Not reading but downing.

Posted on September 4, 2013

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If the beard were all, the goat might preach: Croatian proverb

Dubrovnik, Croatia, Black and WhiteAs a further break from reading novels, I chose Dubravka Ugresic’s book of essays, ‘Thank You for not Reading’, as the Croatian representative.   If I’m honest, and why not, the main reason I chose this collection (having been recommended Ugresic by a friend whose opinion I rate highly), was that I liked the paradoxical title and the louchely glamorous cover of the Dalkey Archive Press’s edition.  The collection, a critique of the publishing industry, has Ugresic (knowingly one hopes), turning from gamekeeper to poacher, and perhaps it needs to be read in the way one approaches a Shakespearian fool.

The writing, and this may be in part due to an excellent translation, is as lively as a polo pony and as adept at turning direction at speed.   On that level, the collection is a very enjoyable read.   Further, many of the essays are interesting in their exposition of the workings of a writer’s world and the industry behind the publishing of their work.   The word that comes to mind as one reads, and again this may be a product of the translation, is pithy.

So far so good.

The problem for me though is that while Ugresic comes down hard on her victims she removes herself from any of the criticism she so merrily heaps on others.  It is always, them/they or s/he, never I/me.  I can’t believe that she doesn’t feel herself implicated in the grubbier side of the world she’s criticizing, after all she relies on it, as any writer, for getting her voice heard.  She must be the tiniest bit smutted. No? I’m sure she’s being clever here, knowingly lacking self-awareness, but if so, I didn’t find this approach funny or engaging.  Instead, I felt that whatever reaction I had to her work, she would arch an eyebrow and scrutinize me as though I were a slow pupil too dim to understand the punch line.

The other issue I have with this collection, and one critics seem to like so maybe I’m missing the point again, is her exposition of the similarities between the soviet writers’ experience of the marketplace of social-realism, and that of the non-soviet and post-soviet marketplaces.   While I take the point that in both cases the writer is to a greater or lesser degree writing to order, it is too glib, and distasteful to say, ‘[soviet] writers who were unable to adapt to the demands of the ideological market ended up tragically: in camps. Nowadays, writers who cannot adapt to commercial demands end up in their own personal ghetto of anonymity and poverty.’   For me, the consequences (and their adumbration) are simply not comparable.

In the end, I find myself holding two views simultaneously about this collection. I find them enjoyable and irritating in equal measure.  The paradox of the title is just the first of many challenges that awaited me behind that louche cover.

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