“Rotten Little Worlds”: Professor Paulo Horta Delivers Lecture on Literary Markets and the Global South

By Louisa Brady

Paulo Horta, Assistant Professor of Literature at NYU-Abu Dhabi, delivered a lecture, “‘Rotten Little Worlds’: Literary Markets and the Global South,” on Thursday, October 27, 2016. Students and faculty gathered in the department’s Event Space to welcome Horta to NYU’s Washington Square campus and listen to his talk. Horta’s first book, Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in January 2017.

As NYU English Department Chair Christopher Cannon explained in his introduction, globally-based professors traditionally complete an integration year in New York before relocating to their respective satellite campuses. But as Horta was appointed before this practice was put into place, he never had the opportunity to come to Washington Square for an integration year. Horta’s lecture, thus, was meant to give the department’s New York-based faculty a chance to hear about the research that he is doing abroad.

Focusing on 20th-century Latin American writing, Horta examined the challenges that Latin American writers faced in trying to gain a place in the global literary marketplace. He began with a discussion of Gabriel García Márquez’s attempt to publish with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, a revered imprint of the publishing house Macmillan. After a recommendation from author Carlos Fuentes (one of the publisher’s clients), the editorial team passed on García Márquez’s La Mala Hora, claiming that it had little sales appeal, exacerbated by the fact that it was originally written in Spanish. The house also passed on the option for One Hundred Years of Solitude, which went on to critical acclaim. García Márquez later won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Horta went on to describe and critique the concept of a Latin American boom in literature, said to have ended in 1970. He referenced literary agents and editors who are often granted credit for bringing Latin American writers into the literary market, combatting the challenge of selling writing that is “dark” and has been translated. However, Horta claimed that this is merely a theory and not actually true. He questioned whether the “boom” was actually a boom, citing that while One Hundred Years of Solitude sold 800,000 copies in its early years, other writers’ works that were considered a part of the boom only sold 20,000. Horta asserted that these numbers do not illustrate a “global phenomenon.”

According to Horta, translation problems also pose a challenge to global writers trying to find a place in the literary market. He used the example of The Thousand and One Nights to discuss the fallacy and fragility of translation. Antoine Galland provided the first translation of this work, which was said to have been adapted from Hanna Diab’s oral tales. But although Galland is credited with having made “improvements” to the tales through his translation, Horta argued that the alleged improvements may have actually come from Diab himself because they corresponded with writing in Diab’s memoir.

Horta asserted that world literature will benefit from translations that transcend time and space, and such translations should not be what simply “washes ashore” from global markets. Horta looked at a translation of Fuentes’s work and noted how a Spanish language for the people was rendered “elegant English.” In García Márquez’s writing, Spanish editions of his works include glossaries because the vernacular and slang of one Latin American country does not correspond with the vernacular and slang of others. Yet these glossaries are eliminated in the English translations. Because of this, Horta argued that markets in the global south are not actually feeding U.S. markets “world literature” or authentic Latin American writing. Instead, they are giving the U.S. market what readers already want.

In his concluding remarks, Horta spoke about the way these writers are categorized and used. Roberto Bolaño, for example, is considered a Chilean writing Mexican novels rather than a writer of world literature. Furthermore, publishing houses tend to capitalize on these writers’ literary prizes because they build up the house’s prestige and backlist. Fuentes, already a respected author and client of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, served as a sort of “unofficial agent” for García Márquez and other writers, sharing their work directly with the editorial team. However, as Horta duly noted, Fuentes’s influence had its limits, both in the fact that he was unable to generate enthusiasm for Márquez’s work and in that he did not have total control over the translation of his own work.

After the lecture, Horta fielded questions from the audience. During the Q&A, he shared with the audience side-by-side comparisons of Spanish and English editions of certain works. Horta explained the way in which the translations, as well as the cover art, of English-language editions tried to cater to a U.S. market.

Although Horta’s lecture was primarily based on literature of the 1960s and 1970s, it raised questions very relevant today: do certain voices, stories, and styles struggle to find a place in today’s literary markets? And if they do find a place, are they represented authentically, or have they been altered to give us, as Horta said, what we already want?