Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists... and Political Economy?

Last week, NPR did a story on the awards of Granta, the prestigious literary magazine, for "The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists." The host (Don Gonyea) noticed that Argentina is the home country of 8 out of the 22 total awards. Spain comes in 2nd place with 6 award recipients. That's a lot of the awards, considering that there are over 20 Spanish-speaking countries – most countries had zero award-winners.

When asked about Argentina, Valerie Miles, one of the founding co-editors of Granta en español, suggested the following:

"...Argentina is a country with a very long and strong literary tradition... it also has to do with the fact that it has wonderful bookstores. Some of the really great and really important publishing companies that ran away from Franco's Spain ended up in Argentina..."

I like her answer and would like to take it a step further. Why might Argentina (and Spain) have the best publishing companies, the best bookstores, and the best novelists in the Spanish-speaking world?

I would suggest a general explanation, which draws on the broader literature on who wins international competitions.

When it comes international sports – whether we’re talking World Cup or Olympics – three basic factors matter: population, income, and interest. Let me explain.

Population: more people, more chances that your country will have someone who is great.

Income: mo’ money, mo’ opportunities (with apologies to Biggie). Money translates into better athletics and education.

Interest: here’s where culture comes in. When it comes to soccer, for example, you have to actually care about it to be internationally competitive (sorry China and the United States). When it comes to literature, well, I guess you’ve simply got to have some interesting experiences on which to draw for your writing.

So, I applied these basic ideas to the Granta awards. First, let's consider overall economic size. The recipients were all born between 1971 and 1981. For this time period, Spain and Argentina had the largest economies in the Spanish-speaking world. The GDP of Spain averaged $8.4 billion and that of Argentina $7.1 billion (in constant 2000 $). The next 3 largest economies were Venezuela, Uruguay, and Mexico – Uruguay and Mexico are both home to Granta award winners. The 5 smallest economies were: Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. And there's only 1 winner amongst them (Bolivia).

Now let's take a broader look at the data by country-income:

And here's a picture of the data by the overall economic size of countries:

To put a little rigor into this, I applied regression analysis to the number of award recipients for each country. (Warning to techies: don't get your hopes up, I'm not going to spend any serious effort on this...)

I took the average population and income (in constant 2000 $) for 1971-1981. (Interestingly, constant 2000 $ fits a little better than purchasing power parity measures.)

To proxy culture, I recalled something a French lit prof in college taught me: il faut la crise pour la création – artists need crisis in order to create. Now, there are plenty of ways to measure crises in the Spanish-speaking world. In the 1970s and 1980s, it had more than its fair share by several measures. I tried number of IMF arrangements and years of dictatorship, but the measure that works best is the number of times that democracy was subverted by a coup. It makes sense – these often combine economic and political problems.

Results? These three variables explain about 50% of the variance. Bigger and richer countries that have seen democracy breakdown are more likely to produce Granta award-winners. For the curious, click here for a set of regression results. There is a lot more I could do with this to make it more accessible for the non-technical readers... but I’ve got Xmas shopping to do. Sorry.

Now, true fans of the Vreelander are, of course, much more concerned with my personal correlation with the Granta award recipients. After all, I was able to use a spurious correlation between my career statistics and soccer performance to predict many World Cup matches this summer. The countries that have done the most for my career also did the best during the first round of the World Cup (but in the second round, my good friend, Martin Gassebner, would remind us that I got beat by an 8-legged monster... twice). The reason for the spurious correlation? Big economies mean better soccer and better universities... and countries with more money in their university system are more likely to be able to fly me over for a visit :-)

So, how does the spurious correlation work out for the Granta awards? Pretty well. I've spent more time working in Argentina than any other Spanish-speaking country. Second place? Spain. After that, Mexico,... and then a lot of zeroes – just like the Granta awards for most poor Spanish-speaking countries. All by itself, the variable measuring the number of days I have spent working in Spanish-speaking countries explains more than 80% of the variance in the Granta awards.

(And I can't help noticing one thing. The economic model does not predict the award for Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún. But the Vreelander model kind of does, because my connection to Spain is through the excellent ESADE Professor Pedro Parada of the Georgetown-ESADE GEMBA program... Parada hails from... you guessed it: Bolivia.)

A silly sidenote for the technical readers: When I put the Vreelander variable in the OLS model, it actually blows away the other variables in terms of statistical significance. This does not hold in the more appropriate Poisson model.

Bottom line: Why do more award recipients come from Argentina and Spain than any other Spanish-speaking country? They are the richest and the biggest, and they’ve had enough crises to motivate their craft.


  1. It seems that the prize follows a power law. A few countries get most of the awards and most countriss get zero or almost zero awards.

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  3. In fact, Chinese people care a lot about soccer. Facility is inadequate (my high school does not have a soccer field). More importantly, people enjoy watching soccer, but fewer would play it in the real world. But it is still intriguing why China cannot do well in the soccer world. (Although interestingly, someone pointed out that China is ranked 79th in the FIFA world ranking, and this is much higher than the China's ranking on the GDP per capita and other indicators)

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