This book studies picaresque narratives from 1690 to 2013, examining how this literary form serves as a reflection on the material conditions necessary for writing literature in Mexico.
In The Picaresque and the Writing Life in Mexico, Jorge Téllez argues that Mexican writers have drawn on the picaresque as a device for pondering what they regard as the perils of intellectual and creative labor. Surveying ten narratives from 1690 to 2013, Téllez shows how, by and large, all of them are iterations of the same basic structure: pícaro meets writer; pícaro tells life story; writer eagerly writes it down. This written mediation (sometimes fictional but other times completely factual) is presented as part of a transaction in which it is rarely clear who is exploiting whom. Highlighting this ambiguity, Téllez’s study brings into focus the role that the picaresque has played in the presentation of writers as disenfranchised and vulnerable subjects. But as Téllez demonstrates, these narratives embody a discourse of precarity that goes beyond pícaros, and applies to all subjects who engage in the production and circulation of literature. In this way, Téllez shows that the literary form of the picaresque is, above all, a reflection on the value of literature, as well as on the place and role of writing in Mexican society more broadly.
The Picaresque and the Writing Life in Mexico is a unique work that suggests new paths for studying the reiteration of literary forms across centuries. Looking at the picaresque in particular, Téllez offers a new interpretation of this genre within its national context and suggests ways in which this genre remains relevant for reflecting on literature in contemporary society. It will be of interest to students and scholars of Latin American studies, Mexican cultures and literatures, and comparative literature.
Epilogue: National Literatures, Global Contexts
“This is by far the best piece of scholarship I have read on the subject of the Mexican picaresque, and that includes the book I wrote on the subject. It includes brilliant re-evaluations of many classic picaresque narratives from Mexico but also includes equally brilliant analyses of more recent narratives.” —Timothy G. Compton, author of Mexican Picaresque Narratives
"This smart, spirited book is more than a monograph with one bright idea. Readers across ﬁelds in the humanities will ﬁnd leads and provocations informed by big thinkers beyond the inevitable Ångel Rama. . . . The book is rich in ideas about how literature is produced and about picaresque narratives as ‘ﬁctions of liberation from the labor process’ that are yet basically conservative in outlook." —Hispanic American Historical Review
Between 2011 and 2013, the Mexican cultural magazine Nexos ran a monthly section called “Así escribo” [This is how I write], in which guest authors reflected on their creative process, and on the aspects that surrounded their writing routines. Later published in book form, these pieces stand as evidence of the many myths that are kept alive in order to maintain a romanticized image of the writer as either a tortured individual or an enlightened visionary, as one of the opening remarks from the editor illustrates: “Lo que revelan todos estos textos es el esfuerzo, el desvelo, el rigor, la disciplina, la paciencia que subyacen a toda obra importante: poetas, cuentistas, novelistas, dramaturgos se enfrentan a la oscuridad y, al mismo tiempo, a la extraña luz de la creación literaria.” [What all these texts reveal is the effort, the long hours, the rigor, discipline and patience that underlie every important work: poets, short story writers, novelists, playwrights confront the darkness, and at the same time, the strange light of literary creation.] Judging the book by these words and considering the many writers who state that they simply cannot write unless there is a window nearby, one might feel tempted to propose sunlight as the hidden source of a significant portion of contemporary Mexican literature.
To be fair, not all the pieces buy and reproduce this romanticized image of the writer. Some authors relate writing to their childhood, thus making literacy a central topic in their accounts. There is also a shared concern about materiality—chairs, desks, notebooks, typewriters, laptops—and in this concern it is possible to read the precarization of the profession: while people born between 1950 and 1970 talk about their first Mont-blanc, younger writers mention their Pilots or their Bics. Yet the issue of writing as a spiritual act keeps fighting back:
“Más que los instrumentos de la escritura—lápiz o pluma fuente, máquina de escribir o computadora—lo que importa en el acto de escribir es la predisposición de ánimo.” [More than instruments of writing—pencil or fountain pen, typewriter or computer—what is important in the act of writing is the predisposition of the spirit.] The idea of writing as a task subject to providential forces seems so inscribed in the writer’s mind that throughout the book it is not hard to find a high number of phrases that sacrifice depth or even sense in order to privilege catchiness such as, “La escritura es el arte de convertir la tensión nerviosa en estilo” [Writing is the art of transforming nervous tension into style], or slightly more elaborated accounts of the rapture of writing: “Así escribo: dejando que una polifonía viva, invocada pero no menos sorpresiva, se apodere de mi cuerpo y de mis palabras y, en difícil y paradójica armonía que se alimenta de los latidos del caos, deje escuchar todas sus voces poseídas, posesivas.” [This is how I write: by allowing a living melody, invoked but no less surprising, to take over my body and my words and, in a difficult and paradoxical harmony that feeds on the beats of chaos, to set free all its possessed and possessive voices.]
In a country in which the book market depends almost entirely on state funding for the production and circulation of literature, it is strange that just a few pieces openly discuss the grants and monthly stipends that have allowed them to dedicate themselves to literature. Not only are these mentions scarce and fleeting, but there is actual pushback against the idea of being dependent on them in order to write: “El que espera la beca para escribir no es escritor, es un becario.” [Anyone who waits for a grant to write isn’t a writer, but a grantee.] If, according to this nonsensical idiosyncrasy, someone who needs money to write is not a writer, then who is a writer? We find an answer in another piece, in which the label is referenced as akin to a title of nobility: to be a writer, according to this account, is to belong to a closed, self-preserving, privileged aristocracy.
To regard writing as part of an economic transaction, and even more so, to theorize literature as the result of specific socioeconomic circumstances, probably lies outside of what the authors who participated in this monthly section were asked to do. Yet the diffuse presence of the question for the specific conditions that make literature possible, and more importantly, the way the accounts that ask this question distance themselves from a discourse of providential writing, suggest that it is a question worth asking. This book advances a theory of a specific literary form, the picaresque, as well as a critique of its ideology. The main argument of this study is that Mexican writers have drawn on the picaresque as a device for pondering on what they regard as the perils of intellectual and creative labor. By surveying narratives from 1690 to 2013, I analyze the role that the picaresque has played in the presentation of writers as disenfranchised and vulnerable subjects. I propose that these narratives embody a discourse of precarity that goes beyond pícaros and applies to all subjects who engage in the production and circulation of literature, thus turning the picaresque into a reflection on the value of literature, and on the place and role of writing in Mexican society.