All great authors are charlatans; it goes with the job of being a writer

Both Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin and the television documentary he made to accompany it mention Chatwin's secrecy about the Aids that was killing him. As a result, in the weeks that followed his death there was a certain awkwardness in the literary and media world about discussing what everybody knew to be the truth.

It was with somewhat mixed feelings that I remembered that one of the first people to write about his Aids was me in the New Statesman. Yes, I've been writing the column for that long. I rummaged through the "archive" in my attic room and found the issue of 27 January 1989. It was a rather cautious article in which I mentioned that for anybody who had seen his wizened appearance when he appeared on the Booker prize TV programme discussing his novel Utz, the reports that he had died of Aids can't have come as much of a surprise.

I went on to talk about the ambiguity of sexual roles that some performers and writers make use of, and how Aids had broken through all this ambiguity by branding certain people. I concluded by surmising that Chatwin's fib about suffering from some mysterious Chinese bone disease "was another gallant myth, a way of escaping being pinned down to the very end".

The article provoked a storm of controversy - well, a letter in the following issue: "Whether or not Bruce Chatwin had Aids is scarcely of any concern to anyone except his family and friends, and speculation as to the cause of his or any other person's death would seem to be prurient and mischievous." Well, there has been a good deal of prurience and mischief in the following ten years.

Like most recent literary biographies (Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin is an obvious example), Shakespeare's book has been seen as a demolition job. Chatwin emerges not just as a self-centred bastard, but a fantasist, charlatan, a man who falsely claimed to possess various kinds of expertise, who won people's confidence and then betrayed them and distorted them in his books.

Many reviewers have been shocked by the person revealed in the book. The anonymous reviewer in Private Eye cites George Orwell's famous essay on Salvador Dali in which Orwell attacks the idea that, in his words, "the artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people". Is it permissible to suggest that George Orwell is overrated? That he is treated with too much reverence? (Not always: John Gross and Frank Kermode have written perceptively about how Orwell's "common sense" stance, supposedly using prose that is like a "pane of glass", masks a more complicated, contradictory figure.)

Has anybody seriously argued that artists are uniquely exempt from moral laws? It might have been less cliched for Orwell to explore how artists have consistently been judged more harshly than so-called ordinary people. There is also the endlessly difficult relationship between an artist's life and his work. Most people would agree that being horrible to your friends and family doesn't in itself make you a bad writer. On the other hand, being horrible to your friends and family doesn't in itself make you a good writer, either.

The young Stephen Spender told T S Eliot that he wanted to be a poet. Eliot replied acidly that he could understand somebody wanting to write poetry but he couldn't understand the intention to "be" a poet. But Spender had got it right. Understandably most people are unwilling or unable to go through the process of writing, which is much the same whether you're Don DeLillo or someone writing in green ink in a bedsit. It's just day after day spent on your own. But then there's the other stuff, which reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon of two women in a restaurant, one saying to the other: "My husband's like Tolstoy. Except he doesn't write." Getting drunk, receiving acclaim and money, people being sexually attracted to you even though you're not especially attractive, being stalked, having a mythology surrounding you - that is "being a writer" rather than "writing". And some writers, Jack Kerouac might be an example, are celebrated as much for the demeanour as the work.

The problem is that great writers are the biggest fakes of all, pretending to more knowledge than they have, exaggerating first-hand knowledge. It's almost a definition of literature that it doesn't matter. Would Robinson Crusoe be diminished if it were all based on secondary reading? In fact it was. And it isn't.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie