Northwestern professor talks competition in Latino-American literature


Julia Doran/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern professor John Alba Cutler discusses the importance of prizes in the Latino-American literary community at the Evanston Public Library on Thursday evening. The talk was part of a series about Latino-Americans called “Hecho in the U.S.A.,” sponsored jointly by EPL and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.

Marissa Page, Assistant City Editor

A Northwestern professor spoke about the role of competition in Latino-American literature at the Evanston Public Library on Thursday evening.

John Alba Cutler, an English professor who specializes in U.S. Latino literature, spoke to the 10 attendees about the importance of competition and reward among Latino-American writers. The speech, titled “Prizes! Prizes! Prizes! Latino Literature and the Economy of Prestige,” touched on competition in the literary world as being both integral and antagonistic to the values of a writer.

Cutler’s talk was the last of the Evanston Northwestern Humanities Lectures series “Hecho in the U.S.A.,” which focused on different aspects of the Latino-American experience. The talks were co-sponsored by NU’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and EPL.

“One of my favorite parts of my job is seeing the connections Northwestern builds with the community,” said Wendy Wall, director of the Alice Kaplan Institute. “We have a really thriving, interesting set of conversations that we have between the faculty at Northwestern and the community (at EPL).”

Divided into two parts, Cutler’s talk drew on several historical and cultural examples of competition both in and out of the literary realm. He primarily focused on how literary accolades — such as the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature — act more importantly as “cultural capital” rather than monetary gain for texts and their authors.

In the first section, Cutler discussed prizes as a method of validating work, later pointing to Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 book, “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” as a victory for Latino literature.

“Prizes offer us the chance to think about how competition structures the modern literary field,” Cutler said. “When Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, it seemed to represent the belated recognition of Latino literature’s legitimacy as an entire field.”

Diaz was the second Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize. The first, Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos, won in 1989 for his book “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” which Cutler said was largely rejected by Latino-American critics for “celebrating” pre-revolutionary Cuba.

In the second part of his talk, Cutler rebuked the idea that competition is detrimental to the spirit of artistic creation.

“The ideology of the romantic artist is not a very good description of how literary history has happened,” Cutler said. “Literary history is replete with rivalries and competitions of all sorts.”

He instead suggested competition is a way for members of the literary world to recognize and validate one another’s aesthetic choices, even if those choices do not lead to any sort of prize.

“Competition is not merely a zero-sum game,” Cutler said. “It is often a mode of social recognition and even solidarity.”

One of the attendees, Medill senior Abbey Chase, said Cutler’s discussion of competition, especially in relation to the romantic artist ideology he described, resonated with her.

“I’ve had Professor Cutler as a professor for three classes,” Chase said. “They’re always about things I don’t know anything about, but I think he’s really articulate and has a great way of talking about these topics in a way that’s accessible but not dumbed down.”

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