The woman meant well. "You review books?" she asked, after I explained why I was holding an advance copy of Thank You for Not Reading. "That must be so much fun!" So how could I respond honestly — how could I say, "It barely supports my reading habit"? Or, "Not fun so much as necessary, since journalism underwrites my career as an author"? Instead, I smiled and nodded. If I’d had an extra copy of Dubravka Ugresic’s brilliant and biting essays, with their spot-on skewering of contemporary publishing, I could’ve handed it to her and been done.
Despite the awkward title (it looks just as awkward in Ugresic’s native Croatian) and the subtitle "Essays on Literary Trivia," this slim volume isn’t concerned with reading or even literature. Instead, it focuses on the marketing of authors and their product. Which is, as Ugresic explains, what occupies the literary world today.
How else to explain a world in which Joan Collins opens a book fair? In which authors must spend more time polishing synopses than their novels? In which the Stalinist phrase for writers, "engineers of human souls," gains new significance as wordsmiths toil away to produce product for a publishing industry? These are all topics Ugresic mulls over in this collection of brief essays. Perhaps it takes an outsider — and Ugresic is doubly so, considering herself a citizen of Yugoslavia, which no longer exists, and self-exiled from Croatia — to put such absurdities in focus. "Oh, you’re a writer?" she is asked. "What a coincidence! Our ten-year-old daughter is just finishing a novel! We even have a publisher!" Even in translation, such anecdotes will summon knowing chuckles from anyone who has published in the last few years, and they may help explain such phenomena as bestseller lists and television reading clubs to the literate public.
What is the cause of such decline? As a citizen of a formerly Communist country, Ugresic looks first at the market. Commercial viability has replaced quality as a measure, she finds, and "books are simply a commodity of the publishing industry." (203) This shouldn’t be that bad, she opines. "More books are being produced than ever . . . writers never had such opportunities to become global stars as they do today." But the supreme subservience to commercial pressure has led to oversimplification, a market in which all worth is weighed on the same scale. Thus, high-art writers compete with the Joan Collinses, and academics gather at agent-and-editor bazaars to wrestle their lives’ work into high-concept pitches. At such a gathering, we hear a weeping philosopher ask: "How can I squeeze my Confucius into five minutes! How?"
But even a one-time socialist can see forces other than the market at work. To start with, Ugresic connects with the basic insecurity of the artist. "I have myself been known to put ‘typist’ under ‘Profession’ when filling in forms," she confesses. Then, as the increasing democratization of society — or, perhaps, "standards bulldozing" would be more accurate — convinces everyone that he or she is creative, the writer finds herself not only insecure but increasingly overwhelmed by untalented, undisciplined competition. Yes, there are those Bellow-and-Mailer-like institutions whose sexist egos are strong enough to power through (thanks to uncredited female support). But too many, Ugresic notes, are reduced to repeating "I am a writer" to themselves, as if they were alcoholics confessing their addiction.
This phrase, the author admits, always comes to her in English, "probably because the movies I’ve seen about people in rehab were always American," she says in a passage that reads a bit oddly since the entire essay is, of course, appears in English. (21) But if the translation (by Celia Hawkesworth with assistance from Damion Searles) loses some of Ugresic’s cultural context, more comes through in the last third of the book, which deals largely with her self-imposed exile and less with life as a writer. Although it is easier for a native-born American to relate to the essays focused on the book industry, these later pieces deepen Ugresic’s exploration of the role of the outsider, and they are perhaps sadder, more heartfelt, and, one suspects, rooted in more permanent displacement. The only solace for any of these ills, it seems, comes from the freedom to choose our own terms of definition. And after watching a TV show in which a prostitute stands up for herself, Ugresic turns once again to words. "I am the real pleasure activist," she concludes. "And I won’t let anyone take the dignity of my profession away from me."
Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
Back to the Books table of contents
|about the phoenix | advertising info | Webmaster | work for us
|Copyright © 2005 Phoenix Media/Communications Group