This is what there is (not): literature in Mexico in 2016

This article by critic Geney Beltrán Félix (in Spanish), entitled Esto es lo que (no) hay: la literatura en el México del 2016 [This is what there is (not): literature in Mexico in 2016] is highly critical of the current state of literature in Mexico. He starts off by saying what is good: a long and worthwhile literally tradition, lots of authors, both young and old, published, lots of novelists and poets but also playwrights, essayists, short story writers and chroniclers, writers who are traditionalists and those who are experimental, and writers not just in Mexico City but all over the country and also abroad. The literary support mechanism is also good: grants, fairs, subsidies from the government and universities for publication, and all sorts of literary prizes. There are also authors getting recognition abroad, though primarily in other Spanish-speaking countries.

So what is he not happy about? The qualities of reviews is very poor, he maintains (and not only in Mexico). Indeed, they have often been replaced in the Mexican press by advance notices of books, which are merely puff pieces. He goes on to say that the Latin American publishing industry has ceased to be an industry, Latin American or about publishing. The Mexican publishing industry is essentially controlled from Spain so decisions about what is good Mexican literature are made in Barcelona and Madrid and not in Mexico City. He calls it cultural colonialism. This means that a young novelist has to bear in mind the needs of that market – what Beltrán Félix sneeringly calls the airport reader and the European translator. This means, he says, that there are no novels that raise ethical questions, that have any intellectual depth or aesthetic responsibility. He condemns not only the publishers and the distribution channels (which make sure independents have little chance of breaking through) but the younger generation of writers who, unlike their predecessors, no longer seem to review books.

it is clear that, as he says, literature should not be just for mild entertainment but be a weapon in social change. He quotes Gabriel Zaid, who claims Mexican culture is organised to not read. Indeed, he calls on the government not to sponsor so many writers but to assist readers to learn how to read and to provide them with the tools for doing so. Todo esto –crítica, discrepancia, diálogo con la realidad, transformación de la comunidad nacional a través de los libros–, todo esto es lo que no hay. [All of this – criticism, discrepancy [by which he means variety], dialogue with reality, transformation of the national community through books – all of this is what there is not].

It is a fairly bleak view and one that I am obviously not competent to judge as far as Mexico is concerned. What we have seen, however, in the UK and in the US, with the rise of publisher conglomerates, is the rise of independents who have managed to distribute their books, using ebooks, social media, book fairs, blogs and so on. Many of my favourite blogs as well as my own have reviewed lots of independents. Yes, we have the Amazonisation of distribution, the death of independent book shops and the death of literary print media but I am not so sure that the situation is anywhere near as gloomy as it seems to be in Mexico. Indeed, as far I am concerned, one of the main problems with Mexican literature is how little makes it into English and, to a lesser extent, how much gets distributed outside Mexico, even in the Spanish-speaking world, except, of course, for those books published by the main Spanish publishers Beltrán Félix complains about. An interesting point of view but perhaps a bit too gloomy.

2 Replies to “This is what there is (not): literature in Mexico in 2016”

  1. I’m reminded of a brief passage in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in which the PRI congresswoman Arucena Plata urges a journalist to write hard-hitting pieces about the crimes in Juarez, noting as an aside that “books aren’t censored or read” in Mexico but that the press is a different matter. It’s a sharp critique of the state of literature there that seems amply reflected in the article you quote above.

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