The Market and Ms. Ugresic Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia by Dubravka Ugresic, Dalkey Archive Press.
We all have one of those friends, always ironic, quick with the comebacks and a wry opinion on just about everything. Dubravka Ugresic, one might surmise from reading her book of essays, is one of those people. The aptly named Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia is a collection of 31 short pieces – smoothly translated from the Croation by Celia Hawkesworth—ostensibly about the state of the publishing industry.
I say ostensibly because Thank You for Not Reading is about much more than the publishing industry in all its celebrity chasing glory, it is a book with a unique perspective. Ugresic grew up in communist Yugoslavia, worked at the Institute for the Theory of Literature at the University of Zagreb, and left what is now Croatia in 1993. Today she lives in Amsterdam. Her point of view, always in sight here, is that of an intelligent woman—a writer in a narrowly spoken language—from a small country that has undergone ideological, political and calamitous change.
The book’s arc is from light to dark, never too dark, merely skimming the surface of a seriousness that by the end leaves the reader questioning Ugresic’s intentions. We begin with Eeyore as our mascot and are treated to a description of Joan Collins at the annual London Book Fair "dressed like a quotation: in a little pink Chanel suit, with a pink pillbox hat on her head and a coquettish veil over her eyes." "What does this have to do with literature?" she asks. "Almost nothing," she points out, and it is just this sort of trivia that has "swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books."
"The writer who does not accept the rules of the market will simply perish . . . The world of the literary market is ruled by the producers of books, but producing books does not quite mean the same thing as producing literature."
With that, the premise of Ugresic’s book is settled and we are entertained with biting commentary on pitching literary agents, book blurbs, celebrity and pop culture, and The Market.
The word "market" can mean many things and it can be understood here as "the publishing industry," but in my opinion, when Ugresic says market she does so with the mind of an Eastern European. I don’t mean to imply that she longs for a return to communism, indeed, as an intellectual, she seems to be stuck in the middle of two ideologies that have in her lifetime shown their ugly faces. No, I think the word market to her connotes something more like Chichikov’s trading of dead souls in Gogol’s novel, with all its metaphorical double meaning. The market she speaks of is seemingly harmless, yet opportunistic and ultimately evil.
It is irony that Ugresic revels in. In the essay "Engineers of Human Souls" she compares literature, essentially in America and Russia: "The demands of the market have no ideology; they have been been cleansed of it, they are pure, desirable, wreathed in glamour and glory. What the market decides is confirmed by millions, and its moral dimension is not in question. The work is worth as much as we pay for it."
She says it. She knows it’s true, but we know that she doesn’t believe it. Similarly, she follows that passage with this:
The former communist, noncommercial cultures, particularly in Stalin’s days, must be given credit for the professionalism of the writer’s craft…
I maintain that Stalinism was a stern school of literary professionalism. Stalinism made writers into professionals, who would surely be rampaging through the international literary market now, if only they’d lived. Writers had to be professionals, it was a matter of life and death. Stalinist writers had to take great care to follow the rules of the game: the rules of socialist realism. Literature had to be comprehensible to the broad reading masses…
From there, Ugresic easily segues to contemporary commercial writers and mass producers of books, like Stephen King, that are "comprehensible to the broad reading masses."
Ugresic’s strength is in making her point through anecdotal stories and putting context around her everyday observations. In "How I Coud Have Been Ivana Trump and Where I Went Wrong," she chronicles the rise of her fellow Eastern European from small town Czech girl, national ski team member and model, to Donald Trump’s wife, businesswoman and finally celebrity writer. When the two meet, Ugresic finds "her appearance somehow touching. With her exaggeratedly bleached hair, too-heavy make-up, and lips like fresh hot dogs."
Her point? " . . . when my students ask me how one becomes a writer, I reply with complete authority: ‘Take up a sport and train like hell. Anything else could lead you in the wrong direction.’"
While she’s good at inferring from the obvious, many of her earlier essays cover material that is too obvious or trite to even the most casual observer of the publishing world or pop culture:
The blurb is one of these devices, only apparently innocent. If words such as fantastic, astonishing…and so on accompany the name of some well known person on the back of your own book, entrance to the world of references is almost guaranteed. And the well known person need not be a writer. Bill Gates and Madonna are more effective promoters than Gunter Grass.
There are a lot of pop icons scattered throughout the book, including Oprah, Monika Lewinsky, O.J., the apparent media-influenced families of the Columbine victims, and the "mega-death" of Lady Di. The juxtaposition of death, celebrity, and media occur often here.
This obsession with the symbols of mass culture might be best explained in her essay "The Role of Kirk Douglas in My Life" where she describes growing up watching imported American movies and says "I believe that we outdid the film critics of the time in our knowledge of the names of Hollywood actors," only to find out later that Kirk Douglas, who she had received a letter from as a young girl, had became an author:
I was overcome by a sudden vague sadness… And then the sadness became an inner protest. The protest came from the sudden sense of my historical moment; the thought that everyone in the world has become a writer, literature was not a mountain peak which I had been trying to climb for years driven by the romantic notion that it belonged only to the persistent and dedicated, and that it was therefore only literary mountain-climbers who earned the right to write.
So we see this is a very personal book. Her contempt of popular culture rises from her own seriousness of craft and intellect contrasted with the easy ride to literary fame that the aura of celebrity has given to so many. The Hollywood images of her youth crashing with reality.
The earlier, lighter stories unfold into observations of an exiled writer: the suspect motivations of the writing and intellectual community in her home country, the corruption and malfeasance of her new so-called democratic government, and the sense of homelessness that even a self-willed exile feels. It is in this later part of the book that Ugresic really excels, by giving us a very real sense of her unique perspective. But it is here too that she fails, because we have been so long riddled with her cynicism, by now we don’t know what is true.
In many of her essays, Ugresic includes herself with those she damns, as if it’s okay to snarl when doing it in the mirror. But that does not justify all of her conclusions. For example, Ugresic takes on (without naming names, necessarily) the writers and intellectuals she would be a part of. In "War is War, but Intellectuals Are Only Human," she says that the "tragic disintegration of Yugoslavia was extensively covered by the media." True. But then she says that "Miles of film and tons of paper were used up. Heaps of documentaries, films, books, photographs were produced, even souvenirs . . . " She is still correct, but she goes on, and in discussing intellectuals, filmmakers and journalists as one massive lump of media, in this situation seems more sarcastic than thoughtful.
It seems that she is determined to leave no area of public or literary life untouched, but you only need to think of two people positively involved in the Balkan conflict, Susan Sontag and Jean-Luc Godard, both representing the opposite of everything Ms. Ugresic condemns, to see how thin a shield cynicism can be.
That’s not to say that she gets the media’s hold on culture wrong. In one of her best wry watercooler moments, she quotes a proponent of a "Turn off Your TV Month" as saying "Who knows whether our campaign will have the same significance this time as it had last year, when we had fantastic media coverage." To her credit, she takes a wide swath of heavy topics such as globalization, war, culture, and a market driven publishing industry and treats them with enough levity to make the book entertaining. But it sometimes feels like a barrier, the way we tell jokes at a funeral when what we really want to do is scream our bloody heads off.
Toward the end, Ugresic returns again to her original theme: "In the global market we are all sellers, even when it does not seem that way. Everyone automatically holds out his business card, everyone strives to be heard even when he has nothing to say… The only acceptable aesthetic choice that remains for people of good taste is silence."