Jakarta. This year’s Literary Criticism Competition held by the Jakarta Arts Council, or DKJ, ended with a surprise; nobody was named a first-place winner.
Judges A. S. Laksana, Ari J. Adipurwawidjana and Martin Suryajaya announced on Thursday night (31/08) that out of a total 93 submitted manuscripts, which were written by participants ranging in age from 15 to 78, none deserved to be awarded first place because they all fell below standards.
"Only second and third place winners, with four honorable mentions, shall be awarded," Ari said.
The second place went to Harry Isra Muhammad, the author of "Memandang Seperti Penjajah: Membedah Pascakolonialitas Puya ke Puya karya Faisal Oddang."
Faisal Oddang’s novel Puya ke Puya addresses the beliefs held by South Sulawesi's Toraja tribe about their journey to puya, or heaven, after death.
Harry’s critical piece was praised for its shrewd analysis in applying the postcolonial approach to show how the colonial gaze still operates in the novel, a work which is commonly viewed to bring about traditional ways of life into the mainstream.
However, judges said he disregarded the fact that a fictional universe cannot be completely judged by real world standards.
Furthermore, Harry’s piece lacked references to narratology even though his argument highly depended on the approach.
What Went Wrong
The 2017 Literary Criticism Competition was previously held in 2007, 2009 and 2013, but this year was the first in the event's history that no author came away a clear winner.
According to the judges, authors exhibited tendencies that lessened their works.
The critical pieces mainly did not go beyond describing and summarizing the content of the literary works, without delving further to present an argumentative comment, let alone situating the works in the Indonesian literary constellation.
They also tended to employ theories loosely linked to the elements of the works.
Lastly, the critical pieces often displayed a disorganized train of thought; wanting to explain so much but driving away from the main topic.
"Some of them were good but we [the judges] already knew about what they said. Just like any reader, we looked for something we hadn’t known before," Ari told reporters after the awards ceremony.
He also added that the pieces looked as though they were made just to enter and win the competition.
"There is that kind of ambiance around the submitted pieces, as if they were written just for the sake of the contest, not because the writers felt the need for their ideas to be known by many," said Ari, who also teaches English literature at Padjadjaran University in Jatinangor, West Java.
A similar tendency happens in the academic sphere, he continued.
"Literary criticism in the academic sphere tends to be a formality. Let’s say a student writes their thesis. They write mainly for the grades, not because of the need to say something," Ari said.
However, he admitted that the culture of literary criticism is not fostered because there are not many platforms to begin with.
Apart from academic journals, there are only newspapers and literary magazines, which are not as prestigious as they used to be. In the early 20th century, Pujangga Baru literary magazine used to be a respected place for prominent figures like Sultan Takdir Alisjahbana and Armijn Pane to express themselves. But now, like other print publications, literary magazines have lost their charm.
However, there are a few competitions like the one DKJ holds, where winning entries are eventually compiled into a book. Still, those are only published in limited copies.
Ari suggested that DKJ’s Literary Criticism Competition should not be the only competition to cultivate critical thinking in literature.
Besides, due to the long interval between competitions, people might have lost their familiarity with the program. Two weeks before the submission deadline of this year’s competition, there were only 20 entries.
"It was suggested that we extend the deadline to make more time for additional submissions. However, the Literary Committee agreed that if that is the actual condition of the writing of literary criticism in Indonesia today, we should genuinely accept the fact and think of ways to encourage criticism," DKJ Literary Committee chairman Yusi Avianto Pareanom said.
Though the total submitted entries rose to 93 by the time the deadline arrived, it was still a decline from 2013's 106 submitted works.
Despite the stagnancy of literary criticism, Ari still considers it important because it can lead a person to be critical of other things such as politics and culture. He took the example of Noam Chomsky, whose main fields of expertise were initially linguistics and philosophy, but is now also known as an expert in political criticism.
Yusi also hoped that there will be more critics who "will in turn help spark important conversations in literature" to boost the quality of Indonesian literary works.