Libraries evoke images of books: fragrant leather-bound tomes, anthologies with furtive underlining by generations of undergraduates, popular paperbacks with now threadbare spines, imposing indexes holding court from heaving shelves. Such romantic evocations, etched firmly in popular imagination, can leave the wrong impression of how people actually learned to read. Or rather how reading spread beyond the narrow privileged circles it had occupied for centuries and became a mass phenomenon in the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. Very few of these new readers could afford a leather-bound tome. Instead they eagerly consumed serialized novels published in newspapers, with the option of having all the sections collected in a rather expensive book at the end, a luxury not everyone could afford. These folletines or serialized novels would later be overtaken by the so-called short novel, sometimes used interchangeably with cuento, relato and other terms depending on context.
Founded in 1907 and the brainchild of Eduardo Zamacois, El Cuento Semanal galvanized the publishing fortunes of the short novel and contributed to its status as a household format in the first decades of the twentieth century. Despite its name, the success of El Cuento Semanal helped consolidate the popularity of the novela corta in Spain, and would span other collections with varying degrees of longevity. These include Los Contemporáneos, La Novela Corta, La Novela Semanal, La Novela Contemporánea, El Libro Popular, La Novela de Bolsillo, La Novela para Todos and many others. Adjectives like ‘contemporáneo’, ‘corta’, ‘semanal’, ‘popular’ allude to the distinguishing characteristics of this format: modern, accessible and brief.
Unlike serialized novels, the new novela corta did not rely on newspapers or other existing media outlets, but had its own publication platform. It provided editors a greater freedom to tailor it to the needs of its target public, middle-class city-dwellers, that translated into lucrative margins. Every aspect of the operation had been designed for rapid consumption, from the lower quality paper, a length that rarely exceeded forty pages, and the equal billing enjoyed by the illustrators responsible for the artwork that broke the walls of text.
A low price, normally 30 cents, made them attractive to a growing demographic of readers, while their regular publication guaranteed a new source of income to writers. As its name indicates, El Cuento Semanal, was published on a weekly basis. To keep up with demand and ensure a steady supply, many editors would employ successful collaborators, who effectively gained the status of journalists, with a steady income and who were often encouraged to follow a house style. Even established writers like Benito Pérez Galdós, normally associated with elaborate sagas, praised the reach of the short novel and its pecuniary awards to the author:
“Habéis logrado el milagro de que el pueblo se apasione por las novelas. De rechazo nos habéis beneficiado a los escritores de mis tiempos, porque también vendemos bastante más…¡Yo os estoy muy agradecido, muy agradecido!”
(Quoted in F.C. Sainz de Robles (1975), La promoción de « El Cuento Semanal», 104)
Other canonical authors were less impressed with the meteoric rise of the novela corta. It might have disrupted the dissemination of literature and popularized reading, but it was precisely this commercial and democratic nature that tarnished its image. Repelled by the success of the erotic short novel, a subgenre known as novela sicalíptica or galante, Azorín writes in 1910 that:
“La nueva generación…está completa y desenfrenadamente entregada al más bajo y violento erotismo; no transcurre una semana sin que aparezca en las librerías una nueva novela pornográfica; se ponen a estos libros los títulos más provocadores y llamativos; se los anuncia con grandes carteles por las esquinas; se describen en ellos las más torpes aberraciones humanas.”
(quoted in Kirsty Hooper (2008), A Stranger in My Own Land, 110)
Some of these novels – particularly the ones penned anonymously – make Fifty Shades of Grey seem as tame as a Dulux catalogue. However, as Hooper points out, Azorín seems to be as affronted by the crass commercialism that lead to giant posters as by any explicit content (Hooper, 110). Less risqué enterprises were equally profitable. In some cases the short novel even provided new and profitable platforms for women writers such as Sofía Casanova, Blanca de los Ríos and Carmen de Burgos, the latter penning close to a hundred. Their subjects varied from frivolous escapades to overtly political stories such as El Artículo 438 (1921), in which Burgos denounces the atavistic barbarity of a clause that exonerates men from murder should they catch their spouse committing adultery.
From its marketing to its distribution, from its content to its expanding pool of both readers and writers, the short novel is thus an eminently modern medium. Ironically, like many of the serialized novels published in the press, short novels have also been victims of this ephemeral modernity. Published on fragile cheap paper that made them so accessible in the first place, much of this production was never collected in expensive leather tomes. Instead for decades they remained within the walls of libraries and archives, accumulating dust.
A recent surge in interest can be ascribed to two main factors. Firstly, we have a revisionist wave propelled by shifting approaches to the cultural production of the time, with an increasing interest in seemingly more ‘ephemeral’ or ‘transient’ literature such as magazines or pamphlets, rather than the novel, traditional repository of nineteenth-century culture. Secondly, this new expanded perspective goes hand in hand with new scanning technologies that have digitized many of these publications, so that they are more accessible and not bound by their physical location (I can navigate online archives from the comfort of my home).
Such developments have enabled us to search through an increasing set of preserved memories with great speed and accuracy. It is our modernity, our ability to navigate through all this digitized information, that has enabled us to search through these preserved memories with greater speed and accuracy. In other words, our own modernity has provided us the means to asses more comprehensively the remains of past modernities. Next time you find yourself in a library, why not have a closer look at some of these short novels? Or you could browse through some of its digitized versions from websites such as the Biblioteca Nacional’s Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, the Cervantes Virtual Library, the Hathi Trust Digital Library and Issuu.
These are some of the sitesI have found useful in my own research, although if you are looking for a particular novel, it sometimes pays to just Google for it. Often they will have been digitized by sources that had not occurred to you. It also depends on the author, in the case of Carmen de Burgos for example, the Biblioteca Virtual de Andalucía has scanned quite a few of her works because she was born there. But that might not be the case for authors hailing from other regions. You can also buy your own copies. Many of them are still surprisingly affordable on secondhand book sites such as IberLibro.
Rocío Rødtjer, King’s College London
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at Rocío’s first piece for the ACLAIIR blog.