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New Left Review 15, May-June 2002

Does Spanish American literature illustrate or overturn the idea that in the ‘world republic of letters’ economic and cultural relations between centre and periphery run parallel? A Peruvian assesses Franco Moretti’s conjectures (NLR 1), and springs some surprises about Beckett.



A Response to Franco Moretti

In his ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, Franco Moretti makes the bold suggestion, which he treats as if it were a law of literary evolution, that the literatures of the periphery arise ‘from the encounter of Western form and a local reality’. [1] ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, NLR 1, January–February 2000, p. 62. In what amounts to a literary manifesto, Moretti proposes a programme in which world literature should essentially be studied as a set of variations on a Western theme: economic pressures of the centre on the periphery are, by and large, homologous to those in the literary field, and the response to these by writers in the periphery can only be a range of compromises with them. In a companion essay, ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’, Moretti explains why he gives pride of place to the novel in the study of world literature: ‘my model of canon formation is based on novels for the simple reason that they have been the most widespread literary form of the past two or three centuries and are therefore crucial to any social account of literature (which is the point of the canon controversy, or should be)’. [2] See Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, 2000, p. 227. Moretti distinguishes an ‘academic canon’, which he dismisses as inconsequential, from the ‘social canon’ that he seeks to explain according to objective laws of literary evolution. [3] Moretti has advocated a programme for the study of literature along Darwinian lines for some years. See his essay ‘On Literary Evolution’, first published in 1987, and now in Signs Taken for Wonders, London and New York 1997, pp. 262–78. Academics, he maintains, can determine their own canon when the literary phenomena they study cease to matter in the social arena. Hence English professors and the like have a greater say in determining which poets survive, because the study of poetry is no longer of any moment. [4] ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’, p. 227. Moretti is open to the possibility that in the future the novel may not matter much either, but in the meantime, this is the genre around which he sets out to organize the study of world literature for the last two or three hundred years.

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Efrain Kristal, ‘'Considering Coldly ...'’, NLR 15: £3

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