Slavic Essayist Dreams of Communism and Joan Collins


Dubravka Ugresic established her intellectual street cred with The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and The Culture of Lies, two Barthesian collections of fragmented meditations on the collapse of Yugoslavia. In Thank You for Not Reading, Ugresic turns her shrewd eye on book publishing, unleashing entertaining commentary on the globalization of the literary marketplace, book advances, author photos, and the invasion of celebrity authors. She dreams she’s Joan Collins, accepting the Nobel Prize: “I sweated and shook with fear, although I didn’t know what made me so afraid: receiving the Nobel Prize or receiving it as Joan Collins.” Elsewhere, Ugresic becomes obsessed with penning fake book proposals that boil great books down to pithy, salable synopses. (“No one could possibly follow that story,” an editor says of her One Hundred Years of Solitude précis. “But there’s no reason not to use that great title.”)

A lot has been written about the sour relationship between books and the marketplace, and Ugresic’s conclusions are not always shockingly original. But the pleasures of her effervescent prose (as translated by Celia Hawkesworth) and off-kilter observations more than compensate. She slyly calls Stephen King and other “mass-production writers” “engineers of human souls,” resuscitating a Stalinist catchphrase. And to put contemporary literary travails into perspective, Ugresic harks back to the Communist era, when “writers who were unable to adapt to the demands of the ideological market ended tragically: in camps. Nowadays, writers who cannot adapt to commercial demands end up in their own personal ghetto of anonymity and poverty.”