Roberto Bolaño: The Man, The Myth, The Marketing

by D

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Wherever art and marketing meet, there’s bound to be protest. But creatives have to find a way to sell their product whether the purists sneer or not. The age of social media has created plenty of opportunities for those with the means and the savvy to take control of their so-called “brand” (the term is pretty gross when it means personality). But for most professional writers, the bulk of the marketing work is still done by publishing houses, and there are certain scenarios in which it’s possible for a writer to have absolutely zero input into the handling of his work. Take, for example, Roberto Bolaño, who achieved his greatest commercial success after his death.

Bolaño, a Chilean-born writer who died in Blanes, Spain in 2003, has become something of a phenomenon in the United States over the last decade. His prickly post-national style has excited a new generation of readers interested in Latin American fiction. He perfectly satisfies the needs of those young people who are bored with the assertive regionalism and unfashionable Marxism of the boom writers. His New Directions publications are incredibly stylish; The cover of each is an artsy, blurred, black & white photo beneath bold Gothic text.  Bolaño, on the book jackets, smokes a cigarette and looks world-weary. At a publicity event in New York for Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, another of his publishers gave out free whiskey and tote bags.

So what? Major American publishing houses know how to sell an interesting contemporary writer to trendy young urbanites (who, I assume, are the major demographic who buys works in translation).  Where’s the problem?

Well, it appears that there’s been some misinformation that has spread about Bolaño, and it may have been encouraged by publishers and journalists; namely that he was a heroin-addict (he was not) and that he spent time in prison for revolutionary activity (he did – but only a little over one week, which is rarely mentioned). Obviously this has added to Bolano’s mystique, and has given him the sort of strange capital we like to call “authenticity”. To be fair, this started before his death, and Bolaño himself wasn’t entirely innocent of perpetuating his own myths, but it has taken on a new dimension in the frenzy that has followed his “discovery” in the U.S.

Bolaño’s friend, the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya wrote about the emergence of  “The Roberto Bolaño myth” in 2009 in an article entitled “Bolaño Inc.” Castellanos Moya is suspicious that a distorted version of Bolaño’s life story has often been as important to his excited reception in North America as his writing. He argues that a market-ready image of the late Chilean writer as a defeated rebel, a social dropout and failed revolutionary, has been created to sell his books in the States (he points out that Paste Magazine even gave him the ridiculous title: “The Kurt Cobain of Latin American literature). Castellanos Moya writes, “The Market has its landlords, like everything else on this infected planet, and its the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether its selling cheap condoms or Latin American literature in the U.S.”

Whether this is too cynical a view or not, the inflation of Bolaño’s time in prison facing down Chilean facism, and the fabrication of his apparently non-existent heroin addiction do look pretty damning in this light. Castellanos Moya assures us, with evident joy at disappointing those who believe that Bolaño was a cross between Che Guevara and a Junkie poet, that the writer died a committed family man living a middle-class suburban life and that he spent most of his time writing.

Castellano Moya also sees U.S. cultural imperialism at work here, and he mentions the frustration that he and others feel when all of Latin American literature gets reduced to one man (goodbye García Márquez, hello Bolaño). It’s an argument that is often the default mode of social critics who feel squashed under American power, and while I usually find some truth in it, appropriation doesn’t seem to fully explain the marketing distortions and phenomenal success of Bolaño’s brand. There’s an appealing edge to Bolaño’s writing that comes from no place but the man himself. I live pretty far outside the circles where sophisticated city-dwellers determine what’s cool at art opening and book signings. But my first thoughts when I read 2666, The Savage Detectives, and Last Evenings on Earth were — sorry — “Hey, this guy’s writing is pretty cool.” How free was I from the manipulations of media buzz? How free are any of us –- even those of us who think we live outside of its reach, in the metaphorical, or literal, bush?

The more I explored Bolaño’s work in translation (so many posthumous publications!), the more I had the feeling that the marketing machine probably was getting out of control. There was clearly a lot of money behind the repackaging of his body of work, even the unpublished scraps, and not all of it lived up to Bolaño’s reputation. The Savage Detectives and the unfinished 2666 are fantastic novels, worthy of the hype, but even some of his shorter novels that have their advocates, like Amulet and By Night In Chile,  made no impression on me at all. Antwerp is an interesting, but confusing, experiment. Nazi Literature of the Americas is a winking Borgian joke that gets old after the first few chapters. The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho collect the short stories that didn’t make it into the superior collection Last Evenings on Earth. The poetry collection The Romantic Dogs reveals that Bolaño was a pretty bad poet, not surprising since his best novel is the semi-autobiographical story of a group of bad poets. And then there are the posthumous works that everyone agrees are unnecessary.

The reason that Bolaño’s lesser works are selling in huge numbers (the reason I bought them), is that his publishers have managed to convince us that all of his books are essential, which they probably aren’t. Some of the power of “The Bolaño myth” is probably due to the loss we experience when a talented writer dies at his artistic peak. And some of it comes from the publishing industry trying to sell a product that sounds hip – “Hey, did you hear about this ex-anarchist heroin addict who was imprisoned by Pinochet and wrote huge labyrinthine novels?” Maybe we should be wary when marketing teams turn human beings into these cinematic versions of themselves. But somehow I think Bolaño, who knew how important myth was to biography (check The Savage Detectives), wouldn’t completely disapprove.