The formative role of literature

John Latham, Belief System, 1959


Criticism of an article published in Folha defending the Fuvest list


In a post on my Facebook page, I recorded my first impressions of reading a article authored by Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda, Aluísio Cotrim Segurado and Gustavo Ferraz de Campos Monaco, published on p. 3 of the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, on December 17, 2023, entitled “Fuvest and the marginality of writers”. They are, respectively, the vice-rector of USP, the vice-rector of Undergraduate Studies and the executive director of Fuvest.

I was struck by the lack of consistency in the text, the frivolity of the arguments and the arrogance with which three professors – none of them notable for their work on theory or literary criticism – dealt with a complex issue, which triggered a serious debate, bringing together several intellectuals of undisputed relevance. in the field.


What I wrote, in a tone consistent with the vehicle, was this:

I have just read, somewhat amused and perplexed, an article signed by three USP authorities. The topic is the list of mandatory reading authors for the entrance exam. I read there, for example, that “traditionally, the literary canon has valued already established authors”. It is difficult to imagine what the authors meant. Tradition, canon and consecration appear there in a ridiculous lapissada. We can make variations with these terms. Tradition values ​​renowned authors, tradition is the consecration of authors, renowned authors are tradition; the canon values ​​tradition, the canon is tradition, the canon is consecration.

We could think from the opposite side: the canon has valued non-consecrated authors, the canon has valued non-traditional works, the tradition is made up of non-consecrated or non-canonical authors. I wonder what concepts of tradition, canon and consecration were mobilized in this statement. But I confess that I can't... However, reading other passages in the article makes it possible to understand. That's where you can find pride in its entirety.

It is true that there seems to have been a time when the University of São Paulo had, from its chairs, the power or the illusion of creating or guiding the canon. But I believe that the time when it could be said with certainty that the marginalization of authors in high school is due to them “not being part of Fuvest's list of requirements”.

It also states that Fuvest's commitment is to “follow the advancement of knowledge and encourage secondary education to absorb the most advanced research”. Now, in addition to what I have already highlighted, it is enough to contrast this statement with the names that make up the petition to which this text responds. In fact, there we find a list of critics and professors (most of them from USP itself) who undoubtedly develop whatever is meant by “more advanced research” in the area of ​​literary studies.

Finally, it is as childish to say that the women's list emerged as a remedy to the fact that students read summaries and not the works (because if that is the case, it is clear that they will now read summaries of the books by the indicated authors), as that the choice is not it has an ostensibly militant character – which is only true if we admit that demagoguery and populism are opposed to overt militancy.

Which, when you think about it, matches this brilliant discovery that “traditionally, the literary canon has valued already established authors”. The level of argumentation of the three USP authorities not only corroborates what was already obvious in the interviews with the executive director of Fuvest, that is, the lack of preparation and lack of control over the literary field, but also the autonomy of the bureaucracy (the newsstands are a one of the best kept secrets!), to the detriment of open debate and the valorization of scientific competence in what was, at one time, a model of the Brazilian University.


There would, however, be more to say about the shallow article that the post commented on.

A point that deserves attention is unintentionally highlighted in the article. In fact, it is said that “composing Fuvest's mandatory reading list confers prestige on authors, publishing houses and is a component of the construction of the literary canon”. Continuity is a typical non sequitur: “The reaction to the recently released list is an eloquent example in this sense.” In other words: do the reactions to the list constitute an example of Fuvest’s power to confer prestige? Only if it is in the usual sense in advertising agencies, that any mention, positive or negative, publicizes and promotes the product.

Because it is really a product that we are talking about when “publishing houses” are mentioned. Because when it comes to “classic” works in the public domain, nominating one of them does not promote any publishing house. This only occurs when works that are fully valid under copyright are indicated, that is, works that are the monopoly of publishers that have signed exclusive contracts with authors or their heirs. I believe that it would not be unfair or inappropriate to replace “prestige” with “profit” in this case.

This issue is not even addressed by the USP authorities, enraptured by their own supposed power of canonization and conveniently forgetting that the publishing houses whose authors are chosen as mandatory reading by thousands of students are grateful, because they gain much more than prestige. So also the living authors or their heirs.

The entire article is based on the arrogant boast of the (supposed, I repeat) cultural power of USP, forgetting that the so-called secret commission that elects authors and editorial houses is contested, at least in this choice of the feminist list, by several of the most notable literature teachers of the university itself.

Another important point to discuss, keeping in mind a list that is so questioned not only because of what it excludes, but also because it includes a work that is not fictional, but of ancient feminist activism, is the very need or requirement for lists of mandatory books.

The text addresses the problem again, without apparently taking it into account, when it says that “in recent years, it has been seen that the new generations are not accustomed to reading works in full, preferring information from summaries that end up impoverishing education of students, eliminating the space for reflection and imagination that direct access to the works provides”. Now, I believe that the practice of summaries is a direct function of the existence of lists.

And a point that is very important to the discussion of the effects on secondary education is not even highlighted: why have lists of works? The entrance exam is a public exam. Being a competition, it has a program. Doesn't it seem much more reasonable to list problems and topics in the program that stimulate reading, imagination and reflection? From my point of view, the list of mandatory books is a simplification that does nothing to spread the taste for reading or reflection on literature and culture.

Who does it serve then? It serves one and the same illusion, which leaves a trace throughout the article and is its only ballast: that USP (or Unicamp, which also publishes lists) can, through this means, positively influence secondary education. But the document itself belies hope, insofar as it recognizes that summaries (and the cram school industry, I would say) meet the needs of the entrance exam. In this sense, it does not take much intellectual effort to conclude that the recommendation of books instead of literary and cultural problems works in the opposite direction to that intended by the authors.

It would remain to say, perhaps, that the executive director of Fuvest presents, of the study and teaching of literature, a vision as banal as the article he endorses with the others: in an interview when the list was released, he argued that, with these authors and these books, one could continue teaching in literary schools. From what we have seen, perhaps this is the same level as the very secret commission that drew up the momentous list, since none of its members provided any assistance to the three authorities, to prevent them from exposing themselves to ridicule.

In fact, I don't think it's worth continuing to analyze and comment on this weak article written by six hands (four male and two female, by the way). What has already come to light seems to be enough to fully demonstrate how much cheaper it is, within the scope of Fuvest (and, fortunately, as shown by the Open letter posted on the website the earth is round, not in the relevant departments at USP) the discussion about the formative or informative role of literature at school.

*Paulo Franchetti He is a professor in the Literary Theory department at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of About teaching literature (publisher Unesp). []

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