Tama Janowitz Essay - Critical Essays

Janowitz, Tama

Introduction

Tama Janowitz 1957-

American novelist, short story writer, journalist, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Janowitz's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 43.

Both reproached and lauded for her bold depictions of late twentieth-century American society, Janowitz is a best-selling novelist who also became a celebrity in the worlds of fashion, art, and advertising in the 1980s and early 1990s. At one time, Janowitz was the subject of tremendous media exposure due to her association with the New York City art scene, which centered around pop art guru Andy Warhol. Critics have also identified her as part of a “literary brat pack” that includes novelists Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Douglas Coupland. Janowitz claims Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Vladimir Nabokov among her major influences, but her literary style encompasses a wide range of references; from the broad English farces of Evelyn Waugh to comic strips and the impact of television on modern culture. Janowitz specializes in making bold characterizations of mainstream pop culture and uses sharp satire to capture the “poses and pretentions” of the upper-class Manhattan art world.

Biographical Information

Although a long-time resident of New York City, Janowitz was born in San Francisco, California; the daughter of Julian Frederick Janowitz, a psychiatrist, and Phyllis Winer, a poet and professor. Her childhood was marked by a liberal parenting style and her parents' divorce. Janowitz studied at several different institutions including Barnard College, Hollins College, Yale University School of Drama, and Columbia University. After college, she settled in New York and worked as a freelance journalist, a model, an assistant art director, and a writer-in-residence. Janowitz first began writing fiction during her college years. She completed American Dad (1981), her first published novel, several years after college while working in the New York fashion and art world. Her first critical success was Slaves of New York (1986), a collection of short stories which inspired an 1989 film by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (in which Janowitz also appeared). A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987), an earlier work, was released by Janowitz's publisher immediately following the success of Slaves of New York. Janowitz developed strong ties with the New York art scene, and especially with her close friend, Andy Warhol. Warhol's creative marketing approach and postmodern sensibilities were qualities that influenced Janowitz in her formative professional years. Employing Warhol's trademark technique of “visualization” (where an individual constantly imagines oneself as successful in order to achieve success), Janowitz boldly pursued her celebrity status as she participated in the decadent lifestyle embraced by many young affluent New Yorkers during the 1980s. In 1992, Janowitz married Tim Hunt, the curator of the Andy Warhol estate.

Major Works

American Dad focuses on the life of a young man named Earl Przepasnick and his handling of his parents' divorce. Earl's relationships with his father, his psychiatrist, and his mother, are autobiographical in nature and reflective of several events in Janowitz's youth. Slaves of New York is a collection of twenty-two short stories inspired by Janowitz's experiences living in Manhattan and her relations to the New York City art world. Several of the stories center on a young jewelry maker named Eleanor and her artist boyfriend, Stash. Another prominent character is Marley Mantello, a self-assured painter who dreams of becoming a success. The stories exhibit an abundance of humor that helps mask a deep underlying darkness. This style is also prevalent in A Cannibal in Manhattan, whose main character, Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, is a young man brought to New York from a South Seas island by a wealthy socialite. Mgungu quickly encounters the barbarity of civilized life, and the novel, through its central metaphor, provides commentary on the culture of consumer capitalism. Janowitz exploits the Shakespearean conceit of “gender in disguise” in The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group (1992), which centers around Pamela Trowel (who sells advertising for Hunter's World magazine) and her befriending of a nine-year-old street urchin. Gender themes are also woven into By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee (1996), a story based on the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The novel focuses on Maud Slivenowicz, a nineteen-year-old who lives with her family in a trailer by the polluted shores of Lake Superior. Janowitz explores issues central to post-feminist thought through her portrayal of Maud and her sister, Marietta. Susan Bolotin referred to the novel as “a picaresque satire of twentieth-century America.” Janowitz returned to her usual New York setting in her 1999 novel, A Certain Age. The city's social climbers and their cocktail-party circuit are again reexamined, this time with the focus on an unmarried woman in her thirties and her ruthless quest for a wealthy, well-connected husband. In April 2001, Janowitz collaborated with illustrator Tracy Dockray on the children's book, Hear That?, which centers around a mother playing a listening game with her young son.

Critical Reception

Although her first novel, American Dad, was widely ignored by critics, Janowitz's second work, Slaves of New York, became an international best-seller that immediately thrust her into the media spotlight. Readers were drawn to her dark sense of humor and her vivid, engaging descriptions of the ethics behind New York's avant-garde art scene. Critics, however, did not respond so favorably as the general public. Although some reviewers praised her bold prose style (Alice H. G. Phillips said that Janowitz “observes everything with a sharp eye but with a New York bohemian's true affection for her world”), many critics took issue with Janowitz's tendency to stress style over substance. They criticized Janowitz for her exhaustive descriptions of pop culture minutiae and for her thinly-veiled allusions to high-society gossip. Raymond Sokolov called Slaves a “slovenly collection” with “restlessly indistinct” prose, labelling Janowitz “a writer for nonreaders.” Slaves of New York has endured as Janowitz's best reviewed work, although her follow-up novels have remained popular with readers across the country. When asked in an Esquire interview how she felt about the negative critical response to her work, Janowitz commented: “My feelings are hurt … and you feel like, oh how could you say this, but it doesn't bother me that much because what can you do, you're writing the best book you can. And the other side of me feels glad that they trashed it because mostly the books that I don't like are the ones getting the lovely reviews.” Hailed as a “marketing artist” by the New York Times, Janowitz is a writer whose fiction has drawn close scrutiny, and whose work has been hailed as a vivid and telling rendition of American postmodern urban life.

Principal Works

American Dad (novel) 1981

*Slaves of New York (short stories) 1986

A Cannibal in Manhattan (novel) 1987

The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group (novel) 1992

By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee (novel) 1996

A Certain Age (novel) 1999

Hear That? (juvenilia) 2001

*This work was adapted for the film Slaves of New York (1989), with a screenplay written by Janowitz, who also appeared in the film.

Criticism

Raymond Sokolov (review date 22 July 1986)

SOURCE: “New Girl in Town,” in Wall Street Journal, July 22, 1986, Vol. CCVIII, No. 15, p. 28.

[In the following excerpt Sokolov objects to the substance of Janowitz's prose in Slaves of New York.]

Uptown in the shabby genteel offices of The New Yorker they have been waiting at least a decade for the aged editor William Shawn to step down. At age 80, he has become a laughingstock, devoting his once-distinguished, once-amusing magazine to n-part screeds on staple grains and vanished airplanes, indulging an old man's whim for young women writers of dubious (literary) virtue.

The latest of these Shawn-genues is Tama Janowitz, whose stories...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Alice H. G. Phillips (review date 12 December 1986)

SOURCE: “From the Hip,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 12, 1986, p. 1409.

[The following review provides a brief synopsis of Slaves of New York and comments on the book's range of characters and themes.]

From its opening tale, related flamboyantly by a rich girl turned prostitute, to its final case history of a modern sado-masochistic relationship, Tama Janowitz's first collection of short stories [Slaves of New York] is designed to attract the attention of the young and the trendy. But then, almost all of its characters are New York artists, art dealers, designers or models with reputations to make and high rents to pay; they know that...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Michael Dibdin (review date 5 February 1987)

SOURCE: “Ghosts in the Machine,” in London Review of Books, February 5, 1987, pp. 12-13.

[In the following review, Dibdin discusses Janowitz's thematic concerns in the novel Slaves of New York.]

How do you like to be approached by a strange work of fiction? Do you prefer a hearty handshake (‘Call me Ishmael’), a more discursive line (‘All happy families are alike’), or a low-key manner (‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’)? What about this, for example?

After I became a prostitute, I had to deal with penises of every imaginable shape and size. Some large, others quite shrivelled and pendulous of testicle....

(The entire section is 2362 words.)

Sonia Pilcer (review date 18 October 1987)

SOURCE: “Pre-Literate in Manhattan,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1987, p. 10.

[In the following review, Pilcer briefly considers several thematic implications of A Cannibal in Manhattan.]

Perhaps you've seen her Amaretto ads. The most visible of a highly publicized group of young writers who have been hailed “the literary brat pack,” Tama Janowitz has brand recognition. Her new book [A Cannibal in Manhattan.] has been launched with the breathless hype usually reserved for rock acts.

Despite the off-putting title, I was ready to be entertained by her deadpan humor and offbeat characters.

Unfortunately,...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Peter Reading (review date 4-10 March 1988)

SOURCE: “Into the Faded Air, the Torpid,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,431, March 4-10, 1988, p. 245.

[In the following review, Reading discusses the texts and subtexts of A Cannibal in Manhattan.]

To the South Pacific island of New Burnt Norton, home of the sometime cannibalistic, almost extinct Lesser Pimbas, comes nubile New York billion-heiress Maria Fishburn—ostensibly to teach algebra to the hapless natives under the auspices of the Peace Corps, but really because she fancies the tribe's president-elect, five-foot purple-skinned Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, having seen his picture on the front of the National Geographic years earlier and fallen in...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Elizabeth Kaye (essay date November 1988)

SOURCE: “Fifteen Minutes over Soho,” in Esquire, November, 1988, pp. 170-84.

[In the following essay, Kaye presents a detailed portrait of Janowitz's personal life, commenting on her professional milieu and various critical attitudes toward her work.]

From the back she looks like a stick figure drawn by a child. From any angle, she clearly aspires to be both a rebel and a waif. Her abundant hair has been likened to a bird's nest, a furry wigwam, a lion's mane. It is going gray at the temples.

Had she had less distinctive hair, her life might have been quite different. The hair has been useful in furthering the career of a writer whose most notable...

(The entire section is 7293 words.)

Julie Salamon (review date 19 October 1992)

SOURCE: A review of The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, in Wall Street Journal, Vol. 220, October 19, 1992, p. A12.

[In the following brief excerpt, Salamon praises portions of The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group for its wit and intelligence.]

Tama Janowitz has solved the casting problem for her latest novel, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group. She has written and directed a film version, conceived as a promotional gimmick.

Without having seen the film but having read the book, I strongly recommend the film. It's only 40 seconds long, an appropriate amount of time to spend with Ms. Janowitz's ruminations about her heroine's...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Tom Shone (review date 14 November 1992)

SOURCE: “Eight Million Characters in Search of an Author,” in Spectator, November 14, 1992, pp. 39-40.

[In the following review, Shone contemplates the humorous aspects of Janowitz's style.]

Eighties junk fiction is showing its paunch. ‘The ancient tallow of fast food’ hangs around Tama Janowitz's new novel [The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group]. The most frequently used adjective in the book? Greasy. The pizza her heroine eats at the start: ‘A spot of grease glistened in the centre’. The lamb chops she remembers eating as a child: ‘greasy, gristly’. The hamburger on page 72: ‘greasy’. The hair of the schmuck on page 205: ‘filthy, greasy,...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Elizabeth Young (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Library of the Ultravixens: The Lost Phallus—Where did I Put It?—in the works of Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill, and Catherine Texier,” in Shopping in Space, edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, Atlantic Monthly Press and Serpent's Tail, 1992, pp. 142-93.

[In the following essay, Young discusses Janowitz's oeuvre within the framework of postmodern feminist theory.]

“Slipping through the stitch of virtue, Into crime”

(Djuna Barnes, The Book of Repulsive Women)*

I. BOHEMIANS AND BAD GIRLS

It is the 1950s and our heroine is sitting...

(The entire section is 8333 words.)

Susan Bolotin (review date 20 October 1996)

SOURCE: “Hiawatha Goes Hollywood,” in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 101, October 20, 1996, p. 13.

[In the following review Bolotin provides a summary of the plot of By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee.]

The creative muse manifests itself in many forms. Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “Song of Hiawatha” has provided its share of inspiration, albeit mostly to parodists. But one has to wonder what it was about the famous narrative poem that got Tama Janowitz's juices going. Could it have been the notion of an innocent culture heading for its inevitable destruction, or the image of the magnificent Hiawatha revenging the sins perpetrated against his mother? Was it...

(The entire section is 648 words.)

Tamsin Todd (review date 20 October 1996)

SOURCE: “This is the Forest Primeval,” in Washington Post Book World, October 20, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following review, Todd addresses issues of Janowitz's style and theme while providing a summary of By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee.]

Here's a bright gem of a book—literally. The jacket lettering is done in electric-blue and lime-green; a neon-yellow hairless dog is freakily emblazoned mid-page; and in the background are surreally rolling bubble-gum-pink clouds, which, if you remember, also featured prominently on the cover of Douglas Coupland's Generation X.

Which reference is confusing, because the distinctive landscape Tama Janowitz...

(The entire section is 833 words.)