I enjoyed Dubravka Ugrešić‘s essays so much that I almost felt guilty, because, of the many things she criticizes in her book, one is how there is no longer a clear line between trivial and high literature, and how it came to be that nowadays only light, entertaining reading can make it on the market. That made me wonder a little bit: if her book is so entertaining, is she then trying to “blend in”, or is she simply so skilled a writer that you just have to enjoy her witty, anecdotal and wise observations? I’d go for the second assumption here.
Dubravka makes several key points in her essays, but what struck me as the saddest was her conclusion that real, authentic writers and real, authentic literature is dying out. There’s a powerful money-making industry behind the literary world today that commands what is the most important for a book and for a writer – to sell. The more copies you sell, the better writer you are.
Everyone can be a writer today, notices Ms. Ugrešić. She gives an example of Joan Collins who wrote a book and had the honor of opening a very big literary event somewhere, as if she’s suddenly an authority on literature. Some critics today christened her: “The Proust of Hollywood”. It’s clear where we, “authentic” book lovers, are headed if one Joan Collins is compared to Proust.
Other things Dubravka so unsparingly condemns are:
1) Globalization and how it killed authentic language, how everyone now writes the same, regardless of where he/she is coming from.
2) Media that took over every sphere of our lives and makes us trust TV more than our own eyes, as if we are in a trance. (She has a wonderful line about it: “Reality is media irradiated.”)
3) Her country and its neighbors (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania etc.), especially writers and intellectuals with delusions of grandeur and an impressive potential for envying and devaluing colleagues and other writers.
4) Publishers that don’t actually read anymore, but just look for “publishable, sell-able” material: an author with a presentable face that can be put on a book cover, enough scenes of sex and violence inside the covers, catchy titles, a proven formula.
5) Professors and academics who choose to exchange their intellectualism/elitism for tasteless social profile pages where they can appear likable to their students and perhaps get a “gig” on some TV show. (Well, who doesn’t dream of having their views expressed in front of an audience of several million viewers/listeners?).
The author of these essays is presenting a very gloomy reality with a somewhat light tone (or, perhaps it sounds light to me because I love humor, even when it’s that of the most cynic kind), but in some parts of her book I wonder whether she is bitter and revolted only because of the direction we are headed in, or also because she is not part of the “elite” literary world?
It seems to me she is trying so hard to (want to) play their game, to be published at any cost, even if it means changing a title or content (she didn’t actually say this, but I’m drawing conclusions) and I can’t understand why? On the other hand, I see her as someone with too much integrity to be able to do that. So, as it often happens, I must be reading something wrong.
I just want to address one more thing: the title of the book. The essays’ original title is in Croatian and the literal translation is “Forbidden reading”. She mentioned Ray Bradbury’s dystopia “Fahrenheit 451” where enjoying any form of art was forbidden and she also talked about some totalitarian regimes that burned books, then said that perhaps we are currently living in a society that is a complete opposite to these systems. Today it seems that we can read anything we want, but still, the feeling Dubravka Ugrešić has is that of living in a place where real reading is forbidden.
Seeing so many people at the Belgrade’s Book Fair each year who go there only to be seen, to be caught by the camera and to say that they’d been there makes me agree with Dubravka. There is no real reading anymore, but maybe that was the only possible outcome of a project that involved making the masses literate.