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The unmatched power of telenovelas

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez still holds a torch for storytelling intimacy

Upon publishing One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1969, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez accomplished a rare feat: writing a classic piece of literature that also became an international best seller. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.

And yet, the celebrated author maintained a literary regret: that he had never penned a telenovela, a Spanish language soap opera.

He’s quoted as pointing out, “In one single night, one episode of a TV soap can reach, in Colombia alone, 10 to 15 million people.”

His point is worth considering. Liberal estimates claim sales of Solitude over the past five decades reached 50 million copies sold. Meanwhile, 200 million global viewers tuned in to watch the finale of Mexico’s 1979 telenovela Los Ricos También Lloran (“The rich also cry”), which later became a hit among fan bases in such far-flung places as Turkey and Russia. By the 1990s, a trilogy of telenovelas called Las Tres Marias approached nearly 2 billion viewers.

For an author concerned with reaching people, even the best selling books look less and less effective in the face of popular melodrama. With his highly regarded novels, Márquez reached many people, but even the most pervasive fiction proves demographically limiting, only sure of reaching the literate, the educated, the arbiters of exquisite taste. But his socialist principles — he often visited Cuba to see his friend Fidel Castro — demanded a more egalitarian reach.

The elitist view might be that the over the top intrigues of telenovelas appeal to the lowest common denominator of humanity. But Márquez maintained perceived difference between high and low culture to be a contrivance. He said, “To me music, literature, film, soap operas are different genres with one common end: to reach people.”

While the author did play at adapting a short story into a telenovela script, it was never made. He could easily have leveraged a Nobel Prize to produce a soap opera, but instead he produced a second masterpiece novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, in which a young man holds a torch for the unattainable love of his life well into old age. Perhaps we can read into this, that even though he saw that the accessibility of popular media had every advantage over books by the late 20th century, he still held a torch for the storytelling intimacy provided by novels, even if a billion-plus telenovela viewers might never read it.

Guadalupe in the Guestroom, playing at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre until October 28, depicts two people with little but grief in common who find a way to connect through the shared experience of a telenovela. But they do it in a play, an art form even less likely to reach the masses than a novel.

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Guadalupe in the Guestroom
<em>Guadalupe in the Guestroom</em>

Upon publishing One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1969, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez accomplished a rare feat: writing a classic piece of literature that also became an international best seller. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.

And yet, the celebrated author maintained a literary regret: that he had never penned a telenovela, a Spanish language soap opera.

He’s quoted as pointing out, “In one single night, one episode of a TV soap can reach, in Colombia alone, 10 to 15 million people.”

His point is worth considering. Liberal estimates claim sales of Solitude over the past five decades reached 50 million copies sold. Meanwhile, 200 million global viewers tuned in to watch the finale of Mexico’s 1979 telenovela Los Ricos También Lloran (“The rich also cry”), which later became a hit among fan bases in such far-flung places as Turkey and Russia. By the 1990s, a trilogy of telenovelas called Las Tres Marias approached nearly 2 billion viewers.

For an author concerned with reaching people, even the best selling books look less and less effective in the face of popular melodrama. With his highly regarded novels, Márquez reached many people, but even the most pervasive fiction proves demographically limiting, only sure of reaching the literate, the educated, the arbiters of exquisite taste. But his socialist principles — he often visited Cuba to see his friend Fidel Castro — demanded a more egalitarian reach.

The elitist view might be that the over the top intrigues of telenovelas appeal to the lowest common denominator of humanity. But Márquez maintained perceived difference between high and low culture to be a contrivance. He said, “To me music, literature, film, soap operas are different genres with one common end: to reach people.”

While the author did play at adapting a short story into a telenovela script, it was never made. He could easily have leveraged a Nobel Prize to produce a soap opera, but instead he produced a second masterpiece novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, in which a young man holds a torch for the unattainable love of his life well into old age. Perhaps we can read into this, that even though he saw that the accessibility of popular media had every advantage over books by the late 20th century, he still held a torch for the storytelling intimacy provided by novels, even if a billion-plus telenovela viewers might never read it.

Guadalupe in the Guestroom, playing at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre until October 28, depicts two people with little but grief in common who find a way to connect through the shared experience of a telenovela. But they do it in a play, an art form even less likely to reach the masses than a novel.

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