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Something Really Bad Is Always Happening to Former Literary ‘It Girl’ Tama Janowitz

The author of ‘Slaves of New York’ dishes on male reviewers, passing fame, and the satire of bad luck

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Tama Janowitz, 1997. (Fernando Bengoechea/Beateworks/Corbis)
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Janowitz’s sentences sparkle, rife with stunning visuals and cutting observations. (Nabokov, she told me, “is like a jeweler. His sentences are like necklaces of precious stones.”) In her work, a Santa Claus statue is “the alcoholic fat man, jolly pedophile cast in plastic, one of the world’s most peculiar cults.” A dive into cold water begins with “that physical smash, the body leaving its familiar position in the molecules of air and entering the molecules of liquid, far denser, thicker, with the slight moment of pain, a knife yanked from a drawer that now had to cut through butter.” An office manager is “a nice Jewish girl, reddish hair, freckles, a bit frumpy. An aura of the Passover seder, an invisible shtetl shawl around her shoulders.” A massage is “paying someone to molest the body while the mind lay chuckling to itself at its revenge on the entity in which it was trapped.” A woman considers herself: “So she had no morals. Who did? Only a Red Guard, beating an old professor in the name of Mao Tse-tung.”

Janowitz gives short shrift to egos (especially male egos) and takes economic reality seriously. Her books are Kryptonite to a certain kind of poseur, and at times scathing, which may explain their lack of appeal to the literary fiction set. When Florence in A Certain Age desperately seeks the help of a friend, she finds that “he wasn’t listening. He had cultivated the New York skill of tuning out completely the moment anyone began a story longer than two sentences, unless each sentence was about him.” Of the penis, Peyton of Peyton Amberg thinks sympathetically, “It must be awful to have that struggling hot chunk of meat between your legs, out of control, like having to lug a bratty child around all the time who at any minute might start thrashing for treats.”

***

The next day, I followed Janowitz on her daily visit to her mother in the nursing home. Dressed for riding in beige jodhpurs, worn leather ankle boots, and a pink T-shirt, Janowitz looked rakish, a cross between a runaway orphan and a pirate. We found Phyllis Janowitz sitting in a wheelchair in front of her room, a stunningly beautiful woman in her late 80s, with thick, wavy silver hair and beautiful skin and bone structure. In her mother’s presence, Janowitz transformed from the beleaguered misfit into a roguish tease, inciting the poet into scathing barbs at Tama’s expense, which Tama seemed to enjoy immensely. I wondered if this was the kind of intimacy they had always enjoyed, or if it was merely the only kind left to the two writers.

The influence Phyllis Janowitz had on her daughter is evidenced by Tama’s decision to switch from fiction to memoir in recent yeas. The poet’s mental deterioration made it impossible for her to read her daughter’s work, which in turn made it impossible for Tama to write fiction. Janowitz cites other influences, too, from Daniel Defoe to Olivia Manning. Another favorite is Edward Lewis Wallant. “It’s not like you’re reading it for fun,” she said of Wallant’s 1960 novel The Human Season. “It’s so full of understanding, passion, love, deep characters all suffering, anything in this tiny little world of a middle-aged plumber living in Brooklyn, his kids had grown up and left, all the small details, but it’s not about escaping concentration camps, it’s just the small life of this person, and it’s so beautifully done.” Janowitz thought for a minute. “I like the books that are about people that are marginal trying to survive in adverse conditions.”

Then there are the books she doesn’t like. “Saul Bellow was a good stylist, but his books for the most part didn’t hold interest in terms of characters or plot. But these men, they were so popular, who’s sitting around reading all of John Updike? Or Norman Mailer? Norman Mailer was not a great writer. These men are all like, swaggering around and getting front-page reviews. They have a big readership, and you know, in a couple of years, the kids reading David Foster Wallace because their teachers recommended it, you know, no one is going to be reading David Foster Wallace in 10 years, any more than they are reading John Barth or Robert Coover now. Most books stop being readable very quickly.”

When I asked her why she chose to write satire, she scoffed. “I don’t think I chose anything. It’s just the way you see the world, or something. I mean, if I could choose anything, I’d be writing Stephen King or something that made some bucks.” Instead, Janowitz wrote one book that made her famous but no money, and more books that made her neither famous nor any money. “The whole thing of getting famous from writing a book of short stories was a total fluke accident,” Janowitz told me in the car on the way to the farm where she rides every day. “And they weren’t prepared for the book to sell any copies. They had to go back and print more copies, and by then it was six weeks later. I never got any money from the book, it was just like suddenly, I don’t know, I was a kind of ‘It girl’ in New York, but I was so young and innocent, I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be photographed for Vogue.”

But the fame was short-lived. “I was famous for a second, then I was a has-been. The backlash happened so quickly. Even when I was on the cover of New York magazine, people would still be whispering about me when I came into a restaurant, ‘Who does she think she is, her book wasn’t even that good.’ And then, ‘Oh, she’s so last year.’ And that’s how they treated Andy [Warhol] at the end of his life too. It wasn’t just me, it’s anybody in New York who has some success is first viewed with jealousy; no one says, ‘Oh congratulations! You’re on the cover of New York.’ ”

Neither does Janowitz particularly miss the scene. After a while, she said, she stopped going to the galleries that had provided the material for Slaves of New York. “There was just too many stupid guys with their little turds being admired and selling for money, and the next year more money. I didn’t want to go look at people’s things on the wall. I’d rather go to a yard sale. I mean, to me that says more about the people in a culture than someone who’s got some chalk scratchings next to a plastic bunny rabbit.”

“So, the art got bad?” I asked.

“It was always bad! I just got less interested in looking at it.”

When I asked Janowitz to speculate about why her work wasn’t more popular, she said, “Look at the lives of women writers. Look at Jean Rhys. She was critically accepted, except she had no readership. Barbara Pym, she turned 56 and they didn’t want to publish her books anymore. Olivia Manning wrote those brilliant books, she was always broke. I mean—women writers, unless it’s Danielle Steele, I don’t see any happiness for them.”

“But why?” I pressed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. I mean, reading is not a huge thing for most people. But above and beyond that, you have male writers—from Hemingway to Styron, to Jonathan Franzen—there’s some sex drive thing. You can go to a reading of any of them and it’s all women—it’s a sex thing. The women are the readers and the admirers. Look in The New Yorker. All the articles are by men. And the reviewers who are women who review other women are vicious. Like, for no reason. The women who review men like the men, and the men like the men.”

“Women can be competitive,” I agreed and suggested this might be an effect of a patriarchal society. “They think there’s only room for one at the top.”

“Which is ridiculous,” she said, “because the top of Olympus is flat.”

***

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Something Really Bad Is Always Happening to Former Literary ‘It Girl’ Tama Janowitz

The author of ‘Slaves of New York’ dishes on male reviewers, passing fame, and the satire of bad luck

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