Be still, my Precious Hearts

Florianne Jimenez

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What’s the best-selling fiction in the Philippines? The answer may surprise you.

PINOY LOVE LITERATURE. If the UK has Mills and Boon, the Philippines has Precious Hearts. Image from the Precious Hearts Romances Pocketbooks Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – They’ve been called pocketbooks, romance novels, formulaic trash, literature for the semi-literate — whatever you think of them, the Precious Hearts Romances are a strong force in the Filipino publishing industry.

The question of quality is practically irrelevant given the number of titles (30 a month) and financial value (P50,000,000 in the year 2000) of Precious Hearts Romances. They may not meet the highest artistic standards, but the fact remains that these books are being bought and read by millions of Filipinos.

The course of true love never did run smooth

TRY READING ONE. 'A Run For Love' by Reve San Jose. Image from the Precious Hearts Romances Pocketbooks Facebook page

A typical criticism leveled at the Precious Hearts Romance novels is their formulaic nature. You need to have a happy ending, the heroine (and it’s always a woman) will always get the guy, there should be many kilig scenes and at least one tasteful, tender “love scene” (note the euphemism) for titillation.

Given how long they’ve been around, and how popular they are, publishers and authors of Tagalog romance novels are probably aware of all the criticism — when your company rolls out 30 new titles a month — it’s not hard to admit that you have to follow a template. 

The use of a formula is not happenstance — it’s rooted in the fulfillment of a human desire to get what we want, and to get it thrillingly. According to How to Write a Tagalog Romance Novel by Apple Masallo, the happy ending is a must, because happy endings sell, and tragic endings don’t.

Within the first 10 pages of a Precious Hearts paperback, you already know who’s going to end up together. What keeps you reading is how it’ll happen. How will the sweet young cupcake baker overcome her leukemia and end up with the dashing young banker? How will the rich haciendera be with the equally rich haciendero who comes from a rival landowning family?

The plot twists aren’t exciting, and you never quite know what the characters see in each other, but it doesn’t matter — the reader needs to be reassured that love will prevail in the end.

Fully Booked and Tagalog romance novels — never the twain shall meet

BEST-SELLERS. Precious Hearts books sell so well that they even have their own stores. Photo from the Precious Pages Facebook page

It’s ironic that despite all the widespread appeal and financial clout that the romance novel industry has, these books aren’t available in two out of the 3 major booksellers in the Philippines.

It’s mind-boggling that these might be the best-selling books in the Philippines, and yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a Precious Pages novel in Fully Booked and Powerbooks, and in upscale malls such as Shangri-La and Rockwell.

Even in a bookstore like National Bookstore, which does carry Precious Hearts Romances, you won’t see their titles in the bestseller displays or in the bestseller lists. 

Perhaps we could turn this hierarchy of exclusion on its head: maybe it’s not the Precious Pages novels being excluded from the circles of the elite, but it’s the literature of the elite that’s being excluded from the popular. And yet we know that isn’t true — literature in English and the ability to read it have more value than popular literature published in Tagalog and the regional languages.

Just by looking at who reads Tagalog romance novels, where they’re sold, and how they’re sold already indicates that it will take a long time before Tagalog romance novels gain legitimacy.

So where does this leave us? Will installing shelves for PHR in Powerbooks and Fully Booked immediately make the literary scene an equal playing field? Should we begin to include Precious Hearts Romances in our syllabi?

The answer: these books don’t need it, and the readers and writers don’t care what we think. These questions of why we seem to have separate literary scenes, why these books aren’t fully recognized, and why there are certain taboos indicate the intriguing position that the Tagalog romance novel occupies in Philippine publishing.

Love them or hate them, they will be here to stay. –

(Sources: How to Write a Tagalog Romance Novel by Apple Masallo. Published by Bookware Publishing Corporation, 2011; Info on Precious Pages’ net worth and readership survey from Tagalog Bestsellers of the Twentieth Century: A History of the Book in the Philippines by Patricia May B. Jurilla. Published by the Ateneo University Press, 2008)

(Florianne L. Jimenez teaches Literature and College Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a Palanca award-winning non-fiction writer, with a creative interest in the self, places, and consciousness. She has a massive to-be-read pile dating back to 2008, which includes such titles as ‘The Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,’ ‘Book 5 of Y: The Last Man,’ and ‘The Collected Works of TS Spivet: A Novel.’) 

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