January 17, 2012

What makes a cult author?


Roberto Bolano: Cult author?

‘Cult favourite’ has always been a loaded term in publishing: it conjures up a devoted fan-base, but is often code for ‘crap sales’. There was an interesting analysis of what it means to be pigeonholed as a cult author in El Pais over the weekend. Some prominent names — and cult favourites — of Spanish-language literature weighed in, offering their tuppence worth as to whether it’s a compliment, a critique of previous sales, or — most dangerous of all — an indication that an author is perceived as hopelessly uncommercial.

There were interesting differences of opinion as to whether ‘cult favourite’ books are so inherently, or whether it’s simply a category invented by marketing departments, a part of the architecture of the literature industry, unrelated to a book’s themes or manner of presenting them. Arguing for the fundamental cultishness of certain books, the Chilean writer Rafael Gumucio says:

There must be, in the writing of a cult writer, something that tends to the sacred and the secret. Something that makes you feel, as a reader, unique and chosen. It’s a religious category, which relates the book to one of its most controversial functions: to be the depository of the word of god, and writers his priests.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan author Alberto Barrera Tyszka says:

It’s a term used more by editors or critics. Writers are very vain and the category might be a way of softening a failure with readers. We writers want it all: critics and public. It might also be a provisional definition. More than twenty years ago, maybe Robert Walser was considered a cult writer. Bolaño too. Today he’s practically an institution.

The notion of provisionality is an interesting one in this debate. Was Bolaño ever really considered a cult writer? Or is this a label that sticks? Elsewhere in the article, Andrea Palet of independent Chilean publisher Los Libros Que Leo takes a strong position:

‘Cult’ is a very stable tag: you can be selling like crazy, but they’re going to continue to call you a ‘cult’ writer until you’re in the retirement home.

Palet also describes a cult writer as one who ‘already has fans, before the industry and the press even know of his/her existence’. This is particularly interesting when you consider that some online platform, evidence of a burgeoning network of fans, is now virtually a prerequisite of a publishing deal. How many Twitter followers makes a ‘cult’ readership? As self-publishing projects proliferate, it’s a safe bet that use of this most nebulous of terms will increase, too. As it becomes more ubiquitous and less meaningful, will we be losing a useful category? Or was it always too vague to be helpful?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.