This week’s PEN Atlas despatch is from Dubravka Ugresic, who considers a specific human species and its survival: the writer. This piece is translated from the Croatian by David Williams.
Lately all the talk has been about the decline of independent bookshops, the once powerful chains, and indeed bookshops full stop. Everyone’s talking about the squeeze on publishers, editors losing their jobs, library closures, the death of literary magazines, and very occasionally, the small army of those with doctorates in literature who can’t get a job. There are plenty of spokespeople for the two main views: on the one hand, “the pessimists” furiously attack the aggressive “trash” polluting our cultural habitat and depriving it of oxygen, and on the other, “the optimists” furiously defend the laws of the literary marketplace—often the same people happy to accuse The Muppets of spreading anticapitalist propaganda. Whatever the case, amid the general clamour no one, really no one, is talking about writers. This means that the direct producers (the workers, i.e. writers) have become a totally marginal element in the chain of production. The contemporary book world is reminiscent of the old Robert Altman film, The Player. An unscrupulous Hollywood mogul murders a screenwriter with impunity, marries his girlfriend, and then cynically claims that in the film business writers just get in the way. For my part I can confirm that I’ve never met so many writer colleagues driving taxis as I have done lately.
Historically speaking, writers have always fallen into the category of “fragile” human material, but somehow they’ve hung on, surviving hostile epochs, the reigns of kings, czars, and dictators, seasons of book burnings and censorship. Today, lo and behold, some earn fabulous money and turn up on Forbes’ lists of richest “content providers.” Others tour the world like royalty, surrounded by clubs of their devoted subjects. Today the writerly profession is thought desirable and profitable; many countries still erect public statues honouring their writers, and the odd writer even becomes part of the tourist package, like Joyce in Ireland, Proust in France, J.K. Rowling in Edinburgh.
But roses only bloom for the few. As a specific human species, the majority of writers are facing extinction. Whether writers fall into the critically endangered group like Sumatran orangutans, the endangered group like Malaysian tigers, the vulnerable group like African elephants, the near threatened group together with the jaguar, or in the least concern group with the giraffe—let’s leave that to the experts.
On the other hand though, observing the status improvement of animals at the Zagreb Zoo over the past twenty years, it seems to me there’s some hope for writers. Ever since a small number of Croatian citizens got rich quick and public services were pauperized even quicker, the fortunes of animals at the Zagreb Zoo have been on the up. Wealthy Croats have taken the protection of animals upon themselves, and thus the owner of a well-reputed Zagreb restaurant has been feeding the tiger, the tapir is protected by a well-known Croatian war criminal, while the crocodile is under the wing of a Croatian tycoon. Wealthy Croats amuse themselves no end with conversations like: How’s your ostrich? Good thanks, last month we nursed his sore throat back to health. And how’s your tapir? I gave him up, now I’m looking after a hippopotamus. That basketball player took the tapir on… somehow suits him better.
Citing the example of the Zagreb Zoo I naturally don’t want to suggest that endangered writers should be put in zoos. But I don’t see the problem with luxury resorts, theme parks and writers’ villages. I mean, those kinds of villages and their romantic little wooden cottages existed in Soviet times.
While we’re on the subject of Russians, let’s put it out there that the Russians have always had more respect for literature than other nations. When you tally things up, no one, out of fear of the literary word—that is, respect for the literary word—has killed more writers than the Russians. That’s why it’s somehow understandable that a Russian oligarch has bought Waterstones, another The Independent, and a third set up a foundation for the translation of Russian writers into foreign languages (the same guy who paid Amy Winehouse a million pounds to sing one night). Inspired by these examples, perhaps Madonna might swoop down to offer lifelong protection to a potential African Nobel laureate, or Bill Gates spend the rest of his days dedicated to the promotion of Malaysian literature.
So it’s not all glum, you just need a little imagination. I really don’t know why I’m so worried about writers. Being a writer is still predominantly a job for the boys. It’s a proven fact that male writers never or seldom read books by their female colleagues. The assumption that things will be better for me if I’m my male colleagues’ keeper is wrong: for them, my male colleagues, things will always be better. So why am I worrying then? In an ocean of general despair, it’s like worrying about the last European leper colony on the Romanian side of the Danube. I don’t know, it must because I’m doing okay. I just passed my taxi driver training.
About the Author
Dubravka Ugresic is the author of several works of fiction, including The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and The Ministry of Pain, and several essay collections, most recently Thank You for Not Reading. In 1991, when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Ugresic took a firm anti-nationalistic stand and was exposed to harsh and persistent media harassment. As a result, she left Croatia in 1993 and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her latest collection of essays Karaoke Culture is published by Open Letter in the US.
About the Translator
David Williams is the main translator of Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic (Open Letter, 2011), and the translator of Mama Leone by Miljenko Jergovic (Archipelago, forthcoming 2012). He recently completed his doctoral thesis in Comparative Literature (University of Auckland) on Ugresic’s post-Yugoslav writings and the broader idea of a post-1989 “literature of the east European ruins.”
Dubravka Ugresic’s website can be found online here.
Dubravka Ugresic was one of the very first authors supported through English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme for her acclaimed novel, The Ministry of Pain. The Ministry of Pain was Saqi and Telegram Books.
Dubravka’s latest book, Karaoke Culture, was published in 2011 by Open Letter Press.