The joint ACLAIIR/IGRS/IC seminar on 18 April brought together researchers, literary critics, translators, librarians and publishers to explore the world of 21st century fiction from Spain. After a warm welcome from Julio Crespo MacLennan, Director of the Instituto Cervantes in London, Geoff West (Chair of ACLAIIR) thanked all the organisers and participants for attending what was sure to be an interesting and enjoyable day.
For anyone involved in researching or purchasing Spanish fiction, it is clear that the publishing scene in Spain is one of very few Spanish industries holding its own in the current economic climate. Although booksales have dropped in number across Spain, Portugal, and the UK, fiction writing from Spain is very much alive and well, and breaking into new markets thanks to the increasing number of translated titles available.
Librarians responsible for acquiring fiction from Spain know only too well the challenges of selecting from a plethora of new authors and titles, whilst remaining within tight budget allowances. How to navigate this sea of new writing? For those in academic institutions, research trends, conference programmes and taught courses were the main influential factors, with information from publishers, book fairs, literary magazines and blogs all playing a vital part in keeping up to date. The availability of English translations was also a good marker of the popularity of certain titles. With research trends and reader appetites growing ever more diverse, it was necessary to make use of a wide range of resources to keep track of developments.
It became clear from Stuart Davis’ presentation and ensuing discussing that the notion of a fixed literary canon was difficult to apply to the current wave of literature. With the Internet providing more opportunities to publish (or even self-publish) literature and literary criticism, readers and writers are forming their own online communities to disseminate and discuss their work. Some academics are also moving towards writing in newspapers rather than confining their work to scholarly journals.
Juan Ángel Juristo also noted changes not just in the canon, but in the reader. With the increase in female authors mirroring the greater participation of women in Spain’s public life, there has also been a stronger definition of the Spanish reader; female, a middle-class city-dweller, between thirty and forty years old, and with a preference for the novel over other types of literature. Whilst the traditional Spanish literary canon has often focused on male authors writing in Castilian, women writers and authors writing in other peninsular languages have staked a significant claim on the Spanish literary scene.
Spain’s literary landscape cannot be easily separated from its economic, political, and social history. In a recent talk at Oxford, Eduardo Mendoza highlighted the Civil War and relations with Latin American boom writers as two of the most important factors affecting the development of Spanish writing. Both Daniela Omlor and Frank Lough spoke about the growing amount of literature and research around memory, particularly of the Spanish Civil War. The way in which the literature addresses the Civil War depends much on the time it was written. There are now four distinct generations of writers involved with Spanish Civil War novels, ecompassing a wide range of writers. Firstly, there are those who have memories of the war, then those who have no memories of the war but do have adult memories of the Franco dictatorship. These writers are quite different to younger generations, who may have childhood memories of the dictatorshop, or have known only democracy.
Writing memory does not only cover the Spanish Civil War. Juan Ángel Juristo mentioned a recent trend of nostalgia amongst writers and artists to look back to the movida of 1980s Madrid, an era that has become emblematic for a generation. The protagonist in Almudena Grandes’ novel Castillos de cartón is reminded of her hedonistic youth as an art school student in Madrid. Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film, Los amantes pasajeros, is a comic farce that harks back to his more lighthearted earlier works, a stark change from his darker more recent offerings. It is no surprise that during times of recession and crisis, people are tempted to look back to days that seemed more hopeful.
Whilst Europe may be in crisis, there could well be second boom in translation of fiction from Latin America. The major publishing countries of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil have attracted greater focus in recent years. When asked to choose authors they would like to have translated, our publishing panel chose Mexicans Lolita Bosch, Elena Poniatowska, and Carmen Boullosa. However, there is great diversity to be found in the Peninsula itself, with writing in Galician, Catalan, and Basque on the increase. Jennifer Rodríguez spoke about the growing prominence of women writers in the Basque language, mirroring an upward trend in Basque publishing in general since the end of the dictatorship and the acceptance of Basque as an official language. School education in Basque is also common now, which has helped to push the development of Basque literature. Basque writers such as Bernardo Atxaga and Laura Mintegi are being translated into English, and Basque language and literature is taught at universities in the USA (Nevada) and the UK (Liverpool). Catalan and Galician literatures are also booming, with Jordi Puntí’s Maletes perdudes (Lost luggage) a hit at the recent European Literature Night at the British Library, and a growing number of anthologies of Galician poetry and fiction translated into English.
The study of translation itself is also becoming popular, as are courses on comparative literature, where the emphasis is not necessarily on reading texts in the original language as is the case with traditional modern languages degrees. Although the decision to translate foreign fiction into English rests with the publisher, translators are influential and can help to bring attention to new writers. Although the English market is traditionally very closed to literature in translation (according to New Spanish Books it accounts for less than 5% of the market in the UK), some boutique publishers with significant financial backing are able to pick and choose without having to worry exclusively about commercial success. However, despite the low numbers, translated fiction from Spain is on the increase in the UK, and there are many individuals and bodies such as the Institut Ramon Llull and similar that are concentrating their efforts on promoting literature from the Peninsula. The success of other European writers in extremely popular genres such as detective fiction has also helped pave the way for other literature in translation for the Anglophone market.
Whilst the economic crisis may be hitting hard in Spain, we can certainly say that fiction from the Peninsula is on an upward trajectory. Interest in the literary and cultural output of Spain continues to flourish in the UK and beyond, whether in academic institutions or amongst the general reading public, in the original language or in translation. We hope that events such as this seminar will continue to highlight the strength and diversity of literature from Spain, and look forward to more insightful presentations and discussions at our next fiction seminar, this time on Latin America – details to be confirmed later in the year!
In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for the ACLAIIR AGM & Seminar on 18 June. The theme of the seminar is e-books, and we have some great speakers lined up. See www.aclaiir.org.uk/events to register – it’s even free for postgraduates!