24 September 09 | Chad W. Post

At Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito points to an interesting article by Horacio Castellanos Moya about his disgust with the “Bolano Myth.”

The article is primarily based on Sarah Pollack’s essay “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States,” which will appear in the next issue of Comparative Literature (pre-order your copy today!). Hard to get into too many specifics without having read Pollack’s essay, but it sounds like she questions the way Bolano’s personal life was mythologized in order to make him that much more marketable. (Moya points to the hippie-esque author pic on The Savage Detectives as an example of the “Bolano-as-Renegade” image, although TSD was written while Bolano was a calm family man.)

Since Scott’s Spanish is much better than mine, I’ll let him summarize the Moya piece:

Basically, in order to sell books marketers invented the Bolano myth, which Moya is taking as an act of U.S. cultural imperialism on Latin America. Throughout the rest of the piece, Moya goes on to argue that marketers and journalists created an image of Bolano to fit preconceived U.S. stereotypes of what a Latin American is—and especially what a Latin American author is. [. . .]

I can’t disagree too much with what Moya says, although I think he’s painting things a little too broadly. (Granted, this is a diatribe . . .) Where he’s dishing out blame, he’s mostly talking about the old media press and the publisher FSG, and while I would say that old media coverage of Bolano has featured a lot of what Moya calls out (remember the whole heroin thing?), I don’t think FSG is quite the publisher Moya claims it to be. True, it’s no New Directions, and, true again, if there was any justice New Directions would have gotten first shot at The Savage Detectives, but FSG does tend to treat literature with a lot more respect than other publishers out there.

First off, I agree with Scott. The mainstream media seems more to blame for this image creation than FSG. In fact, I’d argue that both FSG and New Directions did a great job marketing Bolano and helping introduce his masterful works to an English-speaking audience.

That said, this sort of stereotyping (in terms of what makes a “typical Latin American author” or constitutes a “typical Latin American book”) has gone on for a while, and in terms of aesthetic pigeonholing, publishers really do deserve a lot of the blame. Post-Garcia Marquez, it’s been near impossible for a non-magical realist from south of our borders to get published in America. A certain Isabel Allende-tainted vision of what “counted” as good Latin American literature came into being, and anything that didn’t fit that mold wasn’t marketable.

The “Crack group” (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, etc.) rose up as a response to this situation, this sort of pre-marketing that filters out certain types of literature in favor of more “marketable” books. And it would be foolish to pretend that marketing doesn’t play a role in which authors get published—especially in translation.

Another aspect of American cultural imperialism is our general arrogance that an author doesn’t exist until he/she is discovered by the American public. Although Bolano was huge in the Spanish-speaking world for years before his big novels were translated into English, there’s a tendency to treat him as a “new” author who has finally broke through. (Although the majority of reviews I read for 2666 and TSD were by really thoughtful, perceptive critics who were more engaged with the complexity of the work than with the myth of Bolano. So this is by no means a blanket statement.)

A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.


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