Anyone who works on Latin American literature will be familiar with the scenario. You're at a party, or bar, or whatever. Someone asks you what you do. Teach. What? Latin American Studies. Oh, what? Y'know, literature, culture, politics. "Oh," comes the reply. "That's great. I so loved that Chilean author. What's her name? The one who wrote House of the Spirits."
Here's the conundrum. Should one encourage such interest in one's field? Or should one reveal that, well, in fact just about every Latin Americanist critic with a shred of self-respect hates Isabel Allende.
And the worst thing about the second option is that readers of Allende think that, by reading her, they are proving themselves not only cultured (Third World literature! Magic realism!) but also politically sound (Women's writing! Exiled niece of overthrown Socialist president!).
In other words, by pouring cold water on their enthusiasm for Allende, one risks undoing what is in fact the great motivation and for many the rationale of the field itself: that seductive blend of aesthetics and political commitment encapsulated in the opening lines of my friend Jean Franco's pathbreaking The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (1967):
An intense social concern has been the characteristic of Latin-American art for the last hundred and fifty years. Literature--and even painting and music--have played a social role, with the artist acting as guide, teacher and conscience of his country. (11)Readers seek vicarious satisfaction from this heady mix. On the whole, people who read Latin American fiction think that they are better people for so doing. They expect to be rewarded with some kind of new respect for revealing how much they love Isabel Allende (or García Márquez, or Borges, or... well, generally the list stops there).
But the truth is, Allende is rubbish.
And she's not alone, of course. There's plenty of Latin American literature that's mediocre, reactionary, boring, unimaginative... And even the good stuff surely doesn't make you a better person for reading it.
I'll admit that there's more than a dose of elitism in this reaction against Allende. But that's far from the end of the story. In any case, surely we should find ways to work with these rather strange affective investments, rather than simply debunking them. In the meantime, though, I remain reluctant at parties to be drawn into discussions about what I do.
I'm sure that there are other fields in which something like the same conundrum prevails. South Asianists probably hate hearing how much people love Rushdie, or are fascinated by Hinduism. Physicists don't want to answer questions about A Brief History of Time. And so on and so forth. At stake in part is the difference between the popular conception of a field of study, and how that field is sensed or understood by those within it.
But the Allende conundrum in this, its original, form seems to hold an especially concentrated series of contradictions and ambivalences.