Jill Robbins

Neocolonialism, Neoliberalism, and National Identities:
The Spanish Publishing Crisis and the Marketing of Central America

  University of California, Irvine


Endnotes*Works Cited

During the summer of 2000, a series of articles appeared in the Spanish daily El País addressing the changes in publishing, both in Spain and abroad, and the pernicious effects of those changes on the real and perceived relevance of bookstores, editors, authors, and books themselves, especially in comparison to the decades immediately following the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In those years, Leftist Spanish intellectuals sensed an affinity with their Latin American counterparts, and that alliance was forged and maintained in Spain through the often clandestine circulation of books by Latin American and exiled Spanish authors. In the 1960's, still under the Franco regime, Spanish editors —particularly Carlos Barral— also published Latin American fiction, which represented for them the continuation of Leftist ideals on American soil, where many Spanish intellectuals made their homes after the fall of the Second Republic.2 Even into the 1980's, Central American guerrilla resistance to dictatorship and U.S. imperialism, as well as pan-indigenous movements, seemed to embody Romantic ideals that were no longer possible for participants in the New World Order. The incorporation of Spanish publishing houses into international conglomerates and the disappearance of small bookstores in the face of competition from mega-stores following Franco’s death and the transition to democracy coincided with the triumph of neoliberalism and globalization, and the disappearance of those personal, regional establishments mirrors for many the perceived decline in the agency of individuals and individual nations in an increasingly faceless economic network. The purchase of important publishers like Lumen and Plaza y Janés by Random House also implies a loss of national identity to the rampant capitalism of the United States and its economic satellites. At the same time, however, the internationalization of the publishing business represents Spain’s incorporation into an international economy from which it had been exiled during much of the Franco dictatorship. It also symbolizes the entry of Spain into a European community —Random House, after all, is a subsidiary of Bertelsmann— and thus implies a rejection of the third-world cultures of Latin America in favor of an identification with the first-world economies, cultures, and governments of Europe. The European Union, however, and Spain in particular, have globalized and marketed Latin America through NGO’s and cooperative efforts linked both to the embassies and to the international corporations. This complex Spanish reaction —the resistance to and welcoming of globalization, the nostalgia for, economic colonization of and rejection of Latin America— has profoundly affected which Latin American works are currently published and marketed in Spain and Latin America by large conglomerates, as well as which works and authors receive literary prizes in Spain.

In order to understand what is at stake for many Spanish intellectuals in the globalization of the book business, I will begin by talking about bookstores. In a July 9, 2000 article in El País titled “Endecha por la pequeña librería,” Mario Vargas Llosa laments that the previous director of Waterstone’s bookstore in Great Britain, “fue echado porque se resistió a seguir las instrucciones de sus jefes de reducir drásticamente los depósitos de nuevas publicaciones y privilegiar de manera sistemática la exhibición y venta de best sellers” (15-16). For Vargas Llosa and other intellectuals of his generation, the bookstore represented what the café or bar had to writers at the beginning of the century: a meeting place, a forum of ideas, and, for the many exiled from their homelands, a new kind of home that fostered international solidarity: “Mi recuerdo de todas las ciudades en que he vivido es inseparable de estas instituciones que permanecen en mi memoria como una referencia familiar” (15).3 Booksellers themselves were the mediums for the young writers —“Con ellos era posible conversar, y pasarse horas escarbando las existencias, en esa atmósfera cálida, inconfundible, de polvo intemporal y de religiosidad laica que tienen— que tenían las pequeñas librerías (15). This sentiment of lost camaraderie is confirmed in an article on the closing of the Miguel Hernández bookstore that appeared two days prior to Vargas Llosa’s piece: “Ya no hay clientes que vengan a hablar de libros, a pedir consejo o a recomendar. Ahora sólo quieren la novedad, la moda” (Serrano 8).

This sense of loss is generalized throughout Europe and the Americas —Bit even appears in such popular U.S. films as “You’ve Got Mail”— but books and bookstores had a particular political significance in Franco’s Spain, where censorship limited what could be published and read, and in what language. In that context books meant freedom to their readers, and buying, publishing and selling them (not to mention stealing them, a common vice among impoverished intellectuals) implied a real personal risk. The content of the books sold under the counter corresponds closely with censored utopian ideals associated with the Left in Spain during the Second Republic and the Civil War: the defense of regional autonomy, Marxism, feminism, the avant-garde. Reading those books was a way of keeping the Left alive, despite the exile of its principal thinkers and writers, and the article makes this point through the rhetorical identification of bookstore owners, workers and students, all of whom resisted the authoritarianism of the government.

Latin American literature in particular signified the possibility of rebellion, not only in an aesthetic sense, but also in a political one, since that writing was linked in the popular imaginary with the banned avant-garde writings of the exiled Republicans, and with Leftist guerrillas continuing in the Americas the battle lost in Spain. Not only that: Latin American writers —diplomats, human rights activists, news correspondents, presidential candidates— seemed to possess a real political power that their Spanish counterparts had not since the Civil War. Reading and selling their work under Franco gave Leftist Spanish intellectuals the sense that they were participating actively in politics within the bookstore itself. In the year 2000, the former owner of the Miguel Hernández bookstore still remembered

los tiempos en que, bajo cuerda, pasaba las ediciones de tapa blanca de Losada, con los versos prohibidos de Nicolás Guillén, de León Felipe, de Pablo Neruda, de Miguel Hernández . . . Cuando el régimen perseguía la poesía, que era —de verdad lo era— un arma cargada de futuro. Cuando vender era un riesgo. Y se conspiraba en la trastienda. Y allí se reunían comisiones de huelga, piquetes informativos, comités del partido. Allí se escondían la vietnamita y los panfletos. (Serrano 8)

The closing of these bookstores, then, represents much more than the inefficiency of small businesses: it symbolizes the loss of the solidarity forged within their walls, and it evinces the fear that, despite the trappings of democracy, neoliberal governments will again promote the interests of the right, but, this time, the books and bookstores will not be there to protect the interests of the poor:

For those who see globalization and neoliberalism, not as the cooption of the rhetoric of the Left by rightist economic interests, but as the fulfillment of democratic promise, however, the disappearance of small bookstores signals the death only of an authoritarian cultural elite. That is the conclusion that Mario Vargas Llosa reaches: by reducing prices on books, the free market makes them more broadly available. What is more, the invisibility of the bookseller on the Internet and in the mega-stores increases the freedom of the reader to choose what s/he reads: “Porque la libertad de elección es siempre preferible, aunque, la gran mayoría, a la hora de elegir una novela, una película o una canción, yerre en su elección” (Vargas Llosa 16). In these contrasting opinions, we can clearly see the transformation that has taken place in politics and ideology: the individual now expresses agency through the consumption of products, and freedom is conceived as the freedom to buy. This concept is clearly linked to the materialist ideals of intellectuals who were forced to pass books clandestinely among themselves, but solidarity and dialogue are lost as society becomes atomized into individual buying units.

Publishing, like book-selling, was linked to a politics of resistance in the Franco era. Independent publishing houses —including Lumen, Akal, and Seix Barral— resisted the cultural authority of the government by publishing new domestic and foreign authors —including many women and Latin Americans— in Spanish and in the suppressed national languages of Spain, particularly Catalan. The editors of those publishing houses were leading intellectuals and writers who believed that the writing, publishing, and reading of literature was a political act. These are the editors that are disappearing as publishing becomes big business, and, like their counterparts in the book-selling business, they represent the loss of a political commitment to social change in the new economy.

The issue became particularly prominent in Summer 2000, when Esther Tusquets was forced into early retirement after Bertelsmann bought Lumen. In addition to being an important novelist in her own right, Tusquets advanced the cause of women in Spain by publishing in Lumen, not only works by Spanish women, but also important foreign theoretical and political books on feminism in Spanish translation. Her departure signaled the end of a certain editorial politics.

At about the same time that Tusquets announced her retirement, the Spanish translation of André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London; New York: Verso, 2000) was published by Destino in Barcelona (La edición sin editores, 2000) and reviewed in El País. Schiffrin parallels Tusquets in many ways: he worked for Pantheon Books (a subsidiary of Random House) for thirty years, and believed firmly in the cultural mission of publishing. During his years at Pantheon, however, he witnessed the nefarious effects of buying, selling, and mergers on publishing. Random House was bought first by RCA, then by S.I. Newhouse, the owner of a chain of newspapers and magazines, who decimated the firm, firing most of its employees in 1990, and finally selling it to the international conglomerate Bertelsmann in 1998. As Schiffrin explains it, Pantheon Books, previously the defender of literary classics, was reduced to pandering to the tastes of an uncultured popular readership.

Schiffrin’s book speaks to a similar crisis in Spanish publishing houses, some of which, like Random House, have been bought by Bertelsmann (Lumen, Plaza y Janés, Debate) Band others by a handful of conglomerates, including the Grupo Planeta, which owns Espasa Calpe, Destino, and Seix Barral, and the French firm Vivendi, which most recently bought the Grupo Anaya (which includes Alianza and Cátedra). In the July 1, 2000 edition of the cultural supplement Babelia, on the same pages as Javier Pradera’s review of Schiffrin’s book, an article by Mauricio Bach presents the reactions of Spanish editors to the book. Although none of their comments includes a specific reference to the issue of national independence, they indirectly reveal the ways in which book culture in Spain intersects with politics and national identity. The youngest editors —Claudio López (Grijalbo-Mondadori) and María Cifuentes (Taurus, of the Santillana Group)— believe that the Internet will take over the function of serious publishing (the article appeared in El País, we should remember, before the dot-com crash). The editors of large publishing houses already bought by conglomerates —Esther Tusquets of Lumen and Basilio Baltasar of Seix Barral— confide in the possibility that individual publishing groups will maintain their independence and identity, even after becoming incorporated into the multinational conglomerate, which will simply provide their subsidiaries with funds to distribute books and pay large advances to certain author.4 This is much the same argument made by proponents of the European Union and the euro that each country will be able to maintain its cultural identity while simultaneously benefiting from the economies of size that the Union provides.

Editors of independent firms see the matter differently. Their fear is that editors will lose their cultural role. Manual Borras, one of the founders of Pre-Textos, believes that editors have the moral obligation to form readers, not just to sell books: “Para mí la edición es una de las formas posibles de pedagogía y una de las formas más nobles de seducción. Nuestro deber como editores es no defraudar a los lectores, apostar por la calidad, tanto en la selección de títulos como en la realización física del libro. No hacer libros efímeros” (Bach 13). He notes, moreover, that the economic arguments are unsound because the marketing strategies of the large firms often backfire. Jorge Herralde, who has been the editor of Anagrama for over 30 years, presents the independent editor as an entrepreneur, one who takes risks and innovates. The large groups, in contrast, are monopolies, which discourage risk. He believes, however, that the problems outlined in Schiffrin’s book apply mainly to the United States: “estamos en la era de la hiperconcentración de grandes grupos, internacionales y multimedia . . . . Para sus directivos, el aspecto cultural simplemente no existe, ni siquiera pueden planteárselo, por lo que los grandes grupos son una eficaz escuela de cinismo” (Bach 13). Spain and Europe, he believes, are not susceptible to every trend from the U.S.: “es un lugar común afirmar que lo que sucede en Estados Unidos sucederá a los pocos años en el resto de la planeta, al menos en la Unión Europea. Confiemos en que la extrapolación no sea tan mecánica en el ámbito editorial” (Bach 13). Spain and Europe, in other words, are not economic colonies of the U.S. empire, in Herralde’s opinion and in that of other editors in this article. The difference is both cultural and ethical, according to the Europeans: the new editors in the U.S. are dedicated solely to profits and marketing, whereas their European counterparts defend “Culture,” in the form o f the quality and pedagogical function of books.

The difference between the U.S. and Spain is reflected in the internal structure of publishing firms, according to an article published in Babelia three weeks later, on July 22nd, reviewing a study in Publisher’s Weekly regarding the salaries of U.S. editors. The division of labor typical of U.S. businesses results in a reduced role for the editor and in a separation between those who work with books and authors, and those who direct the economic aspects of the publishing business.5 In Spanish firms, these functions have traditionally been performed by the same person, so there has been more balance between the economic and the cultural facets of publishing. If U.S. conglomerates take over Spanish publishing houses, it may be supposed that the structure of Spanish firms will change, and the editor will lose control and relevance, a loss reflected in the relative purchasing power of the editor, who earns much less than the CEO.

This process has already begun, however. This past summer, Random House, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann (which already owned Lumen, Plaza y Janés, Debate), merged with Mondadori, Grijalbo, Electa and Montena, to form an international group operating in the United States, Spain and Latin America, the second largest Spanish-language group after Planeta. These branches are not equal, however: they form a hierarchy with Random House/Bertelsmann at the top, followed by the Spanish firms, and, finally, Latin America, but, significantly, only the Southern Cone, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, not Central America:

Seis miembros integrarán el consejo de administración de la nueva empresa, tres nombrados por Random House, que pertenece al grupo de comunicación Bertelsmann, y otros tres por Mondadori. Cavallero se establecerá en Nueva York, desde donde coordinará las actividades y operaciones de las distintas editoriales, que estarán divididas, a su vez, en tres entidades autónomas. Esta división se ha realizado teniendo en cuenta el peso específico de los distintos grupos dentro de la nueva estructura y, así, Plaza & Janés reunirá las actividades en España; Sudamericana lo hará en Argentina; Chile y Uruguay, y Grijalbo, en México, Colombia y Venezuela. . . .. (Rojo)

In contrast to the articles published in 2000, Spain is not presented here solely as the victim of globalization, but also as an agent of it, responsible for managing the publication and marketing of books from and in Latin America, even though the entire business will be controlled through New York and Germany.

Alfaguara, in contrast, presents itself as the authentically pan-Hispanic globalizer of Spanish-language media products in Europe and the Americas:

Alfaguara Global es un estado de ánimo, una labor que no tiene objetivo cumplido en que detenerse, porque nunca estará completa. Se trata de obtener una fluidez de comunicación permanente entre todos los lectores y todos los escritores de la lengua española, incluidos, claro está, los medios culturales de cada país. Lo que se pretende conseguir es que un buen escritor venezolano sea tan conocido en Madrid o México o Bogotá como en Caracas. Que los libreros de todos los países de habla española conozcan nuestra literatura sin importarles dónde esté escrita. Que las gentes de la cultura estén tan informadas de lo que sucede en América como en España.

This blurb is clearly Iberocentric and neo-colonial. Alfaguara’s goals are 1) to keep cultured Spanish people abreast of important writers in the former colonies; 2) to help Latin American texts circulate outside their countries of origin, and particularly in Spain; and 3) to create a unified Spanish-speaking cultural community, with its economic center in Madrid. The truth of the matter is that the image of a perfectly-coordinated and egalitarian globalized business is purely rhetorical, given that texts published by the Alfaguara branches in Central and South America are not distributed equally in all of Alfaguara’s markets. Only those texts that receive the Alfaguara prize in Spain are widely marketed in Spain, and novels accepted by Alfaguara in Guatemala, for example, still must be approved for publication by the branch in Mexico, with no guarantee that the text will ever circulate outside of Central America.

The Alfaguara prize itself reflects the contradictory ways in which Latin America is marketed for the Spanish reading public. The Alfaguara, unlike the Premio Cervantes or the Nobel Prize, is awarded by a publishing house for marketing purposes, and carries a cash prize of 25,000,000 pesetas (10,000,000 more than the Cervantes). The jury consists of almost exclusively male Spanish and Latin American authors (though many of these —including Mario Vargas Llosa, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, and Jorge Edwards— have lived or continue living in Spain, where the jury meets), as well as representatives from Alfaguara. Winning authors agree to promote the book internationally through interviews and tours, and the mega-bookstores in Spain display the winning books prominently near the front door.

The prize-winning books are distributed worldwide, but, of all the Spanish-speaking regions of the world, Spain has the greatest reading public and thus constitutes the largest market for the winners of the Alfaguara. One may conclude, then, that the tastes of Spanish readers weigh heavily in the selection of prize-winning books, and that both the jury and the authors who submit their novels take those tastes into account.

Néstor García Canclini explains that “la globalización de la producción literaria, la selección de lo que va a globalizarse o va a circular sólo en el propio país, queda bajo la decisión de las megaeditoriales” (152). The result is the “reconstrucción globalizada de los repertorios simbólicos locales, descontextualizados para volverlos más comprensibles en áreas culturales de distintos continentes. Al mismo tiempo, instalan filiales regionales o hacen acuerdos con productoras locales para ‘indigenizar’ su producción” (160). To what extent do we see this process with the Alfaguara? At the time the above-cited articles appeared, the Alfaguara prize had fallen to three Latin American novels —La piel del cielo by Elena Poniatowska (2001), Caracol Beach by Eliseo Alberto (1998), and Margarita, está linda la mar by Sergio Ramírez (1998) and two Spanish novels, Clara Sánchez’s Últimas noticias del paraíso (2000) and Manuel Vicent’s Son de mar (1999). In general terms, the Spanish novels dealt with intimate and sentimental issues, rather than political ones, and they were written in a classical, rather than avant-garde, style, whereas the Latin American novels were more concerned with the politics, history and violence.

Although Poniatowska’s prize-winning novel is not as clearly political or technically innovative as her earlier testimonios, the Mexican author herself is firmly linked in the popular imaginary with social commitment in general, and, more recently, with Zapatismo. What is more, although she has written sympathetically about armed rebellion, indigenous figures, and feminism, Poniatowska herself is charming, genteel, extremely sympathetic and of European descent. Buying her immensely readable book in Spain thus represents an easy distant identification with political activism.

The same may be said of Sergio Ramírez’s novel, although Ramírez was himself a militant of the Sandinista Front and formed part of a revolutionary government. The description given of Margarita, está linda la mar when it won the Alfaguara reads as follows:

En 1907, Rubén Darío llega a León, Nicaragua, y escribe en el abanico de una niña de nueve años un poema inolvidable: “Margarita, está linda la mar”. Medio siglo después, esa chiquilla y su hermana, convertidas en personajes esperpénticos, se ven envueltas en la trama de una conjura para matar al dictador Anastasio Somoza. Con esa historia, y con un lenguaje de constante belleza, Sergio Ramírez construye una novela en la que caben la poesía, la ciencia, las crueldades y los delirios de América en este siglo. Es una obra total, rebosante de pasión y de nobleza literaria.6

The novel has it all, Alfaguara tells its Spanish readers: culture (Darío), politics (Somoza), and a kind of magical-realist exoticism, which includes “:personajes esperpénticos,” wild twists of destiny, poetry, and delirium, all set, of course, in the far-off land on “América en este siglo.” Eliseo Alberto’s Caracol Beach, in contrast, is portrayed as a hybrid novel, one that combines the “locuras” and violence of Latin America and Latin Americans with the classical inheritance of Europe. These turns of fate, extreme cruelties, political plots and dictators are wholly absent from the Spanish prize-winners, which manifest the European preoccupation with the individual, whose consciousness has been formed by classical Greco-Roman cultures. Never mind that Spanish culture is at least as much Arab as Roman, or that the greatest violence and political turmoil of the twentieth century took place on European soil.

This cultural recreation of Latin America is a phantasm, created by and for Spaniards, in order to assuage the growing sense that individual people and states are irrelevant, and to create a “benevolent” image for the new globalized empire. In the process, Spain simultaneously claims the center for itself, distances itself from any responsibility for the struggles still lingering in the Americas, and also claims the rights to the representation, consumption, marketing and circulation of a timeless, eternalized (and thus, essentialized) image of Latin America within a globalized economy. Latin America is marketed in Spain and Europe within the parameters of the new processes of globalization that delimit Spanish culture as well, however, forcing it to erase the reminiscence of the colonial origins of Latin America, while at the same time reclaiming the former colonies by commodifying them as the exoticized trope of perpetual revolution that emerged in the nineteenth century. The erasure of Spain’s imperial past is a cornerstone for the contemporary selling of Latin America, enabling Spain to pose, not as a former imperial power, nor as a contemporary neo-colonial agent of underdevelopment, but rather as a benefactor and a mediator between Latin America and the metropolitan, globalized markets. At the same time, Spain’s incorporation into the European market allows it to disavow its own marginalization from the West throughout most of the twentieth century and to re-market its image as a modern, “European” state, a province of civilization, cultural light years from the crude economic mentality of the United States. Whatever the political ideology of the Spanish actors in this drama, their ambiguous control of the Spanish-language publishing media leads them to create figures of national identity in relation to the same icons of Latin America, even if now they’re just for sale.

© Jill Robbins



vuelve 1. A version of this article has appeared previously: “Globalization, Publishing and the Marketing of ‘Hispanic’ Identities.” Iberoamericana 9 (2003): 89-101.

vuelve 2. Mario Santana has examined the relationship between the Spanish publishing business and the Latin American Novel in a recent book, Foreigners in the Homeland.

vuelve 3. Even though Waterstone’s is a chain, that is, a store that replaced the dusty bookshops of Vargas Llosa’s memory, it still served a public cultural function: “fue un eficiente promotor de la vida cultura, pues en casi todas sus librerías había siempre recitales, mesas redondas, presentaciones de libros, con asistencia de intelectuales y escritores de primera línea.”

vuelve 4. The article announcing Tusquets’s early retirement appeared on July 6th, less than a week later.

vuelve 5. Of course, this was not always the case in the U.S., either.

vuelve 6. All quotations regarding the Alfaguara participants may be found on the firm’s webpage. I cite them here because they are part of Alfaguara’s marketing scheme.

Works Cited



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