Ten Questions about Discípulos y maestros 2.0: An Interview with Will H. Corral

 

Bookshop. Photo: Tomás Martínez, Unsplash.

Over the course of his long career, Corral—from Ecuador, with a doctorate from Columbia University—has focused his scholarship on the novel and criticism. His pedagogical work at universities in the Americas (Stanford, the University of Massachusetts, Chile, Ecuador) and Spain has allowed him to research his field up-close, and to analyze its impact on the foreign reception of Latin American literature. This approach is manifested in El error del acierto: contra ciertos dogmas latinoamericanistas [The error of right answers: against certain Latin-Americanist dogmas] (2006/2013) and Condición crítica [Critical condition] (2015), and in the seminal Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (2005, co-authored with Daphne Patai). His attention to the novel —as a tradition that has been reinvigorated, producing a critical exploration of itself and of the historical context that produces it— stands out among his interests. This concern underlies co-edited works like Los novelistas como críticos [Novelists as critics, two volumes] (1991) and The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After (2013), and their remarkable predecessor: Cartografía occidental de la novela hispanoamericana [Western cartography of the Spanish-American novel] (2010). With this important background in mind, we present this interview to LALT’s readers to mark the publication of Corral’s most recent book.

Víctor Carreño: Within the extensive reflections you have offered readers in your latest books on the Spanish-American novel, what other perspectives open up in your theoretical inquiries into the novel in your most recent work, Discípulos y maestros 2.0: Novela hispanoamericana hoy [Disciples and masters 2.0: the Spanish-American novel today] (2019)?

Will H.Corral: The threads and inflection points between these works are unavoidable, but the most important ones have to do with not telling a generic history; I focus rather on the dynamic and unstable contemporary. As far as D y M 2.0, there isn’t any focus on genre, and therefore I re-think the reception of works and authors who have been highly praised, forgotten, or passed over with poorly copied jargon. I can safely say that since Ángel Rama (his 1964 “Diez problemas para el novelista latinoamericano” remains relevant) there hasn’t been any theory that problematizes the contradictory visions of our novels, or that doesn’t recycle colonized or translated “theories” of what they should be. By now, the audience for a book such as this one is already aware of the various theories of the western novel and its criticism, so I’ve been guided by lesser-known or more recent sources: Blumenberg, Hungerford, Parks, and the Rancière troubled by literature. For this study, millenial novelists are part of a neo avant-garde that is positively volatile.

V.C.: If contemporaneity and its theories of the novel are so unstable, then its disciples and masters must be, too. To what do these terms refer in D y m 2.0?

W.H.C.: Beginning with Steiner and Benjamin, I analyze the apparent necessity of being contemporary, new, or original, connecting the novelist’s cultural mobility and general economy to their representation of a world. For example, Juan Gabriel Vásquez deals with the García Márquez themes that continue to obsess his compatriots, but he’s more cosmopolitan, and in his novels the ideas fly more than the grandmothers do. He and Leonardo Valencia openly write essays about their masters, about genre, or about themselves, but you have to look with a microscope for those by Aira, Levrero, Luiselli, Guerra, or Herbert, because they pass along an internal and public conflict by not admitting the burden of the past, still without creating their precursors.

V.C.: Babelia published the preface to D y m 2.0 as “The Latin American Novel Today.” The emphasis on temporality gains context when we recall the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. Let’s discuss the relevance of the masters of the “Boom” in terms of their disciples—either their immediate successors or millenial authors. If the global network continues to invigorate literary and non-literary relationships, then what’s the role of critics, universities and institutions outside of universities, publishers, book fairs, and finally the reception of readers, who have a more active presence via social media?

W.H.C.: These threads run throughout the chapters of the book, controversially with respect to virtual and unlettered readers. The most accepted master is Vargas Llosa, as I discuss in chapter three. But I return more frequently to what writers have said about algorithmic writing (Zambra, Pron, Rivera-Garza, Matilde Sánchez, Abad Faciolince, Valencia), based on the tastemakers of the second half of the 20th century: literary agents, professional relationships, badly-paid editors, famous critics, designers, interviewers, foundations, book clubs, booksellers, layout editors, sponsorships, controversies, and translators, according to William Marling’s Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature and the 1960s. Adding to that the current cultural NGOs, social networks, and the professorial urge to correct—we can see that the businesses of production and reception are all tangled up, putting aesthetic developments aside.

V.C.: Since the “Boom,” up to Bolaño and beyond, authors have questioned dictatorships and utopias, canons and stereotypes, the distortions of the post-factual, and new kinds of political censorship as historical problems. Has this been a uniform situation? What lines of research do you suggest for the books or authors that for reasons of space you couldn’t include?

W.H.C.: I think that people who are reading books like D y m 2.0 follow or assume that an analysis of the fictionalization of history requires reviving academic debates, as Bolaño suggests in 2666. Because of your line of questioning, and because of the richness of genre and novelistic talent, it’s impossible to think this is a uniform situation. This is why I validate the progression of the socio-literary narrative of authors like Volpi or Gamboa (also Castellanos Moya, Rey Rosa, etc.) towards the problematizing of an alternative History, like in the work of Padura or in Cornejo Menacho’s revision of the canon. Bolaño was a decisive point within this revisionism; and these more recent authors, who never refer to the post-“Boom,” share Bolaño’s sense of being intellectually alive, of pure enthusiasm for a new linguistic idea, and of bold, unsentimental arguments. At the same time, writers like Franz, Enrigue, Indiana, Valencia, Gainza, and Aira offer us a rebellious history of art. They, and others, don’t all come up with the same questions, but they give us the means to ask them.

V.C.: Women authors also play a role in this master-disciple relationship, and you highlight the risk of categorizing them based on the common denominator of their sex. Elena Poniatowska criticized the “crack” movement, not because it excluded women but because it wanted to arbitrarily deny its teachers without recognizing what it owed them. This problem of belonging to or taking over from other generations also emerges in the work of Indiana, Ariana Harwicz, and Mónica Ojeda. Furthermore, there is the debt—owed by Isabel Allende and other women writers—to the magic realism of García Márquez. How would you characterize the contribution of these and the other women writers you mention to the Hispanic novel?

W.H.C.: The first two chapters make the case that this relationship requires new methods of reading, not necessarily in terms of sexuality or politics, but free of libidinal cliché. Except for Volpi’s and Heberto Padilla’s nods to Fuentes, the “crack” movement continues to seek out ways to avoid its teachers’ (or Poniatowska’s) influence, as if it were the result of an immaculate conception. Ricardo Piglia, Alberto Fuguet and others contradict themselves in terms of their influences, and as a response to these denials, my entire book emphasizes literary ethics. Recent women writers (such as Harwicz and Samanta Schweblin), who are more promising than many men, dismiss Allende and her predecessors, and in the case of the best of them—Indiana—there are other forms of influence at work. Others, borrowing heavily from a hackneyed feminism, expediently mention Ecuadorian writer Lupe Rumazo, who now lives in Venezuela, but it’s obvious that they haven’t read her. Those late triumphalist recognitions undermine the need to recover more than Teresa de la Parra, María Luisa Bombal, Rosario Castellanos, Josefina Vicens, Cristina Rivera Garza, Mayra Santos-Febres, etc.

V.C.: Your book counterposes the literary interplay between Latin America and Spain from 1996 to 2016. Spanish publishers and critics helped disseminate Latin American literature, maintaining what you call intereses creados [special interests]. These interests are commercial and at times aesthetic, like those of Ignacio Echevarría in Chilean and Argentine literature. Are there authors that, either because of their work or their national identity, are marginalized by the big Spanish publishing houses?

W.H.C.: These missed connections and bad timings comprise a huge cultural archive. Chapters three and four argue that it’s impossible to examine the Latin American novel without its Spanish antecedents, but let’s be clear. If these publishers are still hedging their bets on what’s new, what’s exotic, and, least of all, on what’s recoverable, the academy tends to privilege what came first. Even a gifted critic like Echeverría can’t cover everything that comes out, and that means that we lose the forest for the trees, since there are already other South and Central American writers who have established themselves within his circle. Another obstacle is that today’s critic always needs to translate cultural traditions, contending with messages that are unnecessarily coded. This doesn’t sound too dramatic in the abstract, but it can be extremely controversial. Chapters two, four, and five discuss Emar, Palacio, Sáenz, Diego Padró, Eduardo Lalo, and Carlos Arcos Cabrera, all of whom deserve more recognition.

V.C.: Every epoch has its fashions and its clichés that novelists can play with, or ironize, or succumb to by repeating them. On this point, you discuss the conditions of “globalophobic” and “nomadic” literatures, as well as of the “selfie” novel and the writings of the “Like” Generation. How does the contemporary novel deal with these shared spaces of the latest trends?

W.H.C.: Throughout the 90s, where I begin my study, the novels that emerge on both sides of the Atlantic can be divided essentially into the “globalophobic” (those that are situated within their own countries and attempt to reconsider these places without leaving them) and the “nomadic” (those that idolize the foreign, that double-edged sword). Both are complicated by gatekeepers, resulting in what I term “the doom of the national edition.” This schism, in terms of which I discuss tendencies rather than generations, allows me to revisit writers who have been forgotten, passed over, or underestimated because they didn’t want, or didn’t know how to “sell themselves” to advertisers. Some of these writers were educated in or moved to Spain, like the Venezuelans Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez and Juan Carlos Chirinos, or the Peruvian Jorge Eduardo Benavides. (I focus primarily on Lalo, the Puerto Rican writer who was born in Cuba.) This type of literature got more complicated due to its digital navel-gazing, or because it created a derivative, self-obsessed literature at a time when having a story mattered more than History. This impoverishment led to some potentially dangerous concerns, not the least of which is the public’s exhaustion with narratives that talk about “my room, my partner, my suffering,” which Pola Oloixarac is trying to correct.

V.C.: You criticize texts as well as critics, very pertinently, since it’s impossible to consider the novel that arises out of the “Boom” and its successors without taking into account the critical discussion between Spain and the Americas regarding the contemporary Latin American novel. Can you describe some of the most important milestones in the evolution of this body of criticism?

W.H.C.: There are both Latin American critics and novelists who insist on pretending that our literature doesn’t exist, or that it’s invisible, while publishers, many academics, and the Spanish public praise its significance and its vitality (sometimes wrongly). At the same time, the anti-Hispanist academy in the United States is more interested in the novelization of identity politics and such themes. So, for example, it’s not important to those critics to correct or revisit the early reception of the “Boom” in Latin America. Christopher Domínguez Michael, our finest living critic, dismantles these archives, always demonstrating that he reads both sides of every discussion. In terms of the timeline I’m talking about, two excellent milestones are Eduardo Becerra’s collection Líneas aéreas (1999) and Echevarría’s Desvíos: un recorrido crítico por la reciente narrativa latinoamericana (2007), both nuanced by Domínguez Michael in articles and studies. The work of Spanish critics Ana Gallego Cuiñas and Elena Santos is also very useful. Besides the Mexican, Beatriz Sarlo and Juan de Castro (a Peruvian living in the U.S.), I don’t know of anyone like them in the Americas in terms of their thinking and breadth of interest.

V.C.: Literary recognition happens via translation, which today is Anglo centric. According to certain traditions of translation, it’s impossible to translate a text without inscribing it in one’s own linguistic, historical, and cultural contexts. To what extent do the translations of the novelists that Ambrosio Fornet calls “latinounidenses” grapple with this dilemma?

W.H.C.: This is the main topic of the sixth and final chapters, because alongside the Latin Americans who are published by the big Spanish houses, they still publish authors whom they wrongly call “Latino” or “Hispanic,” when the only thing that identifies them as such are their names or their concern with themes linked to old exoticisms. This is the motivation of the Anglophone market, and I can count on my fingers the people who are bilingual or who have undergone the kind of suffering that is so attractive to a foreign public. Translations pay no attention to the contexts you mention, and this gets even more complicated, in part due to what Emily Apter elaborates under the rubric of “untranslatability.”

When a reviewer praises a translation into Spanish or English, it’s difficult to know what level of linguistic skill that reviewer has. Furthermore, a clichéd review leaves out the insights of both the translators and the authors, which is what I recover. Fornet coined the term “latinounidense,” problematizing these contexts for an older generation of writers who were well known in English but only belatedly translated. I focus on Junot Díaz, Francisco Alarcón, Ernesto Quiñonez (without the accent) and in some cases on Fuguet and Jaime Manrique (who can write in both languages). Díaz, who is the best known and has an excellent sense of the hybridity of his “Latinity,” admits that he can’t control the translation into the target language; whereas Quiñonez creates distant worlds out of familiar cultures, while other writers bet on the market. And their bad translators aren’t far behind, overwhelmed by pressure from the publisher to quickly sell their pride. I place this lack of ethics alongside a discussion of those authors and critics who want to write directly into English, without recognizing their own limitations. But we have to read them.

V.C.: When talking about the contemporary novel, the idea of the “new” is fundamental, which your book pushes back against. Many theorists have weighed in on this question, but writers from Hispanic cultures have their own responses, which arise out of their own creative work, like Enrique Vila-Matas, Javier Cercas, and Aira, among others. If we compare this attitude with the pessimism of some critics, can we still talk about the death of the novel?

W.H.C.: In 2014, Harold Bloom maintained that there was nothing “radically new” in today’s literature, the Achilles heel of the “selfie” novel or of autofiction, which I examine in chapter five, beginning with Miguel de Unamuno and his few western 20th century peers. Vila-Matas links this to the supply of Anglophone canons: “being ‘radically new’ doesn’t mean being original. Being ‘radically new’ has always ended badly and is, furthermore, seen so much […] as [in] novels ‘based on real life.’” In The Blind Spot, Cercas asks, “Why is there so much anxiety about renewal, about new forms of conquering new lands? Isn’t a novel’s only obligation to tell a story as well as possible?” If in Cercas or in today’s Aira (who claims not to read their contemporaries) one detects conservatism, the fact is that they reject, again, the literature of exhaustion that a problematic western postmodernism privileged, which I discuss as a fleeting backdrop.

Fortunately, the death of postmodernism won’t be cyclical, like that of the novel. Over the past two decades, theorists have focused on writing about the impasse that theory has come up against, and proposing such overwrought alternatives, like those earlier suggestions about the death of the author and of the novel itself. This can’t be fixed without the help of critics. Self-respecting novelists don’t participate in the dominant hegemonies that want to probe, with elegies that dwell in romantic idioms, the absence of the author, the death of the subject, the incongruence of the reader, the ideological policing of interpretation.

Translated by Nora E. Carr

Languages

Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Brazilian Literature

Chronicle

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene