Roberto Bolaño’s 12 Tips on “the Art of Writing Short Stories”

Bolano Advice

For some cer­tain roman­tic rea­sons, a seg­ment of the Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ing pop­u­la­tion fell in love with Rober­to Bolaño in the first few years of this mil­len­ni­um. One invari­ably glimpsed Bolaño’s award-win­ning 1998 nov­el The Sav­age Detec­tives on end­ta­bles and night­stands after its trans­la­tion in 2007, with or with­out book­marks. When 2666—the Chilean writer’s dizzy­ing­ly enor­mous work on the dark­est of events in 1990’s North­ern Mexico—appeared, it did so posthu­mous­ly, fur­ther ele­vat­ing Bolaño’s lit­er­ary out­law mythos. In addi­tion to being a hard-bit­ten Trot­sky­ist nomad, Bolaño—who died of liv­er fail­ure in 2003—was said to have been a hero­in addict and alco­holic. Nei­ther was the case, writes Hec­tor Tobar in the LA Times, quot­ing a Mex­i­co City-based jour­nal­ist on the author: “He had a super bor­ing dai­ly life. It was a life built around his own writ­ing rit­u­als and habits.”

For all his leg­endary exploits as a glo­be­trot­ting jour­nal­ist and poet, Bolaño also seems to have built his life around read­ing. “Read­ing,” Bolaño has said, “is more impor­tant than writ­ing.” He finds much com­pa­ny with this state­ment among fel­low writ­ers. Pat­ti Smith, for exam­ple, who urges read­ing “any­thing by Bolaño,” could also “rec­om­mend a mil­lion” books to any­one who asks. A much short­er but still chal­leng­ing list of hers reveals a deep and broad invest­ment in lit­er­a­ture. William S. Bur­roughs, who prob­a­bly did­n’t read Bolaño but worked in a sim­i­lar­ly hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry vein, taught a class on “Cre­ative Read­ing” that was only sec­on­dar­i­ly a class on writ­ing, filled with exam­ple after exam­ple from writer after trea­sured writer. The best writ­ing advice writ­ers can dis­pense, it seems, is this: Read.

Such is the approach of Bolaño him­self, in a short, pithy essay on how to write short sto­ries. He begins in a per­func­to­ry way, almost with a sigh: “Now that I’m forty-four years old, I’m going to offer some advice on the art of writ­ing short sto­ries.” The advice, found in the graph­ic form above on The Paris Review’s Tum­blr and reprint­ed in a non-fic­tion col­lec­tion titled Between Paren­the­sis, quick­ly becomes exu­ber­ant­ly pedan­tic, per­me­at­ing the bound­aries of its neat­ly ordered list form with tongue mov­ing from cheek to cheek. Does he real­ly mean that we should read “the notable Pseu­do-Long­i­nus” on the sub­lime? Or to suggest—after insis­tent ref­er­ence to sev­er­al essen­tial Latin Amer­i­can writ­ers’ writers—that “with Edgar Allan Poe, we would all have more than enough good mate­r­i­al to read”? Prob­a­bly. But the gist, with more than enough sin­cer­i­ty, is this: Read the greats, who­ev­er they are, and read them often.

See Bolaño’s com­plete text here at Elec­tric Cere­al and an excerpt­ed ver­sion below.


(1) Nev­er approach short sto­ries one at a time. If one approach­es short sto­ries one at a time, one can quite hon­est­ly be writ­ing the same short sto­ry until the day one dies. 

(2) It is best to write short sto­ries three or five at a time. If one has the ener­gy, write them nine or fif­teen at a time.

(4) One must read Hora­cio Quiroga, Felis­ber­to Hernán­dez, and Jorge Luis Borges. One must read Juan Rul­fo and Augus­to Mon­ter­roso. Any short-sto­ry writer who has some appre­ci­a­tion for these authors will nev­er read Cami­lo José Cela or Fran­cis­co Umbral yet will, indeed, read Julio Cortázar and Adol­fo Bioy Casares, but in no way Cela or Umbral. 

(5) I’ll repeat this once more in case it’s still not clear: don’t con­sid­er Cela or Umbral, what­so­ev­er.

(6) A short-sto­ry writer should be brave. It’s a sad fact to acknowl­edge, but that’s the way it is.

(9) The hon­est truth is that with Edgar Allan Poe, we would all have more than enough good mate­r­i­al to read. 

(10) Give thought to point num­ber 9. Think and reflect on it. You still have time. Think about num­ber 9. To the extent pos­si­ble, do so on bend­ed knees. 

(12) Read these books and also read Anton Chekhov and Ray­mond Carv­er, for one of the two of them is the best writer of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Junot Díaz’s Syl­labi for His MIT Writ­ing Class­es, and the Nov­els on His Read­ing List

Pre­dict Which 21st Cen­tu­ry Nov­els Will Enter the Lit­er­ary Canon? And Which Over­rat­ed Ones Won’t?

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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