Fake Books: The Changing Face of Chilean Literary Culture
Chilean literary culture has been dramatically affected by the nation-state’s recent political and economic history. General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973-1990) imposed strict censorship laws on all cultural production, but specifically targeted literary activity as a potential threat to national security. As censorship forced authors and editors to find new means of publishing books that would not attract the attention of military officials, self-publication became a dominant trend during Chile’s dictatorial period. Writers, illustrators, and a whole host of predominantly young artist/activists banded together to collectively hand-make and illegally circulate books in defiance of authoritarianism and as a symbolic defense of democracy. When the first concertación transitional government took office in 1990, those in the literary community hoped that the nation-state’s return to democracy would bring with it renewed editorial freedom and more open access to publishing opportunities. These hopes were disappointingly met by the nation’s new neoliberal reality. Economic policies ushered in by the military regime and upheld by the democratic transition’s multiple concertación governments allowed multinational publishing firms to dominate Chile’s national literary industry, making it almost as difficult for local authors to access publication after democracy’s return as it was under the dictatorship. In the eyes of many members of Chile’s literary community, the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy has simply meant that the global market has replaced Pinochet as the all-imposing power standing between independent voices and their ability to be heard.
But just as the artistic youth of the dictatorship years did not give up in the face of political adversity, neither has today’s Chilean youth balked at the challenge posed to them by neoliberal economics and cultural globalization. As their literary forefathers and foremothers before them, today’s aspiring literati have innovated creative means of out-smarting the system that oppresses them, relying, once again, on the editorial strategy of self-publication. But rather than self-publishing hand-made books on photocopy machines, as was the trend under dictatorship, today’s editorial innovators are using the tool most commonly available to them: the Internet. Photocopy machines have been replaced by originally designed software programs, and clandestine literary collectives have been supplanted by online chat rooms. Yet despite these changes, much remains the same in the world of Chilean self-publication: there is still a serious emphasis on creating and maintaining a spirit of community built around shared literary activities; there is still the desire to bring books to readers independently of the neoliberal market; and there remains a strong belief that literature and the acts of reading and writing can and do contribute to Chile’s on-going effort to establish and preserve cultural democracy.
Within this changing face of alternative Chilean literary culture, one collective stands out from the rest: the online press, blog and social media site, Libros de Mentira (www.librosdementira.cl). The website serves multiple purposes: it is an online community where readers, writers and editors connect and communicate with one another; it is a blog where news of literary activities —past and present— are discussed and disseminated; it is a place for readers to go to discover new authors they may have never heard of before; but most importantly, it is a way for emerging writers to get their works published and into the hands of readers —or in this case, onto their computer/tablet/mobile phone screens— without having to go through the commercial publishing industry and the limitations inherent in it.
Libros de Mentira (which I translate as Fake Books) was founded in 2008 by three college students studying journalism at the University of Santiago: Mauricio Sanhueza Arce, Gabriel Oyarzún, and Luis Cruz. Frustrated by the limited options they had to publically disseminate their own writings, they decided to create a web space where they could publish their works and those of their friends. Public demand almost immediately poured in, requesting that the site accept open submissions from the general public, and hence, Libros de Mentira was born. Anyone in the world can upload a piece of original writing, provided that the text is written in Spanish and that it has not been previously published elsewhere. The editorial board of Libros de Mentira then selects pieces to be designed and published as virtual books on the site. One could argue that these texts are not “self-publications” since they have been vetted by an editorial board; however, Libros de Mentira holds no intellectual property rights over any of its publications, which remain the sole domain of individual authors who have the right to publish the same texts later without asking Libros de Mentira for permission. Authors receive no capital gains for making their works accessible through this site, nor do these books carry International Standard Book Numbers, meaning that they have not conformed to the worldwide system that seeks to make all books universally identifiable and, therefore, more easily marketable. All of these factors allow us to classify these texts as self-publications, which in turn necessarily throws their identity as “real” books into question.
And it is precisely this question that the press itself foregrounds, both through its very name—Libros de Mentira (Fake Books)—and also through the design aesthetics of its online catalogue and individual digital books. Thanks to funding from the University of Santiago and public funds from the state’s National Arts and Culture Council (Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes), the press was able to write software that allows them to digitally design books specifically for web publication. Writings are not simply posted in blog format or scanned from printed pages, but instead come with features distinct to digital publishing, including pages that turn with a cursor click, musical accompaniments, video clips, and audio sections, often recorded by the author him/herself. The press also exploits the digital space of the Internet to make the experience of browsing through its literary catalogue unique. Rather than thumbing through a bookshelf, or scrolling down a list of titles on a press’s webpage, Libros de Mentira readers navigate through digitally imagined literary communities; after selecting a particular collection of works (narrative vs. poetry, for instance), users are presented with an interactive screen representing an imagined public space cohabitated by humans, animals, buildings, the natural environment, and of course, books. Users use their cursor to move through this digitally created scene, discovering that when they hover over a tree, or a park bench, a particular title and author name appear; clicking on these images then brings the reader to the digital book named in the scene. Thus the press consciously exploits the Internet’s ability to create imagined communities in order to make the process of finding and reading a virtual text unique from what is experienced in “real” life.
While the press consciously draws attention to the material difference between its “fake” or virtual books and “real” ones, it does not do so with the intention that digital books replace three-dimensional books or that online publishing gradually phase out traditional brick-and-mortar presses. The driving motivation behind the Libros de Mentira project is actually the opposite: it is that writers be able to take advantage of the Internet as a powerful marketing tool that will grant them the kind of public visibility necessary to access avenues of traditional publication. The same is true in terms of the kinds of reading practices the press hopes to cultivate. Rather than conditioning readers to prefer reading books on a screen as opposed to in their hands, the press’s three founders admit that their hope is conversely that readers will discover new authors on the website for the first time, enjoy their work, and consequently be inspired to locate and purchase one of their “real” books, thereby supporting the author financially. One of the most intriguing aspects of this new form of literary publishing is that its innovation is not meant to subvert the traditional hierarchy of the Chilean publishing industry. Its evolution of literary culture does not necessarily translate into a “new normal,” but is instead intended to strengthen the existing norm.
While it does not undermine the authoritative power of traditional print culture, Libros de Mentira does offer uniquely democratizing qualities to Chilean literary culture that the traditional book industry is incapable of achieving. Almost all of these derive from the fact that the press does not require any monetary transactions in order for its books to be published or read. This is distinct from the norm. Because local, independent Chilean publishing houses are placed at such a competitive disadvantage to their multinational counterparts (such as Random House and Planeta, for example), authors often have to pay these presses out of pocket in order to get their works published, thereby making publication possible only to those who can afford to fund it themselves. Libros de Mentira makes publication more equally and democratically available to all by not charging authors to upload or publish their works with the press. Furthermore, the distribution of these texts is infinitely larger than with traditional publication by either independent presses or larger multinational firms since digital texts never run out of stock and are available for immediate consumption anywhere around the globe. Libros de Mentira also democratizes literary consumption by not charging readers for membership to the site or to read any of its content. Using the Internet to access literature for free is especially impacting in Chile, where there are more Internet-users per capita than any other Latin American country (over half of all Chileans are Internet users and 90% of those use social media websites). All of these aspects of its editorial production allow Libros de Mentira to make more books available to more readers than is possible by any traditional publication house.
Libros de Mentira is an excellent example of how Chilean literary culture is evolving to meet the needs of authors and readers in the 21st century. It is also evidence of how this evolution brings with it characteristics of literary publication and consumption that were born out of Chile’s recent political and economic histories. Like its self-publishing predecessors of the dictatorship years, Libros de Mentira is evidence of the material need to publish and consume books independently of dominant circuits of cultural exchange. Yet its ability to secure financial support from government and private institutions combined with its ability to harness the power of digital technologies and the Internet means that Libros de Mentira can make more of an impact on the continued process of cultural democratization than many of the other methods of alternative literary publication that have taken shape in Chile in recent years. It is clear, however, that no matter how far Libros de Mentira advances Chilean literary culture into the 21st century, such advancements in no way threaten the hegemony of traditional print culture. Fake books are becoming a reality, but that doesn’t make them the “real” thing.