Monthly Archives: May 2014

Digesting Márquez

A post from Bluestem Fiction Reader Tj Martinson.

Over the past few weeks, I have been studying for GRE subject test in Literature. A common strategy for this undertaking is the simple task of association. This association takes the form of taking an author and his or her body of work, condensing it into a small list of traits, and digesting it whole. Edgar Allen Poe = Gothic. The Odyssey= Epic. Jane Austen = Rich, white people complaining and this is somehow ironic. However, one name seemed to jump out from the myriad, likely owing to his recent passing this past April: Gabriel García Márquez.

For the GRE, if the name Gabriel García Márquez pops up, the test-taker is to think primarily one thing: Magical Realism. I understand the strategy behind this utilitarian approach to studying literature, but that doesn’t detract from the inherent problematic behind it. Thinking “Magical Realism” doesn’t quite capture Márquez. However, this “watering down” extends beyond the heinous GRE. Following his death, news stations and radio broadcasts paid dainty homage with something along the lines of, “Gabriel García Márquez was a Colombian-born writer, known for his popularization of Magical Realism…” Considering the audience of these broadcasts, it’s an understandable compartmentalization, but this still falls drastically short. Márquez was an incredibly influential novelist (Thomas Pynchon picked up a thing or two from him), short story master, political participant, journalist, and screenwriter, whose work has been praised world-wide, receiving the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature. Whew.

To banally attach Magical Realism with Márquez is a terrible injustice to his name. In a 1973 issue of The Atlantic, Márquez noted that his use of surreal happenings in his writing was not so far removed as it may initially appear to an American reader. Instead, he said, “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” In a sense, when we think of Márquez’s contributions as belonging primarily to popularizing or defining Magical Realism, we are heavily diluting the cultural significance of his work. He wrote to the shared consciousness of a populace, and his work represented the strikingly unfamiliar culture for a general reader in an accessible, fascinating manner.

I would urge a meditation on his Wikipedia page (cue the Wikipedia groans) to gain a sense of Gabriel García Márquez as a figure that extends well beyond his masterfully-crafted novels. For example, he was so outspoken in matters concerning U.S. imperialism that he was denied a U.S. visa by immigration until Bill Clinton lifted the ban, citing One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel. For those who are unsatisfied with gleaning information from Wikipedia, or who are understandably fascinated by a fascinating man, pick up his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale.

We, as readers or bibliophiles, develop our passion by reading bodies of work, comparing them, and learning about the context that they were written into which they were received. Although it is likely inevitable for an author to posthumously escape his entire body of work being compartmentalized by the general student of literature, we should recognize that this is not true knowledge of a subject. Knowing those key facts should tantalize us into diving head-first into the texts and gaining a sense of the magician who wrote them. Not even for the sake of parlor-trick, name-dropping knowledge, but for the sake of preserving the richness and profundity from which the bite-sized, easily-digested factoids will inevitably rear their ugly little heads.

-Tj Martinson

Writing in the Midst of Living

While I was attending AWP 2014 a couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Seattle Weekly in this wicked little coffee shop right next to Georgetown Records. As I read it, I came across a brief announcement concerning the conference. I want to quote it at length:

I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be more fun than this national gathering of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs? All these whining MFA types with massive student loans and without jobs or the ability to write something actually useful—like code, maybe? But still, these poets, essayists, novelists, journalists, and crafters of verse will not be deterred. Perhaps their sheer stubbornness in the face of penury is worthy of our respect. And if not that, you could at least buy them a beer or three at some of the many offsite readings and gatherings that are open to us, the unlettered, unwashed, unpublished members of the general public (mere readers, in other words).

By the time I’d finished it, I was laughing. I mean, that’s some funny stuff, right? Obviously the author is being tongue-in-cheek, facetious, maybe sardonic. Yet, the thought of his potential seriousness isn’t funny, at least not to me. If anything, it’s unsettling, and not just because someone’s spinning a fat wad of heavy-handed snarkiness. I’m concerned that people actually stereotype authors in this way. Sure, a majority of us could possibly be manic-depressive alcoholics, as eccentric as we are broken, but that stereotype isn’t just reserved for aspiring Papa Hemingways and Sylvia Plaths. No, what really got to me was the line about writing “something actually useful.” I can’t even fathom that statement. How can literature not be useful? Storytelling is in our DNA. Ever since humankind had the cognitive capacity to grasp a tool it has been etching stories into cavern walls and clay tablets. Jonathan Gottschall argues that our innate ability to frame our perception in narrative form is an evolutionary perk, and he may be right. If we consider just American literature alone, stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped spark a war, and 2001: A Space Odyssey a trip to the moon. So, I ask again, how can literature not be useful?

Maybe he doesn’t get it. Maybe the author doesn’t personally know any “whining MFA types” who are actually thriving, not just in the publishing world, but in academia, and finance, and sales, and marketing, and the tech industry, and in human resources. Maybe he doesn’t know that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, and that William Faulkner supervised a power plant. Maybe he doesn’t know that writers, the people supposedly perched upon an ivory tower throwing crumbs to congregations of squawking readers, are, first and foremost, readers. The best writers are readers, plain and simple. All of those writers with “massive student loan debt” shell out a lot of money for their love of the craft, but more so, their love of reading. Novels, poetry, articles, songs, stories, fictions and half-truths all bind us as people and as cultures. Our histories are stories. Our very lives, to some degree, are stories.

I really hope he was just trying to funny.

-Aaron White