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New voices of new authors

Professionalization, the return of the author, and focus on the outskirts of Brazil's big cities underscore recent Brazilian fiction

PAULA GABBAI“Initially, the Geração 90 (1990’s Generation) was a brilliantly created marketing ploy.” This sentence, extracted from Ficção brasileira contemporânea [Contemporary Brazilian fiction] (Civilização Brasileira publishing house), has the power of a bomb, but enters discreetly in the short – although no less important – and latest book by Karl Erik Schollhammer, a professor at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and an expert on Brazilian literature. “The title Geração 90 refers to a group, mostly of men, from São Paulo, who follow the same literary direction. This was a means of acknowledging writers who had not yet achieved visibility,” says Schollhammer. The new generation is also the subject of the latest book by writer Carlos Nejar, História da literatura brasileira [History of Brazilian literature] (Editora Leya/Biblioteca Nacional publishers). Carlos Nejar is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

The discrediting of the word “generation” includes the perception that different writing styles should come under the same generation-related umbrella: the exaggerated realism of works such as Cidade de Deus, by Paulo Lins; the new regionalism, whose main exponent is the work by Ronaldo Brito; short stories and non-conventional literature – especially the kind coming out of the low-income regions around the city of São Paulo – are some of the literary styles that comprise a generation-related concept that is as broad as anything guided by market interests. “Generation is a useful word for advertising,” says professor Arnaldo Franco Júnior, from Paulista State University (Unesp).

In his opinion, one of the main characteristics of Brazilian literature from the 1970s onwards is the radical professionalizing of writers. This has had several effects: the exponential increase in the number of publishing companies and the resulting expansion of the publishing market; journalism becoming a major element of Brazilian prose; and the writer and the writing professional have become much closer. “As there is no support for writers in Brazil, our foremost writers were diplomats,” points out Schollhammer, referring to such names as Guimarães Rosa, whose writing was supported by his work at Itamaraty [Brazil’s Foreign Office]. “There are people who want to dedicate their lives to writing. Literature now has an eye on the publishing market, and this means making concessions,” says Franco Júnior. Ever since philosopher Roland Barthes announced the death of the author in 1968, literary theory, post-structuralism, and deconstruction have discussed the controversial issue of the author’s place in the production of texts. The idea that the author is no longer present to ensure the meaning of his text, the importance of the relationship between the author and the reader for the significance of the text, and the opening up of the text to multiple interpretations, have led to the heralded death of the author being viewed as breaking with traditional literature. These were the 1970s in France, and breaking traditional paradigms was on the agenda.

Today, the return of the author lies not only in the cult of the novelist’s personality but also in the return to the so-called “writings of self.” “Even though nobody wants to be an author identified with the realism of the 1930s or with the nineteenth century, the fact is that realism is a constant in Brazilian literature,” says Schollhammer. He perceives an overlap of authors and characters in testimonial blogs, autobiographies, and first-person narrations that are part of these two movements: the upholding of realism, which in his opinion is the most stable element in the history of Brazilian literature, and the return of the author.

Schollhammer also identifies the return of the author in the popularity of literary festivals. “The Flip literary festival is equivalent to the Cannes Film Festival; but there are other similar events, some of which began earlier, such as the literary festival in Passo Fundo, and everyone is betting on the return of the author,” the professor says. In contrast, the return to realism does not interest Brazilian writers. “Nowadays, everyone wants to be Rubem Fonseca,” he says. There is one point, however, in which the young Brazilian writers differ from Fonseca’s style: Fonseca is known as being reserved and silent, whereas contemporary authors want to have the style – and why not, the success – of that achieved by Fonseca, but without the requirement of being a recluse, although Fonseca is no longer the recluse he was in the past. He recently took part in a performance at a book launch by his disciple, the young writer Paula Parisot, whose first book launch in São Paulo was attended by her “godfather” Fonseca. “Even Fonseca is no longer a recluse,” Schollhammer laughs.

PAULA GABBAIAs the publishing market expands and becomes more professional, writers find themselves in the position of having to negotiate with the market. “Art and the market are not at extreme opposites. The narrative is the starting point in contemporary literature,” argues Franco Júnior. “From the 1990’s onwards, the literary word has been taken over by segments that had no voice in the past,” he says, referring to what is being conventionally called marginal literature, which he refers to as – truly marginal – literature, to differentiate it from the group of poets from the 1970s, who used to mimeograph their poems. In fact, in the 1990s, marginal literature gained space in the publishing market, became the cultural industry’s consumer product and authors from the outskirts of big cities – such as Paulo Lins and his book Cidade de Deus – were launched by the leading publishing companies.

Even though these texts are on the market, they pose a challenge to literary criticism, which is used to focusing on erudite values. Marginal literature has disorganized esthetic patterns. “These are texts that disregard beauty and poetic styles and cause uncomfortable shocks,” says Franco Júnior, quoting Antonio Candido, the first person to perceive the difficulties that arise when for the first time something different and unknown appears on the horizon of western literature.

And so academic criticism has been sidelined – a situation that led professor Flora Sussekind, of Uni-Rio, to write an article in the Prosa e Verso section of the O Globo daily newspaper. In an article called A crítica como papel de bala [Critique as candy wrapping] (April 24, 2010), she protested against what she referred to as the “minimization and loss of significant content of critical discussion as well as of the social dimension of literature in the country in the last decades.” Factors such as the end of literary sections dedicated exclusively to book reviews and the absence of space for academic discourse in newspapers have, in the last two decades, shaped a model of superficial literary debate in which, according to Flora, the enhancement of the social value of literature is absent; still according to Flora, the model of literary debate is exclusively based on market interests. Nejar disagrees with this view: “We have heard about the demise of literary criticism and even of poetry so many times; yet the human spirit always renews itself and what seems to have finished re-appears.” Schollhammer agrees with Flora, but attributes the renovation to the perception that the shift in the position of literature in society is a condition and a challenge.

Literary criticism’s understanding of the lack of autonomy is still very precarious nowadays. Literature no longer interacts autonomously with society,” says Schollhammer. Carlos Nejar disagrees. “Literature will never lose its outstanding place in society as long as authors able to focus on the human condition continue to exist in a big way.” The professor believes that the Argentine writers reflect differently about literature. “They see literature as an ethnography of the present, in which the creation of fiction is also a way of exposing other realities,” he says.

Schollhammer proposes that literature be viewed within what he refers to as “an expanded field,” which includes objects, materiality, new esthetical forms and a relationship with other narrative forms, such as film and television. “This is no longer a question of looking only at literature, but of looking at everything that is related to it,” he explains. In revolutionary France in the nineteenth century, writers embraced the role of advocating modern values – liberty, equality and fraternity. In their own way, these writers were joining literature and the exposure of other realities. In those times, the ideals of democracy inspired writers, in a society in which knowing how to write was the privilege of a very few. Today, on the other hand, not only are new publishing technologies available but the gap between writer and publisher has also narrowed.

In 1856, Gustave Flaubert put a full stop at the end of Madame Bovary and ended up in court, accused of having written an indecent book. In the course of the twentieth century, literature, in addition to losing its autonomy, also lost its revolutionary nature to such an extent that the manifesto of a generation is viewed as a marketing ploy. “What Flaubert did was much more revolutionary than anything that could be done nowadays,” Schollhammer states.