"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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November 5, 2009

"The Landlords of Fortune": The Publishing Industry and the Bolaño Myth

Back in January 2009 I wrote the following in a post called, “Gutless Realism:  James Wood’s Housebroken Bolaño,” about the ideological intentions (i.e., myth making) behind James Wood’s review of Savage Detectives:

We’ve seen how Wood, in his review of Death with Interruptions, turned the long-time communist Saramago into an advocate of Original Sin and ‘fallen’ human nature.  It’s in a similar spirit that Wood transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism.  Bolaño in the 1970s was “an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas,” and so are the characters who make up the narrative’s “gang of literary guerillas,” says Wood in his summary of the novel.  Yet Savage Detectives, he goes on to affirm, “is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.”  In other words, zany antics involving things like avant-garde agendas and guerilla gangs are fine as long as they are seen (or can be portrayed) as properly childish preoccupations; a book is “good” and merits a positive review to the extent that its pretty sentences are “about” the putting away of childish things.  Wood, you see, likes a book with a healthy “message” – it needs to be “about” something that will keep children and servants in line with middle-class morality.  And if the book is not really “about” that at all, then like any good media pundit he will spin it, cherry-picking the two or three examples that might best support his thesis.  Here’s one:  “A painter, interviewed in Mexico City in 1981, says that Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries: ‘They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets either’.”  See how this works?  Here are a few more:

An Israeli friend of Ulises Lima's says that the importance of the poets' lives had nothing to do with visceral realism: "It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it and what we can regain." He continues, and says that what we have lost we can regain, "we can get it back intact." Can we? Minutes after delivering this wisdom this same man dies in a car accident. A Mexican academic, interviewed late in the novel, says that hardly anyone remembers the visceral realists anymore. Many are dead. Lima, he says, is living in Mexico City. "About Arturo Belano," he says, "I know nothing." This is finally how the novel makes good on its playful, postmodern impulses.

I love that last touch – a novel with “playful, postmodern impulses” is OK as long as it ends in sackcloth and ashes (i.e., “realism,” but not of the visceral variety).  Reading Wood’s review, in fact, you would actually think that Savage Detectives was a book about apostasy.  Wood even includes, apropos of very little, a quote from that arch-apostate Wordsworth: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”  Superficially the quotation is supposed to apply to the sad fates of Belano, Lima and their cronies in the novel, but Wood is completely aware of its full resonance and has no doubt chosen it with that in mind.  Bolaño and Wordsworth – it’s hard to think of a less suitable literary association; it tells us little about Bolaño’s sensibility or the book’s, although it speaks volumes about the reviewer.

Now, let’s turn to some excerpts from Horacio Castellanos Moya’s article, “Bolaño Inc.”, published in the latest issue of Guernica.  It is written as a personal amplification of some points made in Sarah Pollack’s “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States,” in a recent issue of Comparative Literature.

The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S.  I say this because the central idea of Pollack’s work is that behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of the image of Latin American culture and literature that the North American cultural establishment is now selling to the public.


The key idea is that for thirty years, the work of García Márquez, with its magical realism, represented Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader. But since everything tarnishes and ends up losing its luster, the cultural establishment eventually went looking for something new. It sounded out the guys in the literary groups called McOndo and Crack, but they didn’t fit the enterprise—above all, as Sarah Pollack explains, it was very difficult to sell the North American reader on the world of iPods and Nazi spy novels as the new image of Latin America and its literature. Then Bolaño appeared with his The Savage Detectives and his visceral realism.


The stories and the brief novels of Bolaño were being published in the United States very carefully and tenaciously by New Directions, a very prestigious independent publisher with a modest distribution, when all of a sudden, in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives, appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing, the new One Hundred Years of Solitude, if you will. And it was written, what’s more, by an author who had died a little earlier, which facilitated the process of organizing the operation.


The novelty for the American reader is that he will come away with two complementary messages that appeal to his sensibility and expectations: on one side the novel evokes the “youthful idealism” that leads to rebellion and adventure. But on the other side, it can be read as a morality tale, in the sense that “it is very good to be a brazen rebel at sixteen years old, but if a person doesn’t grow and change into an adult person, serious and established, the consequences can be tragic and pathetic,” as in the case of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Sarah Pollack concludes: “It is as if Bolaño were confirming what U.S. cultural norms tout as truth.”

In other words, James Wood, as a functionary for the landlords of fortune in the publishing industry, was just serving his myth-making and marketing role in “confirming what U.S. cultural norms tout as truth.” 

What I been sayin’ all along.


Frances Madeson said...

You read him so well. Just between us, what do you think his next move might be? (He seems so very close to checkmating himself.)

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful blog.

It put me in mind of a favourite passage from Wallace Shawn's monologue _The Fever_:

"Do you know!—there are nights in the city where I grew up, the city I love most of all, when it's too cold for rain, but the sky can't snow yet, although you feel it would like to, and so instead it seems that at a certain moment every car and face and pane of glass is suddenly covered in a delicious wetness, like the wetness you see on a frozen cherry, and on nights like that, when you walk through the streets of the nice parts of town, you see all the men, in overcoats that hang straight to the ground, staring harshly with open-mouthed desire at the fox-headed women whose lipstick ripples, whose earrings ripple, as they step through the uneven light and darkness of the sidewalk. And that is the sort of thing that the Communists will never understand, just as human decency is the sort of thing that I will never understand."

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks for the comment, "Anonymous." Yes, Wallace Shawn has a very interesting critique of capitalism in his later works (and also in his more explicit statements in interviews and so forth), and of the interrelationships of culture and class privilege. The narrator in "Fever," for instance, can't let go of the allure of commodity fetishism...