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The academy's refusal to understand Paulo Coelho

01/26/2013 - 15h38



In 2010, Folha covered a debate at São Paulo's Book Biennial on the international impact of Brazilian literature. As an explanation for the declining interest in local production, writers Marçal Aquino and Milton Hatoum, along with critic Gregório Dantas, cited the end of the Latin boom, led by magic realism, and the persistence of the stigma of exoticism.

Hatoum believes there has been some improvement in recent years, with the translation of classics and contemporary authors (Hatoum himself has been translated into 16 languages): "I've noticed that the interest in Brazil has increased lately because of the country's growing international prominence. But what really matters is the quality of the works. Sooner or later, good books will be translated."

Veridiana Scarpelli/Reprodução
Veridiana Scarpelli's illustrations to "Ilustríssima" January 20th edition
Veridiana Scarpelli's illustrations to "Ilustríssima" January 20th edition

Judging by the article, the debaters had to omit a detail to support their opinion. The fact is that the most widely read writer in the world, whose sales have reached 100 million copies in 150 countries, translated into 62 languages, is Brazil's Paulo Coelho. It is likely they did not forget him, but simply did not consider Coelho as belonging in the domain of high culture literature.

If that is so, they aren't alone: Coelho's best-selling success has been followed by continuous critical disqualification, more commonly expressed by utter silence, a sign of his scant value on the scale of objects worthy of intellectual interest. In that hierarchy, the Coelho phenomenon is linked only to the market, not literature; it can interest the sociology of consumption, but not literary studies.

Thus, the area in which Coelho's books are placed is itself a good reflection of this debate regarding the relationship between literature and the market; and, in a general way, the relationship between high and low culture. It is from that point that I propose an analytic exercise to address the Paulo Coelho phenomenon, not assessing it to better understand the logic behind the evaluation; understanding the "native" classification of the literary world, not as a definite criterion to judge the literary phenomenon, but as a phenomenon itself, to be understood.

For the Paulo Coelho case to show how high culture and the culture industry are related in Brazil, it is necessary to understand two movements jointly. First of all, we need to try to explain Coelho's success, focusing the analysis on the fictional pact his books propose to readers, thus avoiding the recourse of direct determination through demand, a solution used intensely by critics and the press, but which only supposes the effectiveness of a strategy in the area of circulation as an entire explanation itself.

Then, let's try to understand his failure to find a seat in the cultural domain of Brazilian literature, especially expressed by the critics' reactions. I believe there is a double refusal: the mechanical attribution of commercial success to the proposal of self help (an editorial, not literary, genre) in a context of selfish ultra-individualism; and the judgment of aesthetic values as an absolute literary criterion.


The first point of the analysis is connected to the reading of the texts. I cannot summarize Coelho's plots here, but I will address the ideological nucleus, as it appears in the first two books, "The Pilgrimage" and "The Alchemist." Reworked in different style arrangements and narrative forms, this nucleus remains the same throughout Coelho's work.

A sentence quoted in the dedication of "The Pilgrimage" (1987) says: "The Extraordinary resides in the Path of Common People." This sentence, written in capital letters in the book, is an attempt to bring the reader closer: transcendence is accessible to common people, as long as it is well developed by an initiate.

In the book, this idea is linked to that of the "good fight," a fight in the name of dreams abandoned in childhood, which should become personal through self-discovery. Coelho projects the relationship with his guide, who is the source of the teachings in the book, in the virtual relationship with readers - who are normal people like himself, encouraged to fight the "good fight."

Masters and followers are on the same level. Although the first can create theories on the kinds of esoteric enlightenment, everyone can experience them fully, provided that they learn, through the mediation of a master, to follow themselves. In his next book, "The Alchemist" (1988), the same sermon receives rhetorical and conceptual instruments.

The book introduces the idea of "personal legend," described as an authentic destiny revealed during youth and buried by the practical necessities of life. The "personal legend" is a variation of the "good fight," both refer to adolescence as the social age of experiencing all possibilities for the delay of choices. The bravery that will lead to achievements is in a prestressing of time, which appears in sentences such as "Never give up on your dreams" or "When you desire something, the whole Universe conspires to help you achieve it."

If this esoteric universe produces a kind of popular metaphysics, Coelho leads readers into it exempting them from the necessity of initiate knowledge, smoothing the hermetic references that he manipulates in the decisive statement that everything comes down to the enthusiasm with which one pursues his own desire, a lesson open to everyone.

If the esoteric secrets are reserved for specialists, handling them is available to those walking the path guided by the author, who assumes the mediation between the esoteric and the exoteric, the transcendent and the immanent, the extraordinary and the ordinary. A role whose efficiency depends on language: by avoiding any kind of sophistication, and even continuously reproducing clichés, the narrator overcomes the social distance between the author and the reader.

And, even more decisive, the social separations that act in the differential possibility of retaining the "dream time," also were erased. To help achieve that, he confines personal existence to the breakthrough experience, whose allegory par excellence is the voyage or the pilgrimage. All in all, readers are offered submersion in escapist reading, which gives its subject the possibility of control -- it makes little difference if it is illusory or not -- of the tempos of life, this life, a detail that sends escapism back to its origin, the present life form that readers want to overcome.

In that way, the transformation horizon is a permanent offer; it can make choices retract to make them seem reversible until the path is found, the good fight, the fulfilling of the personal legend. Not by chance, the symbolic voyage and its factual unfolding in the characters' constant movement are found in all of his texts.

In short, I believe the universalizing element in Paulo Coelho's literature is precisely the possibility of the manipulation (and even reversal) of time while reading. The works' acceptance in such diverse cultures is better explained by the changeable message (and the universalizing potential of its effect) than by the permanent quality of its direct addressing of a context, as ample as it may be.


The next point, the downgrading used as a trophy by the literary high class, takes as a paradigmatic case the only analysis (I believe) of a Coelho book produced by a major academic critic: the review of the book "Eleven Minutes" (2003), published in the same year by USP literature professor João Alexandre Barbosa (1937-2006), in "Cult" magazine.

The initiative breaks the silence by taking Coelho "seriously" (helped by the balanced introductory text by his then-editor, Manoel da Costa Pinto), and at the same time, due to the content of the review, establishes the paradigm capable of supporting the "interest in disinterest" regarding Coelho, a mark of those who take literature "seriously".

Veridiana Scarpelli/Reprodução
Veridiana Scarpelli's illustrations to "Ilustríssima" January 20th edition
Veridiana Scarpelli's illustrations to "Ilustríssima" January 20th edition

The critic expresses a somewhat essentialist idea of literature, predominant in the academic arena, as a basis for his rejection of Coelho's work. Barbosa mentions the creative and conscious use Baudelaire and Flaubert make of the commonplace, the origin of a renovation instrument recurrent in modern literature which reconfigures the commonplace itself.

Barbosa writes: "Not by chance, for example, Paulo Coelho's latest book, which I managed to read entirely, not withstanding the repeated impulses to give up, is called 'Eleven Minutes.' It does not use the commonplace, rather totally submits to it, in which the subject is so overwhelming that the rhetorical exercises serve only to confirm its intonation."

The analytic effort doesn't escape an "ad hoc" definition of literature, designed to exclude its subject, which dissolves in clichés and stereotypes. It is worth noticing that when major authors use the commonplace, they do it in a "specifically literary" way. The argument is almost circular: the literary handling of commonplace is a literary. There is a part of the text in which Barbosa addresses the point:

"All through the book, however, there is a singular mastery: a kind of radicalization of commonplace, which, consciously or not, brings coherence to the book, although negative, lacking any trace of originality."

The contingent aspect of the criterion suggests that another one, less previously prepared, could resolve the paradox in a positive way, bringing coherence (or, at least, skill) to the radicalization of the commonplace, to conclude that form and matter are perfectly aligned: downgrading the untranscendent to the level of ordinary can only be accomplished in literature in a plainly transparent relationship between language and the world narrated.

But the procedure adopted by Barbosa makes a literary criterion absolute, set entirely apart from the writer's project, to label his writing as non-literary:

"Although wise and shrewd in the use of that which is expected from readers (commonplace), Paulo Coelho manages to reconfigure nothing in narrative terms which could justify the publishing of a novel."

That means that only that which, comparable to Baudelaire and Flaubert reconfigures its material, is worth publishing. The criterion's validity can be accepted once, but it is necessary to notice the selectivity of its application, seldom mobilized in the judgment of contemporary Brazilian literature.

It is worth noticing that Barbosa's article is called "Dentro da Academia, Fora da Literatura" ["Inside the Academy, Outside Literature"], a very eloquent title regarding the need to resolve the discomfort through its annulment. That leads us to at least cite possible counterpoints. Perhaps it is less important to be a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and outside literature (Paulo Coelho is not the only example) than to be at the top of the market, but boasting a literary wannabe project, based on the writer's claim of nobility, commonly stressed in Coelho's manifestations.


The question that arises from this set of circumstances is the impossibility of critics to support the belief of a hypothetical community of readers who share values, given the numbers of Coelho's audience. The relationship between the writer, readers and the narrated world escapes the literary criterion, according to which such relationship would already be in the text, as its substance, a prize to be conquered by trained readers.

Coelho creates a short circuit in that mechanism: his direct narrative wants to clarify the enigmas; the audience he receives breaks the imagined - and imaginary - community of bards of the highest artistic production; his pop star attitude defies the circumspection expected from a high author, while his self identification as a Brazilian writer insults the canon and the demand for conformity to the literary world's enthroned pattern.

In face of that, the downgrading reinforces the common opinion of the literary world as an absolute criterion, as it makes such an opinion seem natural. But a different logic of classification could harbor Coelho's works in the literary world; I would like to mention the example of another critic and professor, José Paulo Paes (1926-98). His approach on entertainment literature (in "A Aventura Literária", 2003) apparently can be applied to Paulo Coelho's production, although it doesn't refer to it directly.

Among the characteristics of the genre of adventure novels, Paes highlights the combination of recording myths and naturalism, the greater importance of occurrences in the plots and the characters' lack of psychological depth (as if action produced their character), aspects which, by themselves, don't imply the downgrading of the work's value as it fulfills its own project.

Thus, Paes comments, for example, the sentimental novels of José Mauro de Vasconcelos:

"The aggressiveness with which certain critics attack him, judging his performance only in terms of literary esthetics, shows how short-sighted our critics are in issues that escape the area of high literature. [] In a culture of high academics such as ours, everyone dreams he is Gustave Flaubert or James Joyce, no one would settle for Alexandre Dumas or Agatha Christie. It is obviously a perspective mistake: from the high numbers of readers of the latter come the reader elite of the former, and no truly integrated culture can waive having, next to a vigorous proposal literature, a not less vigorous entertainment literature."

Paes shows the magnetism of the literary definition of literary, so typical of the Brazilian system, which refuses to embrace the competent craftsmen of the entertainment field. This position is similar, for example, to that of Siegfried Krakauer, who believes the "ornament," a metaphor for entertaining sources, is not only a gimmick, but an organic part of the structure, linking, in a symbolic system, corners of the reality materialized in the noble and vulgar environments, in the critical and playful ways of enjoying the work. The success of best sellers is due to their capacity to address diffuse tendencies in the social environment, which cannot be explained through suggestion, but lay roots in the reader's actual social conditions.

Let's associate all that was said about Coelho's tribute to José Mauro de Vasconcelos and Malba Tahan in his acceptance speech at the Brazilian Academy of Letters. In his moment of greatest recognition, Coelho shows his closeness to those writers, who, as he says, were never highly recognized - not necessarily recognized by becoming members of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, but enough to be accepted by the select club of Brazilian Literature.

His acceptance at the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the peak of symbolic capital, seems to have been used to guarantee the minimum that had been denied to him up to that moment, which shows not only a more realistic view of his position in the literary field, but also the recognition of the weight of high academics on him, who tested their limits by trying to accumulate all forms of profit.

I believe the rejection suffered by Coelho's works has less to do with their aesthetic quality than with the setting of a literary system that needs to narrow its access mechanisms to consolidate itself, refusing everything that threatens the local definition of literature.

If that is the case, then we can explain the more favorable reception Coelho has received in countries in which the literary field is more mature: his books are treated following the same criteria applied to others that occupy a similar position, in a denser, multipolar structure, capable of accepting subsectors of a wide production and criticizing them according to their own intentionality.

In a literary world of stronger basis, one could lament the incipient international diffusion of a certain type of Brazilian literature without considering the international buzz deriving from another kind of national production.

Then, there would be a new meaning to Davi Arrigucci Jr.'s answer "I didn't read it and I didn't like it" to "Veja" magazine on Coelho - no longer a direct disqualification of the author, but a lack of interest in the genre. But perhaps that is the condition to analyze best-sellers without making the weight of the relationship between academic-wannabe readers and the object affect the object itself.

Translated by THOMAS MUELLO

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