[Published in PLAYBACK:stl, December 2003]
Saucy, witty, and worldly, Yugoslavian-born writer and occasional American-college professor Dubravka Ugresic offers in this collection (Dalkey Archive Press) an engaging series of riffs on the unhealthy effects of publishing having become an industry and literature having entered a marketplace. In the first of 31 mostly short essays, she states that we’re now in “a literary landscape…densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, ‘marketing people,’ television cameras, [and] photographers.” What that means, she warns, is this: “The writer and his reader—the most important links the chain—are more isolated than ever.”
Not only that, she asserts, but there’s a second, equally important gulf – this one between writers of old (those, say, advancing literature) and writers of now (just about anybody). “The contemporary book market warmly supports the democratic idea that everyone can be a writer,” she notes in one essay, knee-deep in manuals such as Write More, Sell More; she rounds out this idea throughout the book with examples of actors, skiers, doctors…men and women from any trade donning the writer’s cap. She somehow avoids condescension here, because she’s not so much blasting their efforts as simply wondering how it all happened. “In the contemporary media market, literature has acquired an aura of glamour,” she writes. “How has it come to be that all sorts of people” – like, say, Madonna – “are now rushing into the places formerly reserved for outsiders, bookworms, romantics, and losers?”
Ugresic often seems less interested in answering these kinds of questions definitively than simply bringing the topics together for consideration. And thus the book takes on a personal, playful, non-preachy voice, perhaps coming from the person at the dinner party whom you wish you seated closer to. She’s both fun and funny, and fully happy to slip references to Ellen, The Devil’s Advocate, and Ivana Trump next to those of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and the poet Joseph Brodsky. (In fact, she recalls one New York Times Book Review in particular that covered new works by both Brodsky and Trump. Guess who took the bigger beating on the use of metaphor.)
Ugresic covers lots of ground in the essays – exile and democracy, movies and the media – often making connections between subjects you may have thought unrelated. She draws parallels between Stalinism (whose writers were considered “engineers of human souls”) and today’s “mass-production writers,” and between socialist realism (which had “the task of ideologically remolding and educating the working people”) and the current ubiquity of self-help manuals (“Bookstore counters are heaped with books which contain one single idea: how to overcome personal disability, how to improve one’s own situation”).
And what to make of those heaps? Why, she wonders, is she grumbling when so many books are being produced, shelved in gleaming bookstores, and making authors international stars? Her answer is the book’s most explicit, resonant statement: “The concept of literature is disappearing, and its place is increasingly being taken by books.”
Again, she turns to history. “In our post-Cold War world,” she writes, “which tends toward globalization and non-conflict, the newly established rules of political correctness and respect for cultural differences wipe away ‘friction,’ resistance, ambivalence, cynicism, irony and the possibility of revolt in the same way.” The result, she suggest later, is an industry of books about the “heart instead of the mind, sincerity instead of deceit, simplicity instead of sophistication, weakness instead of strength, compassion instead of selfishness.” In other words, pantries full of Chicken Soup for the Non-Reader.
To her discredit, Ugresic ignores those writers who are indeed producing serious stuff today. While she quotes Kundera and Brodksy, she would have made a more interesting discussion (though one that have negated some of her points) bringing in current writers related to her topics. In a passage dissing ordinary memoirs by overly sincere ‘writers,’ for instance, she states that “[p]erhaps the performance of sincerity will last until we all show each other pieces of our own fresh heart.” Or until, perhaps, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a winky subversion to the memoir in title alone, becomes a bestseller. (It did.)
As I lamented Ugresic’s apparent disinterest in bringing up rewarding literature of today, I realized that rarely in Thank You For Not Reading – a book in a way about the very value of literature – did I scent her own love of the medium. How, I wondered, could she resign herself to the statement that the Ulysses-closer Molly Bloom’s “famous stream of consciousness reads today like instructions for turning on a washing machine”? Her point was that in today’s market, with its “shares of human perversion,” such a passage would no longer even be shocking. But then I recalled the line in that awful/good movie Total Eclipse, about the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, when an older writer condemns the young punk’s poetry for its childish intention to shock. “And were you shocked?” Rimbaud asks. “No,” the frump responds. “Then why would you suppose that I intended you to be?”
Dropping in James Joyce’s famous passage – still risky, still breathless, still artful – as a evidence of a shock-free market just attempts, and fails, to take away from it what it actually is: literature. All Ugresic’s reference really did was remind me how beautiful that passage really is (“…Boylan gave my hand a great squeeze going along by the Tolke in my hand there steals another I just pressed the back of his like that with my thumb to squeeze back singing the young May moon she’s beaming love…”), and how much it says to me, not, ‘Are you shocked?,’ but ‘Thank you for reading!’
Weeks after reading this book, with its interesting observations and occasional theories (including the one on Joyce) roaming around my head, I realized that one of Ugresic’s primary points – “Mainstream culture…has gradually vacuumed up every cultural subversion…and become simply culture” – was proving itself in my very own head. I recalled with a smile (as I think Ugresic would) the scene in, what else, Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School, when he’s beaming love to his own Molly Bloom, inviting the smart and saucy professor out for a night of passion. “We can talk about Joyce,” he tells her. “She’s my favorite writer…”