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21st Century Literature

Mini Critique by Isagani Cruz, 24 October 2013

The proposed curriculum for
Senior High School (SHS) contains two
literature subjects 21st Century
Literatures of the World and 21st
Century Literatures from the (Philippine)
Regions. (It has been suggested that
the latter be changed to Contemporary
Philippine Literature and the Arts from
the Regions.)
These are derived from the two
literature subjects in the old General
Education Curriculum (GEC), namely,
Literatures of the Philippines. In the
new GEC, these two literature subjects
are no longer included, because the new
core subjects are all interdisciplinary
rather then disciplinal.
The two subjects in SHS are
disciplinal. They are meant to ensure
that all Filipino high school graduates
have a good understanding of what is
happening today in the field of literature,
and by extension, in the arts.
Why 21st century only? Simply
because SHS students were all born in or
just before the 21st century. This century
is their century. For them, the 20th
century is what the 19th century is to us
There is also another reason. Just
as the British writer Virginia Woolf said of
the turn of the 20th century, namely,
that on or about December 1910 human
character changed, something major
happened to literature on or about
December 2000.
C21: Centre for Research in
Twenty-first Century Writings, based in
the University of Brighton, puts it
succinctly: The first decade of the new
millennium witnessed a range of exciting

developments in contemporary writings

recognised forms such as the novel,
developments in digital writings, creative
writings and genres. Alongside these
developments, the publishing industry
advances giving rise to the dawn of the
igniting debates about the usefulness of
literary prizes and festivals.
Just think of the most recent
literary texts done in the Philippines. We
have textula, a poetry genre mastered
by Frank Rivera: entire poems are
written and read on mobile phones.
Graphic novels are
becoming as
respectable as prose novels among
literary critics. Poems meant to be
recited in front of large audiences have
become more fashionable than poems
meant to be read silently by a single
reader (fulfilling one of Cirilo Bautistas
prophecies about the future of poetry, by
the way).
Elsewhere in the world, writers are
doing things they did not do much until
recently. Think of prose novels being
serialized on blogs, with readers
suggesting to authors (and authors
obediently accepting) that the plot or the
characters should be changed. Think of
hypertextual poems, where readers
move from one website to another
because of embedded links in the words,
sometimes not returning to the original
pages at all. Think of enhanced eBooks,
where readers are treated to audiovisual
clips that not only support the narrative
in a novel, but actually are crucial to the
development of plot and character. Think
of flash fiction, which has been brought
to an extreme with six-word and even
one-word short stories.

Of course, none of these forms of

literature were born only in the 21st
century. Hypertext, for example, has
been around for at least two decades.
-word short stories have been
around for a long time. The best-known
is Ernest Hemingways six-word story:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Urban legend (which may actually be
true) says Hemingway called it his best

Pre-21st century writers like

Margaret Atwood have written such
stories. Atwood, for example, wrote this:
Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
Neil Gaiman (perhaps the best
example of a 20th century writer who
has successfully transformed himself into
a 21st century writer) wrote this: Im
dead. Ive missed you. Kiss ?
There is a growing body of literary
criticism on 21st century literature.
There is, for example, an entire journal
devoted to it, C21 Literature: Journal of
21st Century Writing.
professional conferences on the topic,
such as E-reading between the lines:
21st century literature, digital platforms
and literacies last July in Brighton. The
paper titles reveal some of the main
trends in the emergent field: Digital

Theory on Literature Reading Lists, The

Digitisation of Reader Response, Star
Texts: The Next Generation, The Book
Democracies [or] Digital Threats? The
conference raised a practical question:
Should readers be given the choice of
both printed and electronic formats or
is the (printed) book set to become the
vinyl of the twenty-first century?
In our country, graphic novels
such as Ferdinand Benedict G. Tan and
Jonathan A. Baldisimos Trese 5:
Midnight Tribunal and Carlo Vergaras
Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila
1 are challenging the traditional
definition of fiction. Even more in-yourface is Alan Navarras Ang Panlimang
Alas ay Nakabaon sa Iyong Dibdib, a
literary text that defies classification into
any of the traditional categories of
poetry, fiction, and drama. (Even if we
added the genre-come-lately Creative
Nonfiction, Navarras work still does not
quite fit in.)
Since curricular reform happens
only every decade, the SHS curriculum
will still be in place by the year 2022. By
that year, the 20th century will no longer
be in the memory of our students. We
pre-digital teachers of the two literature
subjects must ensure that their frame of
reference will be theirs and not ours.
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