Writers on the Market: Consuming Literature in Early Seventeenth-Century Spain
Anyone who hoped to succeed in the public theaters of early modern Spain, as Lope de Vega famously quipped in his "Arte nuevo de hacer comedias," must contend with "the choler of a seated Spaniard." Lope's concession to the taste (and impatience) of his maravedí-paying public is the point of departure for Donald Gilbert-Santamaría's stimulating reflection on the commercial poetics of Lope, Alemán, and Cervantes. The need to respond to the demands of writing for a heterogeneous audience of consumers, he argues, led these three authors to rework inherited poetic ideas in strikingly different ways.
It should be made clear from the outset that this book does not pretend to describe the economics of the early modern stage or book trade. Instead, Gilbert-Santamaría is concerned with the explicit and implicit poetics of imaginative literature as discerned through close readings of the works of each author. He begins with an exploration the ambiguities in Lope's attitude toward his commercial success. On the one hand, Lope yearned for a prestigious past of discreet patrons and universalist poetics; on the other hand, he recognized that the vulgo was his meal ticket. Although Lope remained deeply attached to the prestige of the classical tradition, he grudgingly accepted that the corrales had given audiences an active voice in critical judgment. What the public wanted—and Lope provided—was imitation of "the age" (not Renaissance imitatio, the imitation of prestigious writers of the past), and a favorable, identifiable representation of itself. In plays like Fuenteovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo, peasants and servants play a role that is no less active than that played by the aristocracy, and merit trumps lineage. But Lope's theater is hardly populist. Like New Historicists of the "containment" school, Gilbert-Santamaría acknowledges that Lope's plays reinforce the legitimacy of established class hierarchy in ways that defuse other more radical forms of self-expression by marginalized groups. But unlike these critics (or the "comedia as propaganda" school of crticism), Gilbert-Santamaría does not attribute this containment of subversive discourses to the invisible workings of a repressive baroque ideology. Rather, he argues for Lope's sophisticated understanding of the psychology of his heterogeneous audience. Thus, the collective amnesia that settles over the inhabitants of Fuenteovejuna at the end of the play responds to the audience's desire for a happy ending—one that effaces the more terrifying excesses of individual autonomy.
Like Lope, Mateo Alemán was acutely aware of the new power of the book-buying public. But if Lope resigned himself to writing for the vulgo, Gilbert-Santamaría argues, Alemán fought back with vehemence. Like the painter whose client complained that in his commissioned painting the horse was rolling on his back, Alemán demands that his readers turn the painting right-side-up, that is, that they read the novel as he, the author, intended. The problem, however, is that Alemán's insistence on interpretive clarity is fundamentally at odds with the picaresque world of Guzmán de Alfarache, one characterized by deceptive appearances and unstable meanings. Nor was Alemán completely impervious to the influence of the paying public, and at key moments he acceded to the prurient appeal of violence. In a stimulating discussion of two intercalated novelas, Gilbert-Santamaría explores how the stories "Osmín y Daraja" and "Dorido and Clorinia" reflect Alemán's ambivalence toward the epistemological premises of the picaresque as genre. The former novela reflects Alemán's nostalgia for moral clarity enshrined in religious orthodoxy; the later, the pull of the picaresque "poetics of engaño"—the negation of meaningful identities in the temporal world. Guzmán de Alfarache has elicited a considerable body of scholarship, and Gilbert-Santamaría responsibly recognizes previous contributions and debates. However, I would have liked to see a more thorough engagement with the work of Michel Cavillac. Cavillac has disputed the view of Alemán as the standard-bearer for Counter-Reformation conformity, proposing instead that he was a proto-bourgeois economic [End Page 278] reformer. Cavillac's thesis is not incompatible with Gilbert-Santamaría's. In fact, Alemán's failure to reconcile his economic reformism with religious orthodoxy is consonant with his frustrated attempts to reconcile literary edification and entertainment.
In the last section of his book, Gilbert-Santamaría turns his attention to Cervantes's response to literary marketplace in Don Quijote de la Mancha. If Alemán railed against the vulgo, Miguel de Cervantes was willing to cater to a consumer audience, especially to that audience's demand for entertainment. As the prologue to Part I of the Quijote makes clear, Cervantes delighted in his freedom from classical models. Yet he was also aware of the new constraints of the market, especially the need to speak to a heterogeneous audience that vied with the author as arbiter of meaning and value. Cervantes' ongoing dialogue with Aristotelian categories thus reflects not only the author's will to invent a new kind of literature of entertainment but also a response to the readers' interest in representations that reflected their quotidian existence. The result of this imperative for identification is a new mode of literary subjectivity, one that stimulates Cervantes to explore the existential predicament of the modern individual. Readers may not agree with Gilbert-Santamaría that Cervantes's economic-existential vision was bleakly conflictive. However, they will find his comments on Cervantes's strategies for creating a sense of his protagonist's subjectivity both plausible and insightful. In sum, this is an admirably ambitious, well-written book that can be read with interest and profit by any specialist of early modern Spanish literature.