How a literary work becomes a classic: The case of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Abstract

If meanings are so contested and changeable, how can individuals reach a collective agreement about what makes some cultural objects meaningful over time and across space? And how can social scientists construe robust interpretations of cultural objects whose meanings are shifting and malleable? These questions are pertinent to literary classics, whose meanings relentlessly change, and yet people living in different countries and historical periods collectively agree about their significance. This article argues that a literary work can become a classic when it transcends its original context of production and its contents are progressively appropriated by actors and organizations that had no share in their production. Using the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, this article, first, studies 10 ways in which that novel transcended its original context and, second, documents the appropriation of some of its contents in 56 countries between 1967 and 2013. To contribute to more robust interpretations of meaningful cultural objects with shifting meanings, this article offers four patterns (lived experience, universalization, artistic commensuration and entrenched criticism) involved in the collective fabrication of the value of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a literary classic.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although the argument is made on the basis of a single case, the analysis will also refer to literary counterfactuals, namely, literary works contemporary to the case study that have not attained classic status.

  2. 2.

    OHYS is chosen for two reasons: (1) it facilitates the study of how a literary work can become a classic without considering a complex variable: tradition. Accounting for tradition is necessary for French, Russian and other major literatures, since readers and organizations would judge a new literary work by positioning it in relation to a well-known tradition. In the case of OHYS, by the time of its publication, Latin American literature did not exist as a unified tradition (rather there were national traditions; Mexican, Argentine, and so on) and thus, at first, transnational audiences could not valuate OHYS in relation to a specific literary tradition. And (2) OHYS was not produced in a dominant literary center (for example, London or Paris), but rather in the periphery. Thus, the case of OHYS permits us to understand how a literary work attains its value as a ‘classic’ after its emergence in a non-hegemonic context of production.

  3. 3.

    By organizational I mean the ensemble of forces, resources and conventions involved in the production of a cultural object. By disembeddedness I mean the progressive autonomy of a cultural object from the conventions, actors and organizations involved in its creation. Thus, in this article, I am not concerned with embeddedness understood as a component of economic relations (Granovetter, 1985; Evans, 1995) or disembeddedness as the separation of time and space (Giddens, 1990).

  4. 4.

    A literary work’s disembedding from its VOC could also be seen from a different angle, namely, as an instance of the work’s progressive embeddedness in foreign contexts or non-VOCs. The study of appropriation seeks to account for that type of embeddedness.

  5. 5.

    OHYS’s VOC includes the Boom novel movement, the genre of magical realism, the publisher, contemporary literary magazines and newspapers, the early networks of peer writers, critics and scholars, the literary agent and the author (Santana-Acuña, 2014).

  6. 6.

    Researchers in literary studies acknowledge that the classic is related to canonicity but ‘is not entirely reducible to it’ (Mukherjee, 2010, p. 1028). In sociology, sacralization (DiMaggio, 1992) and consecration (Bourdieu, 1992) are earlier efforts seeking to free cultural objects from the rigidity of canonization analysis. Yet both overtheorize the organizational embeddedness of cultural objects.

  7. 7.

    The literary canon is a group of works that historically specific organizations and/or actors consider and promote as chief examples of the available literature falling under certain – and sometimes overlapping – parameters (for example, nation, language, culture, professions and historical period, among others) (cf. Guillory, 1993, p. 6; Bloom, 1994, p. 15).

  8. 8.

    In music the distinction between canon and repertory yields similar results (Kerman, 1984).

  9. 9.

    Cf. Eyal (2013). Although we use a similar spatial concept, there is an important analytical difference. Since Bourdieu treats fields as separate spheres, Eyal argues that the space between fields is a thick boundary zone. An argument he makes to challenge Bourdieu’s notion of field autonomy and to show, building on Latour, that the boundaries between fields are porous. In my case, drawing inspiration from Godart and White (2010), I argue that national fields are embedded in a larger socio-cultural formation that renders possible the transnational circulation of artworks and their transformation in the process of moving from one national field to another.

  10. 10.

    For instance, in the American and Chinese contexts, new actors and organizations that had no share in the production of OHYS have related it to other locally produced artworks (for example, Faulkner’s novels of the American south or the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber) as well as to new circulating artworks (for example, the reception of Roberto Bolaño’s work in the United States and the literary genealogy of Mo Yan’s novels; the 2012 Chinese Nobel laureate who acknowledged García Márquez’s influence on his work).

  11. 11.

    Presenting the world republic of letters as a world literary field centered in Paris, Casanova (1999) argues that Latin American writers (including García Márquez) only became successful internationally after coming to Paris. Santana (2000) demonstrates that their coming to Spain was far more decisive. Contra Casanova, others favor the existence of multiple centers (Janssen et al, 2008) and the critical intervention of actors and organizations beyond the publishing industry (Mukherjee, 2010).

  12. 12.

    An exception is Tompkins (1985).

  13. 13.

    They differ from Bennett’s historical universal (2005), which he uses to amend the lack of diachronicity in field theory.

  14. 14.

    Change of conditional universals is not generational but epochal – the redefinition of the parameters structuring an entire valuation system, what in return affects how people perceive art. This assertion is indebted to Baxandall’s period eye (1972), although his ocular approach says nothing about parameters applicable to literature.

  15. 15.

    Such continuity is not exclusive to literature. In music and painting the exaltation of certain artists and artworks as classics popularized in the late eighteenth century (Haskell, 1980; Weber, 1986; Dowd et al, 2002). The notion of classic as an artwork of ‘universal value’ was formulated then (Tompkins, 1985).

  16. 16.

    This inventory is not comprehensive. Here it aims to emphasize a plurality of historically situated processes, representations and practices that (1) can underlie the classicization of a literary work and (2) are also beyond or not entirely under the control of the VOC that produced the literary work. The inventory is the result of several rounds of adjustments between the preliminary theoretical hypothesis, key works on the history of the modern novel and the emergence of the domain of literature, and the findings related to OHYS.

  17. 17.

    This literary secularization of human experience includes, from the eighteenth century onwards in the West, (1) the retreat of mystery and mystical narratives (for example, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle), (2) the shift from stereotypes (for example, the red fox in Le Roman de Renard) to characters (for example, Emma Bovary), and (3) the retrospective secularization of providential forces that played a key role in pre-literature classics (for example, Homer’s Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Dante’s Divine Comedy).

  18. 18.

    Since its introduction in the early nineteenth century, the term ‘literature’ retains an impressive semantic stability (Williams, 1983). ‘Fine arts’ and ‘classical music’ became popular terms in the same period (Weber, 1986; Heinich, 1990). The three channeled an epochal change in understanding art (see footnote 15).

  19. 19.

    The development of literature is linked to that of the novel – a technology of the self, which is capable of generating secular space-time (Pavel, 2003).

  20. 20.

    Not to be confused with contextualism. By context here I mean context of use by actors.

  21. 21.

    The icon represents a similar kind of ‘symbolic condensation’ (Alexander, 2010, p. 11). Whereas the analysis of icons seeks to capture how meaning manifests through materiality, the indexical analysis offered here pays attention to the material and non-material structures of meaningfulness.

  22. 22.

    The linkage between indexicals and meaning remains under debate in linguistics (Giorgi, 2010).

  23. 23.

    As of November 2013, Lamming has authored nine books, of which – according to the national library catalogues of France, Spain and Germany - only two, one and two have been translated into each language, respectively.

  24. 24.

    The full dataset can be found in Online Appendix A at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ajcs/v2/n1/index.html.

  25. 25.

    Since I treated literary indexicals as abductive inferences made by different actors participating in the domain of literature, then, following Peirce (1965, §2.776 and §7.218), induction seemed the most reliable method to test the validity of abductive reasoning.

  26. 26.

    Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, United Kingdom and United States, plus Amazon en español.

  27. 27.

    See Online Appendix B, for full information on the primary and secondary sources used as data on literary indexicals at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ajcs/v2/n1/index.html.

  28. 28.

    The VOC of OHYS is analyzed in detail in Santana-Acuña (2014).

  29. 29.

    Henceforth I will refer to the three levels of conditional universals in parentheses.

  30. 30.

    Boom became the most widely used term to refer to the Latin American literary movement that flourished transnationally in the 1960s (Donoso, 1972).

  31. 31.

    In addition, the different temporality of each disembedding serves to underscore that the divide between the pre-classicization and the classicization stages cannot be strictly delimited, and that the connection between both is not necessarily linear. Rather, both stages overlap for a limited amount of time. In the case of OHYS, this overlap was evident from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, when OHYS’s VOC was facing progressive pulls for disembeddedness from the 10 arenas analyzed in this section.

  32. 32.

    Clear aesthetic similarities with OHYS are found in Los Sangurimas (1933), a novella by Ecuadorian writer José de la Cuadra (1903–1941). Like OHYS, the novella uses modernist narrative techniques and narrates the decline of a family living in a recondite and magic region separated from civilization. Counterfactually, had Los Sangurimas (still widely unknown in Latin America) been published after the mid-1950s and become a contemporary of Carpentier’s The Lost Steps (1953) or Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955), it would be considered a classic work of magic realism (Carrión de Fierro, 1993).

  33. 33.

    Launched in Paris in 1966 and with up to a 6000 print run, Mundo nuevo aggressively promoted Latin American literature in and outside the region (Santana, 2000).

  34. 34.

    As in OHYS, the Spanish writer Juan Benet created in Return to Región (1967) a fictional, Faulknerian space called ‘Región’. The novel reads as a story about the survival of archaic structures and popular beliefs in a context of increasing modernization. Counterfactually, it could be argued that, despite clear structural similarities, since Return to Región was not a Latin American Boom novel, it did not benefit from the same commodification disembedding as OHYS did.

  35. 35.

    As OHYS, the novel Friday, or, The Other Island (1967) by French writer Michel Tournier became an immediate success, winning the prestigious Grand Prix du roman of the French Academy. It also obtained high visibility for it was marketed as an original narrative, different from the experimentalism of nouveau roman works. Despite its vernacular success, Friday, unlike OHYS, circulated little outside France. In 1967, the international literary industry and mass readers demanded not French but Latin American literature. In a declining and saturated market for nouveau roman works, post-nouveau roman novels like Friday failed to undergo spatial disembedding.

  36. 36.

    Yet the non-artistic organizations disembedding cannot by itself guarantee that a literary work will be collectively imagined as a classic. For instance, in his list of Western canonical works, Bloom (1994) includes Paradiso (1967) by Cuban writer Lezama Lima. Paradiso, like OHYS, became highly visible upon its publication and continues to attract the attention of world-leading scholars like Bloom. Such non-artistic organizations disembedding has secured its value as a canonical literary work, but not as a classic (cf. Corse and Griffin, 1997; Corse and Westervelt, 2002).

  37. 37.

    Such accusations have also been made against Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World (1949). But this novella did not undergo ideological disembedding; it is merely presented as a forerunner of OHYS’s magical realism.

  38. 38.

    Contemporary sources (Piazza, 1968) suggest that, at the time, the rising Latin American star in international literary circles was not García Márquez but José Donoso (Martin, 2009).

  39. 39.

    As the analysis shows, these four patterns can overlap in particular book elements.

  40. 40.

    Some readers might find puzzling that in this section I placed expert criticism alongside lay criticism. This analytical strategy seeks to support the findings of recent studies (Baumann, 2001; Bromberg and Fine, 2002; Allen and Lincoln, 2004; Bennett et al, 2009), which minimize the influence experts (especially, critics and other gatekeepers) can have in shaping the long-lasting value of a cultural object. Furthermore, placing together both kinds of criticism invites readers to consider a more horizontal, interdependent relationship between the two.

  41. 41.

    Others, however, oppose universalization and claim that Macondo is just ‘a tiny, fictional Colombian town’ as pointed out by a Canadian editor (See Online Appendix A, Table 1, Macondo, 1980), English writer Angela Carter (ibid, 1982) and German scholar Kutzinski (ibid, 1985).

  42. 42.

    Macondo also serves as inspiration for peer writers. For instance, literary characters such as ‘Macon Dead III’ in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (ibid, 1977).

  43. 43.

    A more predictable ramification is his adscription to different schools of thought. For Argentine writer Maturo, García Márquez is a Neo-Platonist (See Online Appendix A, Table 2, Author, 1977), for Cuban writer Benítez (hinting to postmodernism), he ‘manipulates the Western literary discourse’ (ibid, 1987) and, for South African writer and Nobel laureate Coetzee, he is a psychological realist (ibid, 2006).

  44. 44.

    Authorial criticism has also taken the form of attacks on the book; see below.

  45. 45.

    Like the disembedded ‘macondiano’, the adjective ‘Marquezian’ has entered into language (ibid, 1999) and is spreading (Martin, 2009).

  46. 46.

    Similarly, a Colombian journalist and an Amazon Germany reader agree that it is ‘unforgettable’ (See Online Appendix A, Table 4, Opening, 2001 and 2002) (see also ibid, 1990, 2000, 2008 and 2010).

  47. 47.

    The selected German text was the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the French text was a fragment from The Little Prince.

  48. 48.

    Other supernatural events indexed by transnational audiences are the priest’s levitations (ch. 5), the death of José Arcadio, patriarch of the Buendía family (ch. 7), and the four-year, non-stop rainfall on Macondo (ch. 16).

  49. 49.

    Unlike this neighbor, US critic John Leonard wrote ‘I believe [in] Remedios the Beauty, plucked up by the wind and flown to God’ (see Online Appendix A, Table 6, Remedios, 1970) (see also ibid, 1999).

  50. 50.

    In July 2012, international media amply reported the end of his writing career due to dementia.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to Mario Santana, Filiz Garip, Mariano Siskind and especially Michèle Lamont for their advice on this article. Earlier versions benefited from helpful comments of anonymous reviewers and participants at the Harvard Cultural Analysis Workshop, the Evaluation Practices in Art Worlds workshop at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, the Center for Cultural Sociology Conference at Yale University, the Eighteenth International Conference of Europeanists-Council for European Studies (Barcelona) and the Sociology Seminar Series at the University of Edinburgh. For excellent comments on the latter version I thank Bart Bonikowski, Thomas Medvetz, Christopher Muller and Catherine Turco. Hsin-Chao Wu, Huan Jin and Wenping Xue provided assistance with Chinese data, Dong-Kyun Im with Korean and Shiori Yamada with Japanese. Finally I thank Jean-Marie Le Clézio, Orhan Pamuk and the late Carlos Fuentes, who kindly shared with me their views on how a literary work becomes a classic.

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Santana-Acuña, A. How a literary work becomes a classic: The case of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Am J Cult Sociol 2, 97–149 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/ajcs.2013.16

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Keywords

  • classics
  • literature
  • transcendence
  • appropriation
  • meaningfulness