebook page. He currently has 6.9 million followers.

While Mr. Santos started on YouTube, the majority of up-and-coming young writers in the country choose Wattpad as their writing platform.

Wattpad was born from the marriage of reading and writing. After all, before anybody can write well, he must love reading first. Back in 2002 inn Toronto, Canada, Allen N. L. Lau wanted to read books on his phone on the way to his work, but, to his frustration his Nokia phone could only show four lines of text on the screen. By 2006, phones could show 10 lines of text. This prompted Mr. Lau and his friend to start “Textbox: Read on Your Phone,” a web site anyone can access on their phones (he changed the name to Wattpad soon after). For the first two years, nobody was sharing stories, said Mr. Lau. The first stories uploaded were the classics: Austen and Dickens, Shakespeare and Shelley. Then a teenager from the United Kingdom wrote an original love story and encouraged her friends to read her work and write as well. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today Wattpad has over 150 million stories which anyone can access, and has 1.7 million registered writers from around the world. The Philippines, according to Mr. Lau, has the second largest Wattpad community next to the United States. Approximately 10 Filipinos join the web site every minute. They spend 25 minutes a day reading. The popularity of original Wattpad stories has led to their being adapted for film and TV.

While the majority of the published stories — at least in the Philippines — are love stories, there are adventure tales and mysteries, said Mr. Lau. Some people share nonfiction: autobiographies and travelogues. Mr. Lau said he likes reading Wattpad stories, but hasn’t tried sharing a story, yet. He’s currently engrossed with “Lazy Traveler,” a tale of a former consultant turned traveler.

Wattpad has helped writers around the globe get their stories published — some have become New York Times bestsellers like the young American writer Anna Todd and her After book series.

“Wattpad in the Philippines has democratized and decentralized the power,” said Mr. Atalia. “Now, anyone has the freedom to write and read without passing the literary vanguards.” He calls Wattpad “protest literature.”

A protest it may be, but for the majority of the public, Wattpad is nothing but a garbage collector: an online podium for trashy stories.

“The medium is not the problem. The problem is the writers who contribute to the medium,” said Mr. Atalia in a mix of English and Filipino. “If those we call ‘decent’ writers, the ‘good’ writers, would contribute to Wattpad, it will mature in content.”

He’s not in the position to tell if the “protest literature” is good or bad, he said. BusinessWorld asked other academicians to comment, but they begged off.

“If you ask if Wattpad is good or bad, that is hard to answer, because that means I know what is good… I know who is a writer. In post modernity, there’s a protest in labels,” said Mr. Atalia.

Another emerging platform is Buqo — a digital bookstore and mobile application where Filipino electronic books and magazines are published, shared, and sold, including Wattpad stories.

“We did not set out to put an end to physical books,” said Buqo general manager Richard V. Rosario in an e-mail interview. “We exist essentially as another platform that publishers and authors can consider in distributing and selling their books and magazines. As such, it is our ultimate goal for their works to get discovered and read by more audiences both here and abroad,”

Oakbee Philippines, which handles Buqo, is a joint venture between Summit Media and Oakbee Co. Ltd, the largest e-book company in Thailand.

While the e-readership in the country is still arguably in its infancy, said Mr. Rosario, the mobile app “helps in generating buzz and clamor for digital reading.” To date, the Buqo app has over 200,000 users.

He said the two best-selling Wattpad stories on Buqo are “She’s Dating the Gangster” and “The Bet.” Both were adapted into Star Cinema movies, both were blockbusters.

“Some of these Wattpad authors can truly write and produce excellent books, they just lack the resources to commercially ‘market’ their product,” he said.

“We can’t please everybody… but then again, nobody’s pushing anybody,” Kimberly Joy R. Villanueva said in Filipino, when asked about negative impressions of Wattpad writing. She is the author of the bestselling Wattpad story “The Bet,” which Star Cinema adapted into the movie, Just the Way You Are, starring Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano.

She started writing on Wattpad in 2009, and currently has 125,000 followers.

“I have to think about what my audience — majority of which are teens — wants, and that is love story,” she said. So her stories leaned toward romance. Her next project is a sequel of “The Bet.”

The 23-year-old started writing poetry in high school. “Before I became a writer, I was a reader first. I’m a bibliophile,” Ms. Villanueva wrote on her Wattpad account (username @ilurvbooks).

She told BusinessWorld at a recent Wattpad convention that writing gives her a feeling of “euphoria.” And boy was she ecstatic upon learning that Star Cinema was interested in her story. It was surreal, she said. The plot hewed close to the book. She visited the set whenever she could.

Ms. Villanueva is considered among the Wattpad pioneers, starting when there were a few interested online writers in 2009. She used to write in Filipino. “But it was hard,” she said, laughing. So she started writing in English “because it was easier.” She is her own editor, and proofreads her work before publishing online. But she had an editor when Summit Media published The Bet.

Her advice to other young writers? “If you genuinely love writing, it shouldn’t matter if you have thousands of readers or none. Learn to write for yourself. You are your own reader. Even though I only had few readers, I didn’t stop writing.”

For Charmaine M. Lasar, more than the prestige, she said she wanted to represent the Wattpad community when she decided to join the 2015 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, where she bagged first place in the Nobela category.


She has been an active Wattpad writer (username: @justmainey) since 2013. She said she joined the Palancas because she wanted to refute the idea that only garbage comes out of Wattpad.

Gusto ko magsusulat ako tapos masasabi ng iba na hindi lahat ng galing sa Wattpad ay mababa ’yung quality (I wanted to write something so that people can say that not everything that comes out of Wattpad is of low quality),” she said.

Driven by this goal, she wrote Toto O., a 35,000-word novel, in a month. She told BusinessWorld that she consciously deviated from her Wattpad writing style, which is looser and more carefree, and opted to write her entry “na medyo mas malalim” (deeper) in terms of the language used.

But whether on Wattpad or for the Palancas, she said she likes to write in a language that everyone can relate to and understand. She looks up to Filipino writers like Bob Ong, Bebang Sy, and Mr. Atalia — they write simply, but with style and wit, she said.

Ms. Lasar has not had formal writing lessons, but said she joins contests at school and on Wattpad, where she won nine grand prizes out of the 12 contests joined. It only takes passion and the love for reading and writing to develop one’s writing skill, and eventually be called a writer, she said.

She has published 17 short stories and two novels since joining Wattpad two years ago. One of her online tales, “Nasakal,” was included in a book called Touche, which is a compilation of good Wattpad stories by a small indie-publisher called Ninja Pub. It tells the story of a boy and a girl and how they fall in love. In the end, the boy feels choked so he decides to leave the girl. It is written in informal, everyday language.

Before Wattpad and other online platforms came into the picture, there was the Precious Pages Corp. (PPC), which produces the Precious Hearts Romances pocketbooks. Like Wattpad, it’s stories have also been adapted into TV shows and it has given opportunities for budding Filipino writers.

One of PPC’s founders, Segundo D. Matias, Jr. told BusinessWorld that Pinoy romance stories have an enduring appeal; it’s only a matter of reinventing them. At the recent MIBF, the pioneer of original Filipino romance pocketbooks ushered in three new writers, including Mabelle M. Cuchon who wrote Wonderlust, a story of friendship and love.

“I grew up reading Precious Hearts Romances and dreamt of becoming one of its writers,” said the 28-year-old author, who idolizes Martha Cecilia, dubbed as the country’s “Romance Diva.”

Debunking the notion that these romance books are only read by house helpers, the company has been translating English books into Filipino or Taglish since 2012. Mr. Matias said their translation of Fifty Shades of Grey is among the best-sellers.

“Filipino-translated books have a market,” said Mr. Matias. It is just that “the Filipino readers are not yet used to reading them because they thought they could read in English anyway.” Nonetheless, he said more and more books are being translated into the vernacular. Currently in the works are 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Sophie Kinsella series, and Mills and Boon original romances, among others.

Whether today’s popular reads would stand the test of time or not, well, who knows?

Venerated today, William Shakespeare’s works were initially tagged as trash.

“The classics that are revered today started life as bestsellers or crowd-pleasers. Even Shakespeare was a panderer to the lowest common denominator, and all novels were seen as trash originally,” said Vicente G. Groyon, author and a professor at De La Salle University, in an e-mail interview. He is also a Carlos Palanca awardee — his novel The Sky Over Dimas won the grand prize in 2002.

Asked if today’s “protest literature” could stand the test of time like Shakespeare’s, he said only time will tell. “We can huff and puff all we want in the present,” he said, “but we really don’t know how anything will fare in the future.”

“Any list of literary winners will reveal more misses than hits, the further back in time we go, and the same goes for bestseller lists. What was popular and mainstream in a particular era might just as easily be forgotten in the next.”

Mr. Atalia couldn’t agree more.

Maganda ang hamon ng Wattpad (Wattpad poses a good challenge). It’s reality check,” he said.

He pointed to the story “Mga Agos sa Disyerto” by Efren Abueg, a recognized Filipino author, and the magazine Liwayway. Mr. Atalia said they were initially considered cheap before becoming classics.

“The cannon will replace the established cannon, and then new cannon will push the known cannon. I think it’s healthy. Otherwise our literature would be static,” he said.

For now, there’s nothing to do but appreciate the influx of new books and writers.

Matalino ang panahon (time is intelligent),” said Mr. Atalia in English and Filipino. “We should not worry since literature evolves. What is important is that we are now being deluged by those who want to write and to read. Time will tell which will survive. It knows how to sift through and leave what is beautiful and can stand the test of time.”