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Literary grumbler

"I DON'T KNOW WHY, but the rules of market-oriented literary culture remind me of good old socialist realism," writes Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic in her newly translated essay collection "Thank You for Not Reading" (Dalkey Archive Press). Here in the United States, she gripes, "it is not writers, arbiters of taste, or critics, but the powerful literary marketplace that establishes literary values." Ugresic left the former Yugoslavia in 1993 for political reasons and has since taught at various American universities, most recently Harvard. The self-described "East European grumbler confused by the dynamics of the global book market" spoke to Ideas from her current residence in Amsterdam.

IDEAS: You argue that American writers and readers live "a semi-underground life," while the literary landscape is ruled by publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, and publicists -- all of whom produce books, not literature.

UGRESIC: We live in a book paradise! More books are being produced than ever. Bookstores were never more attractive or diverse. Writers never had such opportunities to become global stars as they do today.

So why do I grumble? Because the book has become a product like any other -- that is the price of the marketization of culture. Unwilling or unable to put time and effort into educating ourselves about the options, we end up buying what everybody else buys. Worse, we start enjoying the books we are manipulated into buying -- even defending them against pretentious jerks who dare criticize them. In exactly the same way that we slowly become Ikea-people, we also become Booker Prize-people, Harry Potter-people, Stephen King-people.

IDEAS: You write that "if Stephen King had found himself in Stalinist Russia, he would undoubtedly have gotten the Stalin Prize." What do you think of King's recent Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation?

UGRESIC: King's award is not a surprise but a logical consequence of contemporary literary professionalism, which -- like socialist realism -- demands that a writer clench his teeth and write within the framework of the given norm or else end up, if not in a prison camp, then in his own personal ghetto of anonymity and poverty. The symbolic meaning of King's award is a Fall of the Literary Wall: a final unification, not of good and bad literature but of literature and trash.

IDEAS: You are a merciless critic. Are you worried about being fingered by "Snarkwatch," the list put together by the literary magazine The Believer of those critics who write overly savage reviews of the work of young writers?

UGRESIC: Young writers are over-pampered -- one of the easiest ways to become a bestseller writer today is simply to be young. In such an age-discriminative time, the writers who really need some gentleness and care are, in fact, the old ones!That said, the commitment to optimism in today's literary world can also be traced to Stalinism, which didn't permit what was called defeatism. If there had been camps for literary characters back then, Eeyore the melancholy donkey -- with whom I closely identify -- would have been among the first inmates. The contemporary literary marketplace is almost as repressive. It rewards only the artistically obedient, the adaptable, the diligent, the optimistic. Optimists, after all, are the only reliable consumers.

Dubravka Ugresic claims Stephen King would have won the Stalin Prize. Dubravka Ugresic claims Stephen King would have won the Stalin Prize. (Photo / Zeljko Koproicec)
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