Literature Versus Content: On Dubravka Ugrešić’s “Thank You for Not Reading”
By Eric VanderwallOctober 27, 2022
Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia by Dubravka Ugrešić
In the acknowledgments, moved from their 2003 place at the beginning of the book to the end, Ugrešić describes having tried to avoid “the tone of the ‘professor of literature.’” The essays evince a struggle between her “ambition to take the things seriously and the fear that if she does, she’ll bore her readers.” As tepid justification, the author cites a former student’s definition of a good book (“It has to sparkle!”), explaining that she “certainly tried to meet [the] student’s literary standards.” This explains what Ugrešić did but not why. If the desultory state of literature prompted the book (and its reissue), that effort would seem to merit some seriousness and a sustained exploration of its ideas, but the breezy tone and the shortness of each essay, as the author seems to admit, do a disservice to the subject.
The book is also at odds with itself in its lack of new material. Other than a new cover design and a few additional remarks in the acknowledgments, this is the same text — in the same translation, by Celia Hawkesworth and Damion Searles — as in 2003. Some essays — especially those on the Trumps, the publishing industry’s emphasis on image and celebrity, and Amazon.com — are perspicacious in having identified important trends and players of the coming era. And yet some new writing from the author, continuing the work begun in the old essays, would have benefited the book. There are, however, two passages in the acknowledgments hinting at Ugrešić’s thoughts today. In one, she writes about how the “world literary scene over the last twenty years has changed dramatically both for the worse and for the better” and how “[p]ublishers, editors, the authors themselves, and the media have doubled down on the brutal commercialization of literature.” What exactly is meant is left to the reader to decide. Both the paradox and the doubling down seem worthy of further essays, or at least more prolonged attention in a coda.
The second passage intimating what might have been, had Ugrešić and Open Letter seen fit to expand or update the volume, refers obliquely to “what we might call a resistance movement,” naming “small non-profit publishers, literary activists, online portals that exist thanks only to the work of volunteers and enthusiasts,” and “students of literature, critics, lecturers, secondary-school teachers, academics, translators, [and] all those who have resisted succumbing” as its members. What is the nature of this resistance, and how can it be differentiated from the mainstream? What exactly is a literary activist, and who qualifies as one? Which students, editors, academics, etc., are in the resistance, and which are in the mainstream that is being resisted? Is this resistance movement ideologically unified or is it heterogeneous? Are there more than two camps in this conflict? Whatever the case, this topic deserves more than passing mention in the acknowledgments.
Despite such irksome flaws, Thank You for Not Reading explores topics that, even after 20 years, are of continued — and in some cases even increased — importance. One such subject is the Trumps. Ivana Trump makes her first appearance in “Literary Dreams,” the book’s second essay, and provides the impetus for “How I Could Have Been Ivana Trump and Where I Went Wrong.” In 1996 and 1998, the dates of those essays, Ivana Trump was using her fame as a former model and the first ex-wife of Donald Trump to become a celebrity whose business was herself. Ivana Trump, as quoted by Ugrešić, described herself thus: “I am not an actress. I can’t dance or sing. I am not a superstar. I am a personality. I travel extensively, and wherever I go the perception of me helps me to sell my products. Maybe I’m selling me.” The phenomenon of the person famous for being famous, a persona who makes no discernible contribution other than enacting itself, seems only to have become more common in the last 20 years; this, after all, is the basis of social media celebrities and so-called reality stars (who may be real, but are the antithesis of authentic).
Ugrešić also takes an interest in Ivana Trump as a celebrity trafficking in books (at least selling books credited to her, if not actually writing them). She finds something disheartening in the increasing attention afforded celebrity authors at the expense of more serious talents; there is a revealing anecdote about an issue of The New York Times Book Review in which Trump received praise for her “analytical intelligence” in writing on Czechoslovakia before the 1968 Soviet incursion, next to “an unjustly malicious review” of Joseph Brodsky’s most recent book. (After a long authorial hiatus, Trump published Raising Trump: Family Values from America’s First Mother in 2018.) It is unfortunate that there is no sequel to the Ivana Trump chapter, in which Ugrešić might have commented on the family’s significance in global politics, the burgeoning genre of Trump-related books (mostly memoirs) by nonwriters, the transformation of national politics into a reality show, Donald Trump’s own (ghostwritten) The Art of the Deal, and the place of the pseudoliterature that is Twitter in all of this.
In comparing celebrity and serious authors, Ugrešić hints at, but does not quite name, a form of nonreading less obvious than not reading at all. It is possible to read without truly reading, to read superficially, to read without thinking, to read at a degraded level. Ugrešić’s essay “The Aura of Glamour” decries the diminution of writers to “content providers,” and this in 1997, a time when the phrase still warranted quotation marks. Although the focus of this passage is the way commercial literature places ever greater emphasis on the images of authors, recognition of the marketplace’s demotion of literature to mere content and the attendant shift in terminology constitutes one of the more perceptive parts of the book. Literature requires deep attention; it is the work of one consciousness encountering the traces of another as preserved in writing. Content, by contrast, exists to attract attention, and this is the only standard by which it is measured; content is the filler that goes between ads to entertain people long enough to look at the next set of ads. It takes the form of literature (i.e., words), but it is not literature. Literature and content are founded upon antithetical sets of values, each with its own model of individuality and society. Perhaps this interpretation resembles what Ugrešić means in the passage about the movement that is resisting the “brutal commercialization of literature,” or perhaps not; ideas are introduced and left to the reader to pursue.
The current dominance of “content,” both the term and the stuff it denotes, seems to be one aspect of what Ugrešić defines as a conflict between high, serious literature and low, trivial literature. As she observes in “The Writer and His Future,” “[M]any people no longer know the meaning of these old-fashioned terms.” Erasure of this distinction, of any distinctions of quality, is part of the work that the term “content” does. There is no good or bad, no high or low, no informed or uninformed, no discerning or fatuous; there is only content, measured by popularity. The contemporary glut of content has taken the phenomenon of nonreading to a paradoxical extreme: there is more printed and digital verbiage than ever, and yet little of it is read with much attention — nor is it intended to be.
The leveling effect of content is one aspect of commercial literature’s increasing resemblance to socialist realism. Literature deals in uncertainties; socialist realism deals in certainty and progress. “Most of today’s literary production,” Ugrešić writes, “bases its success on the simple socialist-realist idea of progress,” with its “faith in a bright future and the definitive victory of good over evil” and its emphasis on “muscular and healthy bodies.” Socialist-realist and market-oriented literature alike are founded on a “fundamental, didactic demand” and, crucially, are “intended for the broad reading masses.” Since 1996 (the time of the essay “Long Live Socialist Realism!”), commercial literature’s resemblance to socialist realism has intensified in its fixation on images of the body, its relentless and phony optimism, its ongoing pursuit of the lowest common denominator in the name of accessibility, its hostility to intellectual endeavors as elitist, and its narrow of scope of interest. The didacticism, which Ugrešić in 1996 identified primarily with the plans for personal fulfillment on offer from Oprah and the self-help section of bookstores, has developed into a rigid social-moral-political ideology as intolerant of ambiguity and debate as socialist realism was under communism.
Ugrešić aptly describes this conformist strain in her essay “Questions to an Answer,” writing that “we live in a cultural environment that tends towards being conflict-free,” an environment that favors monologue over dialogue. The new edition of Thank You for Not Reading itself furnishes an instance of conflict avoidance: the paragraph on the back of the 2003 Dalkey Archive edition describing this phenomenon was modified for the 2022 edition to render the list of culprits (“Oprah, the Today show, and Kelly Ripa”) into something generic and inoffensive (“listicles and celebrity book clubs”). To the extent that Google Books and Amazon’s preview function permit comparison of the two texts, the matter between the covers was not likewise defanged, but there remains something unsettling about the exchange of specificity for vagueness in the drive for a conflict-free tone in the new book’s promotion.
This drive seems motivated in part by the rise of identity politics, a trend Ugrešić noted at a crucial time. “Equality between a multitude of different literary expressions has replaced the monopoly,” a reappraisal of literary values of which Ugrešić approves for having permitted literature once considered trivial to be taken seriously. She wonders whether, as a consequence of these changes, literature “has been enriched with a multitude of individual statements,” whether “individual speech [has] become more individual” in such an environment. But she laments that “[t]he opposite has happened” in terms of literary marketing, since every new work “is slotted into the market niche of the moment” and labeled with “the buzzword of the moment”; as a result, the author is “more than ever before plastered with identity labels” that “determine his place in the literary market and the kind of understanding there can be between himself and his readers.” (Ugrešić herself bristles at being identified as a Croatian writer or as an émigré writer from the former Yugoslavia.) And there is also an increased reliance on stereotypes, which, she writes in “Questions to An Answer,” are now “the basic formula of communication,” the “language of politics, television, and mass culture.” “Identities,” she writes, can be useful markers, but they often “badly reduce the meaning of the text, impoverishing it or simply distorting it.” She further wonders whether the way the “global cultural market so rapidly and enthusiastically appropriates the intellectual trends of our time — postcolonialism, feminism, multiculturalism, identity politics” — suggests that “the market itself invents intellectual trends in order to make a profit.”
Her analysis of identity politics seems more relevant now than it did 20 years ago. Excessive focus on categorizing authors and their work gives rise to a second kind of nonreading that appears to be reading, whereby the text is merely an occasion for the repetition of a priori conclusions about the identity groups in question, really nothing more than exchanges of commonplaces. As Ugrešić writes in “Having Fun,” the “exchange of commonplaces is communication with no content other than the fact of communication itself.” Even more alarming than the dominance of identity labels is the rise of online public-shaming events in which self-appointed moral arbiters summon mobs to punish supposed transgressors. One wonders what Ugrešić, who left her native Yugoslavia amidst a war over identity and who herself resists being labeled, would have to say about the development and commercialization of identity politics over the last 20-odd years.
There are, then, insights to be gleaned from this new edition of Thank You for Not Reading. Their value is somewhat tempered by the scattershot nature of both the individual essays and the collection as a whole, which encompasses writing on the publishing industry as well as personal meditations on the writer in exile, the war that split former Yugoslavia into separate states, and the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library during that war, among other topics. The charming and strange final essay, “The Seventh Screw,” about a con-man contractor and his attempt to write an autobiographical novel, seems to answer in some way the invocation of Joan Collins “dressed like a quotation” at the opening of the first essay, but any possible connection or textual symmetry is underdeveloped. No one essay sustains its inquiry long enough to do justice to its subject. Related ideas, rather than being grouped together, are dispersed throughout the text like a series of afterthoughts. Some authorial choices, such as quotations from the character Eeyore furnishing epigraphs for the seven sections, while interesting and occasionally amusing, feel lackadaisical. (And the meticulous reader will be irritated that not one of the page numbers in the table of contents is correct.)
One finishes the text with a sense that, rather than being a cohesive book, Thank You for Not Reading includes the beginnings of several books on disparate topics all mixed together. It may be an imperfect and unsatisfying work, but it is engaged with literature of all kinds, and it leaves the reader with a desire to continue investigating the ideas it broaches, however haphazardly. And that, in our dark age, is what matters.
Eric Vanderwall is a writer and musician. He earned his MA from the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared in Philip Roth Studies, The Ekphrastic Review, and elsewhere. You can find his music on his website.
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