- Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction by Elena Machado Sáez
Elena Machado Sáez’s groundbreaking Market Aesthetics explores a selection of Caribbean diasporic writings within a pan-ethnic and transnational framework, arguing that in order to take historical ethnic fiction seriously we must consider how its popular market success influences the writers’ shaping of texts. To understand their books, she claims, we must read their market success in relation to the book market and to public discourses. Machado Sáez points to the intricate contradictions inherent in the market: while it welcomes the chance to consume other voices, it is also a space for writers to revise history, a revision that becomes, for Machado Sáez, part of the writers’ difficult “pedagogical ethical imperative” (1). Our contemporary commodification of ethnicity—both within the publishing industry and even within academic discourse that might consider itself immune to such market pressures—produces textual anxieties about reader reception, which become “encoded” in the books’ content and form (1). Machado Sáez thus considers the “market aesthetics” of these fictions: their understanding of their own materiality as a commodity and form of capital that circulates in a global market. From here she identifies a “code of intimacy” (2) between writers and readers that contests the frameworks we usually use to assess fiction.
The Caribbean diasporic writers that Machado Sáez examines are, she claims, positioned at “the intersection of ethnic and world literatures, local and global histories, [and] multicultural and postcolonial discourses” (2), so that even as they struggle with the marketability of their ethnicity they also present a postcolonial ethics of historical revision. Thus, she provides innovative and nuanced interpretations of a broad but conceptually coherent group of US, Canadian, and British Caribbean writers: Julia Alvarez, Junot Díaz, Ana Menéndez, Michelle Cliff, Marlon James, Edwidge Danticat, David Chariandy, Dionne Brand, Andrea Levy, and Monique Roffey. Their works all teach us a postcolonial vision of the past, one in [End Page 470] which the Caribbean becomes central to the historical development of Europe and the Americas. Machado Sáez considers how these writers must find a balance between popular market demands for their fiction, and their own ethical imperatives about how to narrate these histories. For Machado Sáez, the novels “teach a specific mode of reading” (35) as they attempt to educate mainstream readership about marginalized histories without reinforcing reader stereotypes.
Machado Sáez’s introductory chapter provides an excellent discussion of the ways in which contemporary globalization and pluralistic multiculturalism connect to, shape, and provide a context for Caribbean historical fiction. She notes the “mixed blessing” (5) of globalization; it expands consumer access and connects cultures, but it does so through delocalizing and dehistoricizing strategies. The market “unmoors commodities from material histories and locales in order to facilitate global circulation” (5), leading us to ponder the following question about historical novels: “is it possible for a product whose content is about context to be decontexutalized?” (6). Similarly, multiculturalism has co-opted difference, losing its political force and its projects of social justice, and presenting a discourse that potentially assimilates and ghettoizes Caribbean diasporic fiction.
Machado Sáez’s first chapter probes and addresses the problems established by discourses of globalization, multiculturalism, and academia that she sets up in the introduction, as it discusses the various market forces and audiences for the fiction and considers the ethical vision and problematic of intimacy that writers wrestle with “in constructing an ethical relationship to their readers” (15). For example, explaining the unique problem of audience and authority that Caribbean diasporic writers face, Machado Sáez asks how the fiction can transform readership sensibilities in book markets that are so commodified and domesticated, arguing that the “struggle to imagine an ethical pedagogical relationship between reader and author is encoded in the depictions of student-teacher encounters” in several of the novels (21). What she terms an invasive and “impossible intimacy” emerges, an “impossibility of closeness to...