The Work of Art and the Glory: A Conversation about One Hundred Years of Solitude with Álvaro Santana-Acuña
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez is one of the most famous novels of the last century. It is the most read novel in Spanish after Don Quixote and ranks among the top thirty bestselling literary works of all time. Yet One Hundred Years of Solitude seemed destined for obscurity upon its publication in 1967. At the time, its little-known author, small publisher, magical style, and setting in a remote Caribbean village were hardly the usual ingredients to achieve success in the literary marketplace.
Ascent to Glory, by Spanish sociologist Álvaro Santana-Acuña, Assistant Professor at Whitman College, is a groundbreaking study of One Hundred Years of Solitude, from the moment García Márquez first had the idea for the novel to its consecration as a global classic. In this dialogue with Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, Professor of Spanish, Latin American Studies, and Film and Media Studies at Washington University in Saint Louis, Santana-Acuña talks about Ascent to Glory’s contributions to the study of literature. According to World Literature Today’s book review, “Ascent to Glory is essential reading for anyone interested in Latin American literature [and] should also be of interest to anyone interested in culture and its workings.”
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado: As a literary scholar who has delved into sociology-style scholarship, one of the things I find most interesting about your book is the perspective of a trained sociologist. Although our objects may match, we are in fact in different fields. This leads me to the question about your disciplinary perspective. How is this kind of literary sociology received in US sociology? I know your work is perhaps more aligned with French-style cultural sociology, but as a literary scholar, other than you (and this may be just my limited viewpoint) I do not really know anyone working in a sociology department whose focus is the study of literature, much less Latin American literature. Can you speak about this?
Álvaro Santana-Acuña: The sociological study of literature has a well-established trajectory in US universities, thanks to contributions such as those of Wendy Griswold on Elizabethan plays (1986) and the Nigerian novel (2000). In the United Kingdom, I can think of recent works by John B. Thompson (Book Wars, 2021) and María Angélica Thumala Olave (“Book Love,” 2020). In the Netherlands, where the journal Poetics is published, there is a strong sociological tradition interested in all things literary. Of course, as you indicate, France remains a key player in the field, especially with the contributions of Gisèle Sapiro (Peut-on dissocier l’oeuvre de l'auteur ? 2020). In recent years, a new generation of scholars, including Clayton Childress (Under the Cover, 2017) and Phillipa Chong (Inside the Critics’ Circle, 2020), has started to explore new sociological angles on the literary. To get a sense of where the field is going, I also recommend the special issue edited by Thumala Olave, forthcoming from the American Journal of Cultural Sociology. To this issue, I contribute an article about how readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude reacted when it was published in 1967. Surprisingly, its first readers believed this novel (now considered the classic book of the style known as realismo mágico) was not magical realist at all.
While the sociological study of literature is in great shape, you are right that, as far as I know, I am the only sociologist of literature based at a US university who is publishing research on Latin American literature. There are several reasons for this lack of experts. The most obvious reason is that graduate students interested in Latin American literature choose the literary studies route. In my case, I ended up working on Latin American literature almost by chance. I was trained as a historian of eighteenth-century Europe and yet have had a lifelong interest in world literature. At the University of Chicago, where I was a lecturer in Spanish, I realized, after long conversations with my colleagues about Latin American books and authors, that I had read in-depth a lot of this literature and they (and later my colleagues at Harvard University) encouraged me to work on Latin American literature. They convinced me I had original ideas worth sharing. This is how a personal passion turned into a professional interest. But my problem was: Where could I start? What should I study? This may sound too literary, yet it is true. One afternoon in Cambridge I was walking under heavy rain, and it reminded me of the rain in the village of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Suddenly, I thought it would be a good idea to write a book about the making and consecration of this novel, the most famous and widely read literary work in Spanish after Don Quixote. No one had yet tried to write such a book. So, under the rain, the seed for Ascent to Glory was planted.
I.M.S.P.: As a follow-up, why do you think literary readers and scholars should engage with the work of a sociologist? I find it obvious, but it is true that sometimes the adjective “sociological” is used in my discipline to point to reductivism. What would you say to the idea that a sociological work like yours does not see the inherent value of a work of art like One Hundred Years of Solitude?
A.S.A.: Your point about reductivism is on-target, because disciplines, not only sociology, set boundaries around what they consider meaningful and worth researching. When these boundaries are impermeable, they sadly turn colleagues from neighboring disciplines away. In the case of literary works, sociologists privilege the context that surrounds the text because in that context they find the main factors to understand the text. Rather, my colleagues in literary studies prefer to stay closer to the text, which they regard as key to understanding the work. Yet most sociologists see literary studies’ focus on the text as its own form of reductivism. I think there is some truth to this as well. Hoping to avoid this and other reductivisms, I wrote Ascent to Glory for sociologists, literary scholars, historians, and readers interested in a story about the making and unexpected global success of a work of art. To write it, I drew inspiration from researchers who have brought together text and context. One of them is Mario Santana, a literary scholar at the University of Chicago, whose Foreigners in the Homeland (2000) is an excellent literary, historical, and sociological analysis of the reception of the Latin American Boom Novel in Spain.
Ascent to Glory offers another interpretative approach to this novel. Rather than me alone (the researcher) being the one who interprets the text for readers, what I did was to compile what more than three hundred people in almost ninety countries have said in over forty languages about the novel since its publication. For me, this was a way of signaling to my readers how serious the role of interpretation is in Ascent to Glory and how interpretation can be more inclusive and collective, because I include opinions on the novel and its meanings from a vast constellation of people beyond the usual suspects (literary critics and scholars). One of the findings of expanding the chorus of interpretative voices is to show that classics are classics because they are appropriated by what I call “cultural brokers,” which encompasses from anonymous readers to celebrities that help a work of art take on a life of its own.
I.M.S.P.: Two of the things I find the most productive in your book are the notion of “network creativity” and the method of “indexicality.” Can you expand on these two elements and how they help us understand the creation and circulation of works of art?
A.S.A.: With these tools, I try to show the ways in which text and context intersect. I also try to decentralize the author by paying attention to the work of art itself and to the universe of textual and social relations that make such work possible. I coined the concept of “network creativity” as an antidote against the idea of the creative genius. Namely, the notion that a (great) work of art is the product of a solitary creative genius. No doubt, this myth pervades the popular view about how García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the myth goes, he quit his job and created the manuscript of the novel in isolation in his studio, working non-stop for eighteen months while his wife took care of the family and household. When he finished the manuscript, he sent it to a potential publisher, who was shocked by it and published it. Then, instantly, world success followed.
As I show in Ascent to Glory, the story behind this myth is truly fascinating. While I was writing my book, I realized that the true genius behind this novel was the network of people that helped García Márquez to imagine and write it. No fewer than a dozen individuals were closely involved in the making of the manuscript. Some of them, like writers María Luisa Elío, Jomí García Ascot, and Álvaro Mutis, came to see García Márquez almost every day to check on his progress with the manuscript and give him feedback. Others, such as writers Carlos Fuentes and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, corresponded with García Márquez from Latin America and Europe. These letters are full of stories about how he was struggling to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, and full of his friends’ tips for solving technical problems in his writing, like the tone of the story and the style. Other friends did research for him on themes such as alchemy, so he did not have to stop writing. This robust network of collaborators helped One Hundred Years of Solitude become the novel it is.
The idea of network creativity is useful to understand what goes on in the stages of imagination and production—that is, the moments when the artist is imagining and making the work of art. But what happens later, in the stage of circulation, when the work of art is in the public sphere, is different. In this final stage, the artist and the collaborators eventually lose control over the life of the work of art. To understand this stage, I find the concept of “indexicality” useful, which refers to how people make a work of art meaningful. Let us think about One Hundred Years of Solitude for a moment. None of the key individuals who helped it come into existence over half a century ago is alive today. Yet their disappearance is not preventing the novel from being read and circulated worldwide. This is possible because, as time passes, power over the work of art moves from the artist and collaborators to the cultural brokers I mentioned above.
In Ascent to Glory, I show how such brokers have appropriated elements from One Hundred Years of Solitude. The beginning of the story (when Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembers his discovery of ice), the ascent of Remedios the Beauty to the sky, the four-year long rain in Macondo, and other pieces of the novel have become meaningful for thousands of readers. By meaningful, I mean that readers use these pieces to make sense of situations and events, some deeply personal and others wholly collective. For instance, people are indexing the plague of insomnia in Macondo to understand the Covid-19 pandemic. Likewise, the discovery of ice, Remedios’ ascent, the village of Macondo… are indexed again and again. This meaningfulness has created patterns in the reception of the novel that repeat globally. These pieces taken from the novel have become units of significance (or what I call indexicals) that other readers and even people who have not read One Hundred Years of Solitude use in everyday situations. Of course, this novel is not the only classic to have gone through this. Quixotic, “to be or not be,” Kafkian… are indexicals that all kinds of brokers have appropriated globally for many reasons. In Ascent to Glory, I trace the journey of the indexicals taken from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Some of them, like Macondo, are now even used in outer space—a star located ninety-one light years away from the Earth is named after Macondo. Classics have this capacity to enter our lives in ways we cannot anticipate, and they do that via indexicals.
I.M.S.P.: Finally, I think at the core of our conversation is the distinction between two forms of approaching the literary: the study of the book as an object and the reading of its imagined world. Can you speak to this distinction and how you see it?
A.S.A.: First and foremost, this is an important distinction. Books are, let us not forget this, social objects and as such, their imagination, production, and circulation are governed by values, norms, groups, institutions, and cultures. At the same time, literary works (especially fictional ones) seek to create worlds of imagination that need interpretation. However, I think classics in particular call for this distinction to be suspended. Classics are social objects that live a longer life because they somehow transcend their context of origin and they do so by creating a world of their own beyond the text written on their pages. And this imagined world, which is constantly changing (because our societies are not frozen in time), even if the classic’s text does not change, stimulates the never-ending wealth of interpretations about the text. In a classic, the social and the textual become one. Today, millions of people (whether they know it or not) live in a social world that has been partly shaped by the global circulation of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a text and as an imagined world. This has happened especially thanks to the worldwide success of the genre known as magical realism. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided another example as thousands of readers turned to chapter three of the novel—one in which a plague sickens Macondo’s inhabitants—to learn how these people coped with the epidemic and to forecast what their world (and maybe ours) would look like after they (and maybe we) recovered from it.
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of various books including Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market and the Question of World Literature.
Álvaro Santana-Acuña is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Whitman College. He studies how people use objects as vehicles for the transmission of dominant cultural values and norms. He is the author of Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic (2020), a study of the making and consecration of one of the best-selling novels of all time. At the Ransom Center, he is the curator of “Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer,” the first major exhibition featuring documents from García Márquez’s archives, alongside materials by Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, Borges, and Cortázar.
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