By Jennifer Smith
In the English speaking world the novel is king. That is not the case in the Spanish speaking world and especially in Latin America where the short story became the laboratory of ideas which the lack of philosophers and thinkers could not provide. And the short story requires a precise narrative that many novels don’t have. As Samantha Schweblin says, «if your short story doesn’t work, you can always write it as a novel.»
There is something to say about why the novel has always been the prevailing narrative form in Britain, more so than in any other Anglo-speaking country. One could argue historical, cultural and even economical reasons for it, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in the United States and even less so in Latin America where some of the most imaginative and exciting short stories have been and continue to be written.
The historical context could be explained by the fact that the novel became hugely popular in the 19th century, at a time when nation-building projects in Europe and around the world were at their peak. A phenomenon initiated by the Romantic movement with the idea of not only a common language but also a common landscape and consequently also a common sensitivity. The British Empire ruled half of the world and therefore it is not possible to dissociate the novel with its political context. The novel metamorphosed itself from retelling and re-interpreting mostly folk tales into being the canvas of the fears and aspirations of an expanding merchant and businesswise middle class. Nonetheless, in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, reading was a privileged skill available mostly to the upper-class elite. Books were expensive items and most of the population were unable to afford them. Furthermore, not many people could read and those who were able could not afford books unless they enjoyed some economic affluence.
The greatest superstar of all, Charles Dickens, published most of his novels in monthly installments in magazines. These installments, after a few months, would make the actual novel. This chapter by chapter approach could also be called “one tale at the time.” That is how cliffhangers were popularised. In the United States, as far as the 20th century is concerned, the short story has enjoyed slightly better status than in the UK and the main reason for this is the presence of an iconic monthly publication: The New Yorker, a magazine famous for its cartoons and short stories. Such a publication doesn’t have an equivalent in London or for that matter anywhere else in Britain.
Those literary editors across the Atlantic have known for a while what that other great American short story teller, Edgar Allan Poe, had said about the true nature of the short story. In a text called The Philosophy of Composition published in 1846, Poe stated that these brief narratives «provide a single and unique effect» thus leaving sometimes an indelible image in the reader’s mind.
Exactly two hundred years before the birth of Dickens in Portsmouth, the first ever translation of the first part of Don Quixote of The Mancha by Thomas Shelton was published in London in 1612. It was this translation the one that Shakespeare read. Cervantes, who was his contemporary, died without knowing the name of the English playwright. One year after Shelton’s translation, The history of Cardenio was performed by the King’s Men Company in a London Theatre. The register at the time recorded it as a play written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. It is nowadays a lost play but the story is said to have been taken from one of the many stories that appeared in Cervantes, master piece.
What is probably the first and best novel ever written in the history of literature is in reality a collection of tales o cuentos. That is why it baffles many English readers, including people like Martin Amis, who cannot be seduced by a book that doesn’t seem to have a logical progression in its narrative.
In Shakespearean times, theatre was mass entertainment not only because the costs of books but also of high levels of illiteracy among the general population. In fact the issue of affordability still remains a real hindrance to novel writers and readers in many parts of the world, including Latin America where books are, pesos for pounds, simply more expensive. Many writers of the caliber of Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez published their first short stories in literary magazines because if you wanted to be read your chances increased by publishing in more affordable magazines. Nonetheless, apart from the cost, there has been another difference between British and Latin American writers, one which has to do with notions of history and identity.
Spanish-speaking writers across the Atlantic knew that they were writing from countries outside the “grand narrative” of history. The clay of their stories was and still is European in its origins but moulded by the experience of living in a continent of vast jungles, prodigious rivers and enormous mountains. A different landscape and therefore a fairly different sensitivity. In addition, the richness and complexity provided by writers like Borges, Cortázar or Clarice Lispector set a stage in which their readers could formulate ideas not provided in their philosophy or history books. This writing and reading process was a serious endeavor in the search for a place in the intellectual and cultural map of the world.
Jennifer Smith is a regular contributor of our magazine. She lives in Yorkshire, England, with her two cats.
A similar article, in Spanish, about the role of the fiction writers in Latin America was published in May 2020 under the title Breve genealogía de nuestro cuento. Its author was Jorge Ramírez