Chile: Isabel Allende and the National Prize for Literature

Isabel Allende, author of The House of Spirits and the recently published Island Beneath the Sea, among other novels, is one of the best-known and most-read Latin American writers. This year, she is a candidate for the Chilean National Prize for Literature, a prize given by the government, the Ministry of Education, and the National Council of Culture and the Arts. Her candidacy has sparked debate among literature critics, writers, and average Chilean citizens.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru while her father worked there as a diplomat; her father’s cousin was Salvador Allende, the president who was ousted by a coup d'état led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Isabel Allende now lives in California. As reported by the Latin American Herald Tribune, “Her books have been translated into more than two-dozen languages and 51 million copies of her novels have been sold.” However, some critics, and even some readers, think her popularity is not enough reason to give her the prize.

Isabel Allende at TED 2007, from Flickr account advencap, under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

Elizabeth Subercaseaux [es], a journalist and writer, thinks Allende deserves the prize, and she explains the arguments behind the criticism:

Dos son los argumentos que suelen esgrimir unos pocos escritores chilenos para negarle el Premio Nacional de Literatura a Isabel Allende: que es una escritora de tono menor y que sus libros son best-seller, insinuando que ella se ha entregado al mercado.


En Chile a Isabel Allende la hemos tratado mal, hay a su alrededor una envidia que da vergüenza. La primera vez que se presentó para este premio la insultaron, y hace poco salió un pequeño escribidor por ahí diciendo que premiarla sería como premiar a una hamburguesa. Vergüenza para él.

El Premio Nacional de Literatura es un premio que da el Estado, todos nosotros. Y si hay alguien de quien debemos estar orgullosos es de Isabel Allende, una escritora con sobrados méritos literarios que además posee una estatura moral e intelectual que ningún personaje de nuestro país tiene en la actualidad.

There are two arguments that a few Chilean writers use to deny the National Prize for Literature to Isabel Allende: that she is a writer of minor [quality] and that her books are bestsellers, insinuating that she has succumbed to the market.


In Chile we have treated Isabel Allende poorly, and there is a shameful envy from people surrounding her. The first time she presented herself for this prize she was insulted, and recently a writer came out from somewhere saying that awarding her the prize would be like awarding a hamburger. Shame on him.

The National Prize for Literature is an award given by the State, all of us. And if there is someone we should be proud of, it is Isabel Allende, a writer with enough literary merits who also possesses a moral and intellectual stature that no one in our country has nowadays.

The blog Alaraco Bocasuelta [es] also discusses the opinions of those who don’t want Allende to receive the prize:

Que se discuta la calidad de los candidatos a dicho premio es perfectamente lícito, aunque en estricto rigor ha de ser el Jurado, quien dirima el asunto.

Pero lo que llama la atención es la odiosidad que levanta Isabel Allende en ciertos críticos


Tan manifiesto es el tono insidioso de ciertas opiniones respecto de nuestra escritora, que pareciera que el éxito ajeno – más aún si aquél es internacional -, en Chile, es un pecado imperdonable.

It is perfectly appropriate to discuss the quality of the candidates for the prize, although strictly speaking, it is the Jury, who settles the matter.

But what is striking is the hatred that Isabel Allende arouses among certain circles.


This is manifested in the insidious tone of certain opinions about our writer, it would seem like the success of others -even more if there is international success- in Chile, is an unforgivable sin.

[Update – Readers have pointed out that the following blog is satirical in providing support to the government] The writers from the pro-government blog Los Libros Buenos [es], share a list of the reasons describing why they don’t like Allende. Among them, there are several political reasons framed within the discussion of “reconstructing” Chile after the 2010 earthquake under the new government of right-leaning president Sebastián Piñera. For example, this is one of the reasons:

Su carácter “entretenido”. Se habla mucho de que los libros de Isabel Allende son “entretenidos”. Aunque nosotros valoramos la entretención, creemos que el delicado momento nacional requiere seriedad. Seriedad para trabajar por un Chile nuevo. Trabajar por una cultura reluciente y enchapada de futuro. Los libros de Isabel Allende propenden a la evasión del lector, y no a la difusión y el abrazo de valores, que son el tejido más sensible de una sociedad en forma. No queremos más de eso. No necesitamos más de eso. La patria no necesita más de eso

Her books’ “entertaining” nature. There is a lot of about Isabel Allende's books being “entertaining.” Although we value entertainment, we think that the delicate national moment [we are in] requires seriousness. Seriousness to work for a new Chile. Working for a shining culture plated with the future. Isabel Allende’s books tend to make the reader escape, instead of embracing values, which are the most sensitive fabric of a forming society. We don’t want more than that. We don’t need more than that. The country does not need more than that.

Chilean Twitter users also weighed in on the debate. Leonardo Zuñiga (@Guileo) thinks she deserves the prize, but Sebastián Salazar (@sebsalazar) does not agree:

no estoy ni ahi con Isabel Allende y el premio Nacional de Literatura…ademas es como q a la JK Rowling le entregaran el simil britanico

I don't care about Isabel Allende and the National Prize for Literature…also it's like if they gave JK Rowling the British equivalent.

Sebastián Gómez (@SebastianGomezA) says that he can write better than Isabel Allende, and Alejandro Torres (@alejanbarrett) doesn't like that she seems to be so preoccupied with the prize. With a similar concern about the apparent push for her candidacy, Henry Northcote (@henrynorthcote) wonders:

Cual será la agencia de comunicaciones de Isabel Allende. Su lobby para el premio nacional literatura es muy evidente.

What is Isabel Allende's communication agency? Their lobby for the National Prize for Literature is very obvious.

Tania Soledad Opazo (@Cosalina) writes that she is tired of Isabel Allende complaining that she never gets the prize, but Monica (@monicasanhueza) asks why Chile has not awarded Allende the prize yet:

Por que les cuesta tanto darle el premio nacional de literatura a isabel allende? Nadie es profeta en su tierra.

Why is it so hard to give Isabel Allende the National Prize for Literature? No one is a prophet in their own land.

Finally, citizen newspaper El Obervatodo [es] published the opinion of Iris Aceitón, a woman who introduces herself saying, “I’m not an artist, journalist or scholar (…) I’m that woman who reads a lot less than I wish I could. Books, because of their price, are also privileges only a few [enjoy].” She writes about identifying with Isabel Allende's literature and says:

Soy la heroína, valiente, luchadora e imperfecta de cada una de tus novelas. Soy esa mujer chilena que te agradece porque has sabido contarle al mundo los desgarros de tu patria. .

Isabel Allende, en el nombre de las mujeres simples de este Chile nuestro, yo te concedo inapelablemente el Premio Nacional de Literatura.

I’m the brave, fighter, and imperfect heroine from all your novels. I’m that Chilean woman who is grateful because you have been able to tell the world about the damage [done to] your country

Isabel Allende, in the name of all the simple women of our Chile, I give you without appeal the National Prize for Literature.


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