Dubravka Ugresic’s new collection of essays Thank You For Not Reading meanders more ground than its packaging lets on. Dalkey Archive bills it as a “biting critique of book publishing.” In reality it’s a gloomy collection of observations on being a writer and reader of literature (as opposed to trash) in the present market-driven literary scene.
According to Ugresic, as recent cultural trends have moved toward the uncynical, unsubtle, and unironic, trade literature has followed in its path. Popular, mass-market writing succeeds over the literary or the intellectual. In the quest for marketability, editors are forced to consider an author’s physical appearance—their age and style of dress, or the adaptability of their writing for film & television. The kind of writing engendered in this environment is familiar to Ugresic. As a Croatian who grew up in communist Yugoslavia, it reminds her of the type of writing that succeeded in the Soviet Republic:
“Contemporary market literature is realistic, optimistic, joyful, sexy, explicitly or implicitly didactic and intended for the broad reading masses. As such, it ideologically remolds and educates working people into the spirit of personal victory, the victory of some good over some evil. It is Socialist Realist…The American Bestseller How Stella Got Her Groove Back has roughly the same healing effect on the American black oppressed female proletariat as Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother once had on the Soviet one.”
The censors are still around too, only the market’s a bit subtler than Stalin’s; “Writers who were unable to adapt to the demands of the ideological market ended tragically: in camps. Nowadays, writers who cannot adapt to commercial demands end up in their own personal ghetto of anonymity and poverty.”
The comparison between Soviet Censors and the invisible hand seems apt, but ultimately irresponsible. She illustrates the similarities by jesting that Stephen King would have done remarkably well as one of Stalin’s “engineer(s) of human souls.” The jab comes off more like resentment of his success rather than pointing out any actual similarities in King’s work and that of the Socialist Realists. It appears she’s synonomizing a catastrophic ideological political structure with what is essentially the writer’s condition of alienation. Stephen King’s writing makes tons of money, and is less intellectual than hers. All the comparison seems to accomplish is providing a platform for Ugresic to share her self-pity, that of the unrecognized writer. She tells of having to witness Joan Collins opening the London Book Fair, the most celebrated author at that year’s event; she watches Joseph Brodsky get trampled in the New York Times Book Review, while alongside him Ivana Trump is praised for her autobiography’s grasp of Czech history. This point, the inequity of it all, great writing lost to all and trash succeeding, appears in essay after essay, and steadily weighs down the playfully anxious prose.
Read apart, many of the pieces have a Bulgakovian intensity (she prefaces that many were written “under the mask of an East European grumbler confused by the dynamics of the global book market”). Ugresic franticly pleads us to pay attention to her plight. Read as a complete manifesto, the writing becomes tedious and unrewarding. The first few articles are barbs at celebrity writers, manuals on becoming a successful fiction writer, philistine editors, craven agents and other horrid truths about the current marketplace. As we trudge deeper, Ugresic gradually gets more and more personal. She compares the plight of Eastern European writers and professors to their American counterparts, and spends a lot of time on her experience as a female Croatian writer coerced out of her home country. Whether this is the grumbler speaking or Ugresic, the tone is irritatingly condescending, as though the reader is presumed to be more successful then the author.
The essays that do take on the global publishing industry consist of mostly covered points, echoing The Business of Books and Book Business. Unlike either of those books, these ruminations do not add up to a greater conclusion. The collection meanders from the role of women in literary history to Ugresic’s experiences of being nudged out of her home, the former Yugoslavia and the experience of exile, and finally touches on the world of publishing.
This problem is really an issue of marketing, which is case and point of Ugresic’s subject matter. What we have here is a collection of essays written over a five-year period about topics as broad as culture and history, loosely bound together by an author’s sense of self-pity. But it’s packaged as a new critique on the state of book publishing-- a much more saleable topic.