laupäev, aprill 28, 2012

eat your heart out, truman capote

Which one of you will be the next one of us?
 
Once upon a time, Estonia's writers inhabited a world in which they created works of art deemed culturally significant and also managed to sell these products to the masses. Or so it is thought. I personally do not know how hungry the workers of Tallinn were for Friedebert Tuglas' epic poem about the 1905 revolution "Meri," but we are taught that the author and the work were held in high regard, and for these reasons Mr. Tuglas has streets named after him all over Estonia.

Tuglas is important in another way. He founded the Estonian Writers' Union in 1922, helping to enshrine his own significance in perpetuity. He's the granddaddy of the literary scene, the cool cat in the corner with the cigarette holder and the first edition of Voyage au bout de la nuit. In case you are interested, Tuglas is the smart-looking chap at left above. And the thing about Tuglas, is that he has become the model for Estonian writers who fancy themselves as being culturally significant. Each one is like a mini-Tuglas, primping and affecting the posture of a 1920s man of letters.

The main problem for these neo-Tuglases, though, is money. Epic poems are not selling as well as they used to sell. Instead, the Estonian top tens are thick with cookbooks by sexy celebrity witches like Nastja, translations of hits from abroad that have since become a major motion picture (see The Girl with/who ...), and, worst of all, Petrone Print's Minu series books, many of them written by people who are neither writers nor have expressed nor will express a desire to join the Estonian Writers' Union, ever.

To join this union requires consent from the majority of members of the union's steering commitee. I know this because Epp applied and was rejected. Somebody in the Estonian Writers' Union really doesn't like her. For one, she's written several bestsellers of dubious literary merit (a recent Sirp review of Minu Ameerika III mostly centered on the question of whether she had produced journalism, literature, or some peculiar mix of the two, and did not manage to answer that question). Two, she managed to peddle her own literary success into a career in publishing. The number one and number two books in the Apollo chain of bookstores right now are Minu Supilinn and Minu Sitsiilia, respectively.

Here I am reminded of Truman Capote's famous quote about the success of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which Kerouac claimed he wrote during three caffeine-infused weeks. "That's not writing," said Capote, "that's typing." And that's probably how Estonia's neo-Tuglases feel about Minu authors. They are not real writers. These books are not literature. What are they then? Well, we just can't say right now, but it warrants further study ...

Forgive me, but I don't care who the damn author is, be it a woman who works on a cruise ship in Oman or an activist who likes to take his dogs to Mongolia, so long as the book is good. One of the reasons I like Kerouac is because he was from a working class Catholic family and because his first language wasn't even English -- it was Joual.  And the literary establishment had its knives out for him too. He was called a "slob running a temperature" and an "imposter" and his book was dismissed as a "sideshow full of freaks."

Most of my favorite writers have run similar gauntlets. Some might argue that it is this irreverance that makes them truly great. And yet there is that sting, the pain of being cast out, excommunicated, not deemed worthy of belonging. When Epp inquired from a union member (and best-selling author) about how one gains access to the Estonian Writers' Union, she was informed that gaining acceptance to the union depends on "who you drink and sleep with." So, apparently I'm to blame for all of this.

I actually did come across some neo-Tuglases on a spree last summer. It was like something out of A Clockwork Orange. There were strange gentlemen dressed like Zorro alternately falling down and trying to stand up outside a liquor store. One writer passed out across from me, snoring on the table. The other passed on my wife in my presence and ordered another bottle of wine. But they are members of the union. They have what it takes, and therefore access to its perks, like the keys to the writer's retreat at Käsmu where Estonia's finest can channel the ghost of Tuglas surrounded by lush forests and pristine bays.

These local squabbles intrigue me because I am not an Estonian. I relish it the same way Northerners enjoy tales about Southern family feuds. Those silly country people! Look at how they all hate each other! Isn't it adorable? I have the luxury of having another homeland. And, truth be told, I fear trying to crack into the American literary scene for the same reasons that one might be intimidated by the Estonian Writers' Union. Just take the Estonian situation and multiply it by 300.

I've thought of joining the Estonian Writers' Union, sure, but I doubt they'll accept me. For one, I am not an Estonian. And for two, I've been sleeping and drinking with the wrong person. That's all fine with me though. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.

27 kommentaari:

Kristopher ütles ...

Tijean at his peak was more like live performance. Instead of going negative, Capote could have said: "that's not composing, that's playing!"

Spawnie ütles ...

That's a very grim picture you're painting there.
I would hope this is about some personal grudge fueled by jealousy, and not the actual value of Estonia's intellectuals...

Giustino ütles ...

I would hope this is about some personal grudge fueled by jealousy, and not the actual value of Estonia's intellectuals...

My impression is that most countries' literary "elites" don't sell well. Take Haruki Murakami -- probably the most widely read Japanese author ever. The Japanese literary elite dislikes him immensely.

Marko ütles ...

EKL is an old-boys club. For it's members it has oddballs like Peeter Olesk (what has he ever done?) and excludes heavy-weigths like Sofi Oksanen. Does that make any sense? Don't think so. I always precieved EKL to be pretentious social club, rather than anything else and not being a member can be seen as an advantage in terms of literary freedom. Why don't you and Epp start a new organisation, more in line with the 21st century?

ffs ütles ...

Peeter Olesk (what has he ever done?)

This question speaks volumes about you.

But speaking of "Minu Ameerika", how does it compare to "Teekond Põhja-Aafrika"?

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Sounds like EKL is a modern day version of the Griboyedov's House and MASSOLIT - straight out of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita" set in contemporary Estonia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_and_margarita#TV_series

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Sounds like EKL is a modern day version of the Griboyedov's House and MASSOLIT - straight out of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita" set in contemporary Estonia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_and_margarita#TV_series

Toivo Ellakvere ütles ...

"So, apparently I'm to blame for all of this." so, do you drink too much? Ylestunnistus on esimene samm patukahetsusteel.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Oh well, small circles - this sort of a "union" is not something you would have in Britain or the US (in Finland you most certainly do though), you would just have the publishers and the public, and to my mind that would be quite enough. I wouldn't mind this silly provincial snobbishness - why should a writer belong to a silly union anyway?

Kristopher ütles ...

Why apply, if you don't mind me asking? What benefits are conferred by being in the Writers Union, other than presumably getting to participate in writers' strikes?

Out of curiosity, how many of the authors in the Minu series are in the Union?

Temesta ütles ...

My impression is that most countries' literary "elites" don't sell well. Take Haruki Murakami -- probably the most widely read Japanese author ever. The Japanese literary elite dislikes him immensely.

What counts as literature and what not is a difficult and never-ending discussion. But I know one thing fore sure: the number of sales is not an indicator. Murakami sells well and according to me he certainly produces literature. Dan Brown also sells very well, but would one think that the Da Vinci Code is literature?

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Ah, fast forward 100-200 years from now and today's tweets, blog entries and facebook postings will read like classic literature. People will be mazed that someone took time to actually TYPE something and and others took time to READ all these deep thoughts.

Nodbody will be dong any of that with all these great Telepathy Service Subscriptions and government mandated direct memory upgrade patches ...

Marko ütles ...

Da Vinci Code is one of the sci-fi notables of the last decade. If it is not literature, then sci-fi isn't literature thus making people like Shelly, Wells and Verne timewasters. It is not about if one feels if something can be called literature or not, rather it is about how smug one feels about certain types of literary works. Was Tchaikovsky a musician, of course, but is Kerli a musician, of course again but I find them incomparable yet both are notable. I think it all boils down to acceptance in general. But acceptance is something that EKL doesn't do, as we just found out. And it's sad.

Temesta ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Temesta ütles ...

If it is not literature, then sci-fi isn't literature thus making people like Shelly, Wells and Verne timewasters.

It's not because it is not literature, that it would be a waste of time. I use literature here in a normative sense, in the way that Dostoevsky, Zola, Hemingway, Kerouac, Eugenides, Kross and also Murakami are literature. I read the Da Vinci Code, it was good entertainment after hard day of work and I don't regret it, but it is shallow with cardboard characters, like one those hollywoodmovies with lots of explosions. But as I said, this is a never-ending discussion, it would have been better had I not mentioned it at all. :)

Marko ütles ...

I don't want to get in to it, but... ;) As I said it's not even a point of discussion. Discussion only happens in certain circles where it boils down to pompous smugness of individuals involved. I have to admit that there are a number of these kind of circles in Estonia, with EKL being one of them. Don't get me wrong, I am no socialist, but I do not agree with elitism and clicky groupings and everything they represent. Literature is for everyone and as everyone is different people like different stuff. I have met some academics here in Edinburgh and a lot of them read just the stuff like The Da Vinci Code or the British equivalents to the 'Minu' books. It's mainly because their work requires them to read some really heavy stuff and in their free time they just want to let their hair down and read stuff thats different. And yes, most of them think The Da Vinci Code was brilliant and they would still classify it under literature. But as I said, it's not important as the main aim of a book is to captivate their reader, to thrill them and to provoke thought and to entertain.

I think the thing Estonians could try to do would be - to start book groups. Where different people from the community/neighbourhood come together, read certain titles and then talk about these titles. I know it sounds very 90's thing to do but it works brilliantly, here in Scotland. It takes away the need for societies like EKL which is what we want in the long run. And the likes of Temetsa wouldn't be getting too big for their own boots in the first place :). (The latter is just a lighthearted joke not to be read in to).

Temesta ütles ...

And the likes of Temetsa wouldn't be getting too big for their own boots in the first place :)

Do I deserve this because I think Dostoevksy is a better writer than Dan Brown? You are so mean!

Giustino ütles ...

Well this is interesting. I was alerted today that quotes from my blogpost were lifted and used in several Estonian media outlets, somewhat out of context.

Just so you know, Epp's application to EKL happened last year, ie. it's yesterday's news. I am more interested in the incestuous nature of ... well, virtually everything in a small country.

This reminds me of "King" Davíð Oddsson, who went from being prime minister of Iceland to central bank governor to editor of one of th largest newspapers ...

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

There many writers who are not writers. Technical writers and researchers for example.

It is evident that one has to write some stream of consciousness whacked out of your mind gibberish in order to be admitted into EKL.

No wonder that their members feel that they are an elite bunch. Reality is for the blue collar types - the servant class.

While a heart surgeon is not allowed to pass out face down in the bowl of headcheese and then author a riveting step by step account about it later - for a writer this is part of the job description. Think Mihkel Raud and Kaur Kender (are they members?)

Eppppp ütles ...

Hi, this is Epp (the one who was not accepted :).
Probably, if I had written all the books I had but had not started a successful publishing business that carries mu own name, I would have been accepted. Now I am responsible for all the other "minu"-series writers, but my other books are not so known, probably, among EKL board members. This is all ok with me, every coin has two sides.
I have no idea why Justin brought up this topic almost a year later... the outcome was funny, the online tabloids were quoting this blogpost as we were informed, and not properly, as I just checked.
The quote "sleep and drink with right people" is good but 1) Justin did not make up this quote (tabloids say he did), 2) One should not take this quote too literally.
The links are here: http://www.ohtuleht.ee/475019 is quoting this blog
http://www.elu24.ee/825674/justin-petrone-kirjanike-liitu-saamiseks-peab-oigete-inimestega-magama/
is quoting the previous link.

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

The size of the Estonian "echo chamber" is that of a tin can.

So adorable.

wirrklich ütles ...

My two cents:
Good selling does not make books literature. I know the Minus, at least I read My Estonia. It was fun reading it, well written etc. But it's not literature in terms of art.

Never liked On the Road. Threw it away after forcing myself to reading it half way, 'cause my friends told how good it was. No, it's bawwwring.

Maybe it's true, I'm convinced it's true: EKL is a parochial club with old farts as members. But I'm also of the opinion that a man of publishing is not necessarily a man of letters.

Giustino ütles ...

I didn't like On the Road either. I have no idea why it is the best known Kerouac book. Big Sur and Tristessa are much better. Tristessa might be one of my favorite books. But I'd rather read any Kerouac book than have to suffer through another "great American" Steinbeck novel. I mean, why do we read anyway?

I reject constructions about what is art and what isn't art. To me, Nastja's cookbook is art. It won't make the list of 100 best books of the 21st century, but it is, in its own way, a work of art. Once we get into dividing up what is high and what is low, then we join the ranks of the phony intellectuals.

wirrklich ütles ...

"Once we get into dividing up what is high and what is low, then we join the ranks of the phony intellectuals."

You're right!

Temesta ütles ...

"I reject constructions about what is art and what isn't art. To me, Nastja's cookbook is art. It won't make the list of 100 best books of the 21st century, but it is, in its own way, a work of art. Once we get into dividing up what is high and what is low, then we join the ranks of the phony intellectuals."

But can I have my personal standard (inspired by a certain tradition) regarding what's high and what is low art? Do you walk through life totally avoiding making any distinctions? Imposing an order of rank on works of art is quite innocent compared with other, more dangerous valuations that people commonly make. Only the ego of some people could be hurt (I am not referring to Epp and/or you).
If you would call me a phony intellectual for thinking that certain pieces of writing are worth (in an non-economic sense) more than others, I can live with that.

Giustino ütles ...

But can I have my personal standard (inspired by a certain tradition) regarding what's high and what is low art? Do you walk through life totally avoiding making any distinctions?

I think of it more in terms of genre. Django Reinhardt is a great guitarist, and so is Eddie Van Halen. That does not mean that they are on the same footing, or that Django=Eddie, it just means that they are each great guitarists. Sure, I think that Django's art is "superior" to Eddie's, but if there was a "Guitarists Union," it would seem pretty petty to deny Eddie membership.

Trollsilm ütles ...

wirrklich ütles "I know the Minus, at least I read My Estonia."

Thank you! This just inspired me to a brand new series of books ... "minus". It will challenge the "Minu" series by telling what the world would be like WITHOUT various countries...

Anyway, the elite is the same in Norway. Best sellers are not allowed into the author club, because, well, the authors in the club think that best sellers are not literature. Which is the reverse of other vocational organizations.

Typically, vocational organizations accept members who make a living out of it: carpenters' organization, plumbers' association, electricians' organization, etc. They like to exclude those who are not in the profession, those who do carpentry and plumbing and electrical work more as a hobby.

So in order to make a living of being an author, you must sell good. But, as we see, if you sell good, you're not in the club. Which means that the organization is really for hobby writers. Kind of like... Mustpeade gild: As soon as you're doing good and get married, you're out.