Literary Criticism in Mexico, Old and New Discussions
When Carlos Monsiváis died in June of 2010, there was a question floating around the Mexican cultural environment, one that would be repeated upon Carlos Fuentes’s death in 2012, almost two years later: who would set the pace for literary criticism in Mexico? Both of them acted as pivots, stimulating certain dialogues between academic and journalistic literary criticism. Their essays, as well as several articles that both of them published on these topics, circulated in the Mexican press, in magazines or cultural supplements. They were collected in books (in almost every case, compilations of known texts) and invoked in university settings, via their specialized publications or in undergraduate and postgraduate theses.
By the beginning of the 21st century, not much was left of the delicate balance that Alfonso Reyes had managed to strike during the mid-20th century by moving from books to journalistic publications, and later collecting these again in his Complete Works. This may not be the best example, if we take the idea of the university academic as we understand it today. Reyes, who was the most outstanding figure of the Mexican intelligentsia, chaired The College of Mexico until the day of his death, directed the Mexican Academy of Language, and was one of the founding members of El Colegio Nacional. This is, then, exactly why the apparent ease with which he moved from the density of a literary theory proposal in El Deslinde [Demarcation] (1944) to essays about criticism, literature, reading, and other related topics in Tres Puntos de Exegética Literaria [Three Points of Literary Exegesis] (1945) continues to be admirable. In La experiencia literaria [The Literary Experience] (1942), he had previously experimented with handling literary concepts with a smooth style, one meant for a broader audience. Written by request, some of his texts didn’t have the “rush” or the “improvisation” that Monsiváis identified in a large part of journalistic criticism in the early years of the new century.
Monsiváis remained conscious of the two worlds that literary criticism occupied in Mexico, as he evidenced in Nuevo Texto Crítico [New Critical Text] in 1995. Perhaps the growing circulation of his ideas in Latin America and the increasing closeness to his scholars facilitated his appreciation for how the field had developed during the last two decades of the 20th century. Some factors that he valued contributed to this closeness, such as the openness to reading titles of national authorship (from both the past and the present), which implied the rethinking of syllabi and an expansion of the catalog of authors found in specialized articles or postgraduate theses. Academia, he pointed out, was included in the group of people influencing the creation of the national literary canon. Monsiváis also appreciated the determined intervention of university researchers when it came to the revaluation of works written by women from a feminist perspective, and how this shift opened doors to new directions, like those of sexual diversity and the “recognition of writers in indigenous languages.”
To Carlos Fuentes, criticism that originated in universities was of mediating nature. In “Educación [Education],” the introduction to his dictionary of sorts En esto creo [This I Believe] (2012), he says, “No one loses knowledge by sharing it,” and calls for the comprehension of the Other. He claims that the vitality of literature is spurred by a creative critical opposition and, at other times, speaks of the need for it to contribute to the formation of readers. He then, however, forgets to include it in the trajectory between writer and audience precisely in the section titled “Lectura [Reading].” He considers the book and the library; the relevance of the home and the classrooms; the mechanisms of editing, selecting, promoting, and selling literary works—that “cycle that goes from the writer to the editor to the distributor to the librarian to the audience and then back to the author” (76). In brief, Fuentes was more interested in criticism of writing about the world than in criticism of literary writing. And, interestingly enough, perhaps the greatest success of this book stemmed from its own analytical approach to the works of Faulkner, Kafka, Don Quixote, and Shakespeare.
Monsiváis and Fuentes’s focus on literary criticism, whether through their stances or through their own writing practices, surpassed the mere desire to promptly record the latest literary works. Although necessary, on the one hand, they didn’t find this characteristic trait of the few supplements left and the almost extinct cultural sections in daily or weekly newspapers as interesting. On the other hand, their texts proposed subjects and agendas that were taken up both by the reading public (whose members included those contributing to Mexican cultural policy) and the academic community. Currently, in contrast, when academic articles review the perspectives of daily newspapers or magazines it is circumstantially, and with a desire for contextualization. Interestingly enough, a different destiny awaits interviews aimed at collecting the ideas of writers and authors. And, inversely: a book of literary criticism will only be attractive to a field outside of its own if it meets Monsiváis’s timely description: “as always, the flow of admirations takes a different path, passing through the circuits of personal recommendations.”
While I don’t want to give the false impression that Monsiváis or Fuentes made an effort to follow what was happening in Mexican academia with punctuality, there was within them a certain desire for closeness with regards to books coming from university centers or through their perspectives on literary criticism in Mexico. At times, what was written by academics (some of them also fiction writers) was also picked up by the periodical press. I’ll list here a few cases that could easily be more: the successive editions of José Revueltas. Una literatura del lado “moridor” [José Revueltas: Literature from the Dying Side] (1979) and the first version of Las metáforas de la crítica [The Metaphors of Critique] (1998) by Evodio Escalante, for example, captured the attention of Proceso; Nosotros. La juventud del Ateneo en México [Us: The Youth of the Athenaeum in Mexico] (2008) by Susana Quintanilla was reviewed in Letras Libres, just like Álvaro Ruiz Abreu’s book José Revueltas: los muros de la utopía [José Revueltas: The Walls of the Utopia] (1993).
While they had their differences, Monsiváis and Fuentes’s attitudes contrasted with the pace set by Octavio Paz, demonstrated by the fate of the magazine Vuelta. As Gabriel Wolfson lucidly pointed out [Iberoamericana 16.1 (January-April 2016)] in the comparison he drew between the publications Plural and Casa de las Américas, Paz’s project “would draw a clear line of rejection when it came to prose and academic thought” characterized by hyper-specialization and labeled as “examples of terrible prose.” One could assume that because more than two decades have passed since the death of the Nobel-prize winning Mexican poet, these concerns have been overcome. But I’m afraid that the path drawn by Vuelta still lives on in other forms of cultural diffusion. I’ll demonstrate this with two lectures given by Christopher Domínguez Michael at El Colegio Nacional, after his very controversial admission.
The theme selected by Domínguez Michael for his “Inaugural Lecture” was literary criticism throughout the history of Mexican literature. The author of the two often-consulted volumes of the Antología de la narrativa mexicana del siglo XX [Anthology of Mexican Narrative of the 20th Century] (1989, 1991) read the text “¿Qué es un crítico literario? [What is a literary critic?]” (which immediately ran in Letras Libres and, according to tradition, was later edited by El Colegio Nacional) in November of 2017. In this text, he defended the value of historiography and essays as vehicles for literary criticism, and expressed his desire for literary critics to be recognized by society the way narrators and poets are. The greatest difficulty for the literary critic, he said, was publicly reviling his contemporaries, and, even worse, the newcomers. He claimed that, “A critic of art or letters is he who opens his eyes and forces himself see or read what he finds unpleasant.” In his dissertation, he made his vision of criticism as a form of judgment clear, and as such left components that are valuable to academia, such as theory and analysis, to the side.
A frequent collaborator to Letras Libres, Domínguez Michael condemned everything related to those “catechumens” who drew on the linguistic turn, characterized by their “esoteric and convoluted jargon.” According to him: literary theory was “a curious monstrosity manufactured from the social sciences,” those who thought “everything was a text” were “ignorant logocides,” and Jacques Derrida had opened a wound that was “still festering.” In his closing remarks during a later lecture cycle (“¿Ha sido nuestra crítica una ilustración insuficiente?” [“Has our criticism been an insufficient demonstration?”]) in November 2019, Domínguez Michael reiterated his rejection of literary theory from the 20th century, especially European poststructuralism. He claimed it “undermined the nature of the poetic fact” in its appeal to anthropology and social sciences. He argued that it had transformed into a “hermetic science” that produced rejection from its readers and was addressed to its “catechumens.” In synthesis, his aversion to university academia and the critical work that came from it was as evident as his lack of precision regarding the literary theories he referred to. However, I’m more interested in highlighting the absence of contemporary examples that warrant such strong opinions—especially when coming from someone enrolling in El Colegio Nacional, one of the highest public institutions “dedicated to the dissemination of scientific, artistic, and humanistic culture” made up of a significant number of members dedicated to generating theories and analyses in the most diverse fields.
Therefore, before drawing conclusions about the relationships between journalistic and academic criticism, I will dedicate a few lines to the different approaches that prevail in academic literary criticism through a journey that is as capricious as it is heterogeneous. In the introduction to his book about José Revueltas (re-edited by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 2014), Evodio Escalante claims: just like criticism can be a bridge and an entry point, it can also function as “a fence and a technique of exclusion.” In his desire to tear down that fence surrounding Revueltas’s work, he proposed an unorthodox approach, and to achieve this he turned to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. He suggested working intensively with Revueltas’s literary signs to identify their particularities, but also in order to detect “the forces that broke away from them” in centripetal and centrifugal movements. Françoise Perus explained her method of analysis from the very beginning in Juan Rulfo. El Arte de Narrar [Juan Rulfo. The Art of Narration] (2012). She decided to set aside thematic and stylistic approaches like the those that have emphasized dialogues with the historical context of the author or his narration. She opted instead for a close analysis, parting from elements of narratological theory (the narrative modalities and the voices of the narration), and simultaneously interacted with Rulfo’s extensive critical body of work in a lively fashion in the footnotes. As an academic in Mexico, Cristina Rivera Garza coordinated La novela según los novelistas [The Novel According to Novelists] (2007), where she facilitated an exercise of theoretical reflection between fourteen creators as an invitation to consider the novel and the practice of writing it—a project that is now available in both volumes of Los novelistas como críticos [Novelists as Critics] (1991) compiled by Norma Klahn and Wilfrido H. Corral. In her introduction, she said that those essays were a “flow of contexts, or a discontinuity of rooms from or in which some narrators from Mexico can practice the novel.” That is to say, she was less worried about finding the points of connection and more focused on the diversity of their points of view. In this critical venture, therefore, she proposed the reflective nature that exists in all creative acts, and indirectly invited those who write fiction to coin their own poetics.
My final two cases illustrate a kind of literary criticism where the text plays an active role in the societies of its time. The Literary Theory and Criticism group “Diana Morán” is a collective focused on Latin American literature, especially Mexican literature with a gender perspective. Ever since its creation in 1984, its members have combined methods of textual analysis with approaches derived from cultural studies. They’ve dedicated a considerable number of monographs (over twenty) to the work of female Mexican authors of the 20th and 21st centuries, including the already canonical Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro, and Nellie Campobello as well as others who are equally as significant such as Concha Urquiza, Esther Seligson, and Luisa Josefina Hernández. They’ve attempted to elaborate on their lesser-known forms of discourse (journalism, screenwriting, letters, literary portraits), and declare their ambition: that these “approaches will be of interest both to the specialist and to a broader public.” The second and final example is the enormous and fruitful editorial effort carried out by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in the six volumes of their Historia de las Literaturas en México [History of Mexican Literatures] (2018, 2019). In the case of this project, coordinated by Alberto Vital and Mónica Quijano, the mere title makes it clear that their goal was to explore literatures, plural. The indexes reveal the decentering of their subject matters and the heterogeneous way of addressing literature—materiality, production contexts, periodical publications—with a very broad view of literary genres: microhistories rather than mega-catalogs of authors, generations, and artistic currents.
The wide distance between the academic environment and cultural journalism that Monsiváis had warned of was reiterated by Valeria Luiselli in 2012, in “Novedad de la narrativa mexicana II: Contra las tentaciones de la nueva crítica. [Novelty in Mexican Narrative II: Against the Tendencies of New Criticism]” In the magazine Nexos, she explained that, “Part of the problem is that for a long time now—although maybe now more than ever—the world of Mexican literature has been discredited in academia and in literary studies. Innocently discredited…they seem unaware that something called history of literature and literary criticism exists, and that it may be convenient to go over it and dialogue with it.” Academic criticism has heeded her call to action, searching for other methods and audiences that, evidently, are not useful when supporting the caricature drawn by Domínguez Michael. We would have to analyze Luiselli’s observations with more pause to see whether they are still valid, or whether it’s once again time to construct new narratives about the many faces of literary criticism in Mexico.
Translated by Isabella Corletto
Maricruz Castro Ricalde, PhD is Professor of Humanities at Tecnológico de Monterrey, in Mexico. She has edited or co-edited more than a dozen books, including El cine mexicano “se impone”: Mercados internacionales y penetración cultural en la época dorada (UNAM, 2011), Global Mexican Cinema: Its Golden Age (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and Mexican Transnational Cinema and Literature (Peter Lang, 2017). She has published numerous articles in top journals. She has received several awards including the Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez Medal (2010), the “Cultura de México” Prize (FONCA-Brown University, 2013), and the Latin American Chair at Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurés (2019-2020), in France. She is a member of Mexico’s National System of Researchers (SNI), Level 2, and of the Mexican Academy of Sciences.
Isabella Corletto was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2018 with degrees in English and Italian Studies and currently works at Indent Literary Agency. She speaks Spanish, English, Italian, and Portuguese. Her translation of Amalia Andrade’s Things You Think About When You Bite Your Nails is forthcoming from Penguin Books in the fall of 2020.
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.