José Paulo Paes – review gathered

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Thanatos, digital painting, 2023.


Commentary on the recently released book, organized by Ieda Lebensztayn and Fernando Paixão

For those who enjoy literature and literary studies, especially if they are starting out in this very promising field of professional activity, José Paulo Paes' writings are a good entry point. His critical work now appears collected in two large volumes, organized by Ieda Lebensztayn and Fernando Paixão.

In addition to being a poet, translator and editor, José Paulo Paes has accumulated a considerable critical work, whose main characteristics are versatility, originality and the unusualness of many approaches. Let us think of the title of one of his most important critical books – Greeks & Bahians: synthetic, exact, poetic and provocative. Work published in 1985 and which brings together, in addition to studies dedicated to literature itself, “less academic reflections, such as Adoniram Barbosa's samba and the visual tricks of advertising; subjects that reveal a critic with a free taste and a very peculiar background.”[I]

Such characteristics have a common background in the very formation of reader-critic José Paulo Paes. He was always self-taught: “It was the self-taught José Paulo who taught the university professor [Alfredo Bosi]. And the teacher learned to reread with new eyes what he had already read as a literary professional; and read much that he didn't yet know. José Paulo Paes was a reader free of borders”.[ii]

A reader and critic without borders, his vocation for literature and cultural matters spoke loudest in his heart, as he began to practice another profession – that of chemist –, in which he graduated as a technician in 1948, in Curitiba. He worked “in a laboratory in São Paulo for eleven years; However, the grandson of a bookseller and typographer, José Paulo Paes became a self-taught critic and translator”.[iii]

Its bibliography contains studies that have become references – Art Nouveau in Brazilian Literature, which shed new light for a better understanding of that period lazily and ideologically called Pre-modernism; The poor devil in the Brazilian novel, this fundamental text that brings together authors such as Aluízio Azevedo, Lima Barreto, Graciliano Ramos and the unfortunately little-known Dyonélio Machado. These are some texts considered 'canonical' by José Paulo Paes. The studies dedicated to the also “pre-modernist” Augusto dos Anjos are among the most significant things ever written about the poet from Paraíba.

The extra-academic character of José Paulo's writing – a synthesis of self-education and the study of unconventional themes and authors – is very well exemplified in the somewhat provocative essay “For a Brazilian literature of entertainment (or: The butler is not the only culprit )”, the result of a lecture given in 1988.

There is a profession of faith that moves this text; the critic positively bets on the underrated [by academia] entertainment literature as a condition without which it would be difficult for a country to achieve literary strength. Let's dwell on this topic a little more.

Very inspired by Umberto Eco of Apocalyptic and integrated, José Paulo does not limit himself to reproducing the concepts of the Italian master – “culture of proposal”, “mass culture”, “Kitsch” –, but articulates them to our condition as a peripheral and underdeveloped country. Thus, the first and perhaps most important steps towards characterizing entertainment literature would be: (i) the suspension of value judgments; (ii) understand that between the two extremes of the cultural equation that judges the evaluative hierarchy of taste – high literature vs. entertainment/mass literature – there is a middle term, the midcult; (iii) recognize that this average level is different from that level specifically linked to mass consumerism and, therefore, should be encouraged and valued. It is this medium literature that would encourage the habit of reading to acquire “the sense of a stepping stone to a higher level, where entertainment does not end in itself, but brings with it a broadening of perception and a deepening of understanding of things in the world ”.[iv]

José Paulo's approach is committed to the historical path that determined the advent of this entertainment literature. In a dialogue with Jung's theory of archetypes and André Jolles's “simple forms”, the lecture-essay has a very well-defined basis in some primordial literary genres – the saga, the riddle and the short story –, through which the entertainment genres would have their roots: the detective novel, the sentimental novel, the adventure novel, science fiction, children's fiction, erotic or pornographic literature and stories from the American West.

The importance of this archetypal dimension in which entertainment literature is rooted, according to José Paulo Paes, lies in the fact that it explains the recurrence of certain “motifs or fixed procedures, in addition to the ability to continue to attract the interest of readers, despite these repetitions apparently annoying.”[v]

On the other hand, a daughter of modern industrial societies, entertainment literature is one of the consequences of that process of typographic improvement, of the cheaper and wider consumption of literate urban strata. In the urban centers of countries such as England, the United States and especially France, the development of capitalism consolidated a middle class with cultural needs; needs “that entertainment literature expressly came to meet”.[vi]

The marriage between literature and newspaper, promoted by the French editor Emile de Girandin, in the 1830s, inaugurated a new literary era whose extra-literary consequences we can feel to this day. A genealogy of Arsène Lupin, from the serials launched in 1907 by Maurice Leblanc to the absolute success of the French series Lupine, produced by Netflix, would show very well how much such ingenuity, which we know through the concept of cultural industry, is present.

Publish literature on newspaper pages, in a space designated as feuilleton [feuilleton], usually on the first page of the periodical, was the seed of a tree unprecedented literary-journalism. According to Brazilian researcher Marlyse Mayer: “Emile de Girandin and his former partner and pirate, Dutacq, realized the financial advantages of such an enterprise and would take advantage of it. They gave the feuilleton the place of honor in the newspaper. With the two new newspapers (La Presse, by the pioneer Girardin, and Le Siecle, who pirated it from the start) will be published in slices of fiction in the daily newspaper in the space dedicated to the vale-tudo serial. The inauguration falls to the old Lazarillo de Tormes, which began to come out in daily pieces from August 5, 1836.” [vii]

The success of the venture was so great that in the following years the formula “continues tomorrow” or “continues next week” was fully established and the model began to be exported to practically the entire West. The narrative's focus on suspense or tension and the choice of themes with strong emotional appeal gave serial novels an extraordinary audience. Eugène Sue with Os Paris mysteries [1842-43] and The Wandering Jew [1844] together with Alexandre Dumas with The three Musketeers e The Count of Monte Cristo, both from 1844, became the great exponents of the new genre. “Dumas’ invocation – comments Marlyse Mayer – will become a kitchen recipe reproduced by hundreds of authors”.[viii]

In Brazil, the vogue for serials arrived very quickly. In 1839 the Commerce Newspaper published The Mysterious Murders or the Passion of Diamonds, written by Justiniano José da Rocha, “who came into contact in Paris with the novelty of feuilleton and hurried to transport him here. You Mysteries, imitation or plagiarism of some unidentified French original, brings the typical ingredients of the serial – attacks of madness, violent deaths, unhappy loves, cemetery scenes and other calamities”.[ix]

Practically all the main Brazilian writers, until the first decades of the XNUMXth century, passed, in one way or another, through the feuilleton school. Either by producing serialized serial novels, along the lines of the French school of Sue and Dumas, or by publishing their books in serial chapters in newspapers. José de Alencar, Joaquim Manoel de Macedo, Machado de Assis, Aluísio Azevedo, Raul Pompéia, Lima Barreto, before publishing their main books in an autonomous volume, printed their stories on the pages of newspapers: “It was not long before the serials were concerned with nationalize its themes, its characters and its purposes, giving rise to a recognizably Brazilian novel”.[X]

Brazil was very different in relation to the French matrix in terms of the number of readers available for the literature on offer. The level of literacy at the beginning of the 20th century barely reached XNUMX% of the population, and this in urban centers such as Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of the Republic. Even so, the same reticence was created among us in relation to this popular literature, reticence that, according to José Paulo Paes, dates back more or less to the Naturalist period and that would be intensified by Modernism, led by Oswald's experimental prose. and Mario de Andrade, “who never managed to interest the general public”.[xi]

Only in the 1930s and 1940s did some collections of entertainment literature begin to appear in Brazil, all imported from English and French, such as the Coleção das Moças, composed of sentimental novels; the Terramarear and Paratodos Collections, with adventure and science fiction novels, in addition to the Máscara Negra collections, of detective novels. The lack of national production of this type of literature led to the flooding of the market by foreign authors and works; ills of dependent capitalism.

Even so, as José Paulo was able to show, male and female writers here produced good literature and won over a portion of common readers. Some became quite popular, such as Paulo Setúbal, Maria José Dupré [we were six e Gina] and José Mauro de Vasconcelos, with My Lima orange tree. The aggressiveness of certain critics focused on the latter, “judging its performance solely in terms of literary aesthetics, instead of analyzing it through the prism of the sociology of taste and consumption, showing the myopia of our criticism towards issues that escape the framework of erudite literature”.[xii]

The leading figure in this small constellation is the children's work of Monteiro Lobato, an author who, according to José Paulo, achieved a level of excellence unprecedented in this type of production. Children's literature, in fact, was the only one that managed to remain immune to the flood of translated foreign works. All these considerations lead to a fundamental question: “what is the reason for the poverty, or better said, the almost non-existence of Brazilian entertainment literature? Why is this in a culture that, on an erudite level, produced authors of the stature of Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos or Carlos Drummond de Andrade and, on a popular level, the wealth of folkloric material witnessed minimally in Macunaima? "[xiii]

The answer that José Paulo Paes gave to these questions remains an incredibly current provocation: Television and in particular the soap opera, which managed to develop in a very short time to much greater levels than the book industry; and this in a country with alarming rates of illiteracy. The book lost by far to television as a means of entertainment: “before there was time for our late book industry to implant the taste and habit of reading in the general public, television came to steal the biggest slice of the pie. The book, even for entertainment, requires a minimum of intellectual effort, which is unnecessary when consuming the spoken image of the video”.[xiv]

Added to this fact is the absence, in Brazil, of the professionalization of male and female writers who can make a living exclusively from their craft. Something that happens in central capitalist countries, mainly the United States and England, which, through their creative writing courses, enable the rise of battalions of writers. This is where much of the low-quality entertainment literature that floods our market comes from.

Finally, we have what José Paulo calls “culture of literati”. In Brazil, according to the critic, almost everyone dreams of being Gustave Flaubert or James Joyce and no one is content with being Alexandre Dumas or Agatha Christie. Let's think of Paulo Coelho, for example, who should be a source of pride for us, but who devotees of literary culture despise with all their might. This is, as José Paulo argues, an error in perspective, since it is precisely from the “mass of readers of these latter authors that the elite of readers of those authors emerges, and no truly integrated culture can do without having, alongside a vigorous literature of proposal, a no less vigorous literature of entertainment”.[xv]

More than three decades after this trial, the situation seems to have improved a little. Government incentives for the acquisition of literary works for schools and the awards offered by institutions such as the National Children's and Youth Book Foundation help to maintain this fraction of our literature quite prestigious, despite the Harry Potter of life.[xvi]

On the other hand, in the last decade we have seen the massification of cell phones connected to the internet, the explosion of social networks and the flood of series broadcast through the internet. streams. Not to mention the crisis that bookstores and publishers have been going through. What has largely saved our literature are independent publishers and the literary movement that began on the outskirts, through soirées and self-publishing.

José Paulo Paes has always been very concerned with the formation of a taste for reading and the establishment of a large reading public, in addition to dedicating special attention “to fiction writers and poets of the new generations, shedding light on new developments that would escape ordinary criticism.”[xvii]

His recently released critical work is a great tribute to this literary activist. It is also a good opportunity for those who enjoy and pursue literary studies to come into contact with a form of writing that is pleasurable and surprising in its approach, be it poets and poetry, prose fiction, samba, audiovisual, among other phenomena linked to culture.

*Alexandre Juliete Rosa holds a master's degree in Brazilian literature from the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP).


Ieda Lebensztayn and Fernando Paixão. José Paulo Paes: Gathered Criticism on Literature & Unpublished Books. Vol. 1. Cotia, Ateliê Editorial/Cepe Editora, 2023, 544 pages. []


[I] Fernando Paixão. “A multiple critic”. In: José Paulo Paes: Gathered Criticism on Brazilian Literature & Unpublished Books – Vol. 1. Ateliê Editorial / Cepe Editora, 2023, p. 23

[ii] Alfredo Bosi. “José Paulo Paes: Reader without Borders”. Op cit., p. 11.

[iii] Ieda Lebensztayn. “José Paulo Paes: New Essays in the Province. Language as a Universe of Possibilities.” Op cit., p.32.

[iv] José Paulo Paes. “For a Brazilian Literature of Entertainment (or: The Butler is Not the Only One to Blame)”. Op cit., p. 357.

[v] Ditto, p. 359.

[vi] Idem.

[vii] Marlyse Meyer. Folhetim: a story. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996, p. 57.

[viii] Ditto, p. 63.

[ix] Jose Paulo Paes. Op cit., p. 360-1.

[X] Ditto, p. 161.

[xi] Idem.

[xii] Same, p. 362-3.

[xiii] Ditto, p. 363.

[xiv] Ditto, p. 364.

[xv] Ditto, p. 365.

[xvi] For those interested in a broader approach to this topic, you can consult Gabriela Luft’s article: “Brazilian youth literature at the beginning of the XNUMXst century: authors, works and trends”. Available from the link:

[xvii] Fernando Paixão. Op cit., p. 29.

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