Books

Mistaken Identity?

From the New York Times, this week, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano.

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003...and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

While it is beyond dispute that critics (and fans) have their own reasons—occasionally unavoidable, often selfish—for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. There will always be the posers who are not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure to already established fabricating entire autobiographies based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie.

And this certainly warrants considerable examination at a time when the ostensible line between fiction and non-fiction is rapidly blurring, in novels, memoirs and even journalism. But as it relates to the marketing imperatives inherent in the tortured artiste facade, it’s usually a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura a writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest, for future books). The blame game, so typically American—like the enterprise itself—only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey, or Stephen Glass) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or opportunists like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader taken hook, line and sinker by the outrageous exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box rebuker overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped; some are simply disingenuous, finding that their otherwise infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up. Let’s acknowledge an immutable fact: these prurient tell-all tomes would not continue to be written if they did not consistently sell. So the onus is…on us. Seriously. The collective “we” are increasingly more familiar with the lives of the writers than the words they wrote. Lest that sound too much like tilting at the inexorable windmills of commerce, I recognize it and try not to worry about it. It’s not as if America has suddenly retarded its collective ability (or desire) to think and read and engage. Or, if we have, it’s a protracted erosion, since each generation tends to lament the idiocy of the age it currently suffers through.

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