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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(The entire section is 57 words.)
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 mostly chronicle clothes-conscious young women caught up in the current Manhattan art-and-club scene. Ms. Janowitz is in a position to know about her subject. In her real life, she is the queen of the art mob, goes to parties on the arm of Andy Warhol, has her picture on the cover of New York magazine, and now she lies exposed, down to her most unmentionable fiction, in Slaves of New York.
Should you happen to be swept up in the Janowitz craze to the point of actually opening this slovenly collection, you will discover a cast of characters ranging from pathetic Eleanor, slave of her boyfriend Stash, to that self-proclaimed saint and genius, the painter Marley Mantello. Do not look to them for depth (or even...
(The entire section is 608 words.)
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 catching the eye of the right people is what sells paintings or ideas—or whatever it is you're selling.
Janowitz keeps her balance on the tilted game board. She observes everything with a sharp eye but with a New York bohemian's true affection for her world, and applies her mischievous sense of humour to its artworks (“flatulent balloons”), personalities (“furious elves and fairies, in twentieth-century disguise”) and social events:
One artist … made strange movements with his mouth like a kissing gourami. One artist was so famous he refused to sit with the rest of us; he had his own private table on the balcony, where he was seated with a famous French movie actress. The...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
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. Some blue-veined and reeking of Stilton, some miserly.
The narrator is a Jewish princess who took up her trade ‘when my job as script girl for a German-produced movie to be filmed in Venezuela fell through’; her pimp, Bob, had been a doctoral candidate in philosophy and American literature at the University of Massachusetts; their Avenue A walk-up is littered with empty syringes, douche bags, whips, garrottes, and packages of half-eaten junk food. ‘As far as his role went', Bob ‘could have cared less', but ‘I felt that … I was growing intellectually as well as emotionally. Bob was both sadist and masochist to me; for him I was madonna and whore. Life with him was never dull.’
(The entire section is 2362 words.)
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, Janowitz fails to find a voice for Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, as she did for her down-town Slave denizens. “I am nothing more than a savage,” says Mgungu. “I don't understand even the simplest theories of electricity.” Yet this cannibal does know his American brand names as well as the city's hottest clubs.
One hopes that Mgungu might be given some original observations to chew on. Instead, we are served such whopping platitudes as, “A life in the United States. How was I to know what people said or did is not the same at all as what they mean?”
The book itself features a photo scrapbook straight out of fanzinedom, including Janowitz and friends cavorting as the characters, complete with...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
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 love with him. Maria dispatches her prize back to the States. The ensuing culture-shock, recorded in Mgungu's idiosyncratic first-person English, is the subject of Tama Janowitz's amusing picaresque fiction [A Cannibal in Manhattan.]
The noble savage serves, of course, to accentuate the real absurdity, viciousness and debasement of the sophisticated civilization into which he is deposited. With somewhat forced ingenuousness the quondam cannibal plods a well-worn itinerary through the disaster zone of modern urban social and psychotic mess. The satirical sallies include a jab at piety (“Oh, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, I prayed, suddenly turning to religion in a time of need”), a memorably funny encounter with a...
(The entire section is 531 words.)
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 creation has proven to be herself.
Wherever she goes, people stare at her. Those ignorant of who she is can tell that she is Someone. As much as she solicits attention, obtaining it seems to unnerve her and to reduce her to a state that is both zoned out and out of control. Her face goes dead, her eyes roll upward, her head bobs from side to side. When she smiles, her face changes. Her smile is sweet and sometimes wistful. It lightens and softens her face and disappears in an instant.
Her eyes are lined with black, brightened by blue contact lenses. She says she wears tinted lenses because they are easier to find if one drops out, though that is probably not the only reason. Her skin is whitened with...
(The entire section is 7293 words.)
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 periods, her electrolysis, her hair and—I'm not kidding—ethics and morality in the late 20th century.
This time Ms. Janowitz's main character is a charmless creature named Pamela, who finds salvation for her dreary existence by taking unofficial custody of a young boy and taking him on the road. For Pamela and Ms. Janowitz life is one absurdist joke after another, strung together by the author's philosophizing.
For instance: “To find a head in the road might be a quirk of fate, but to find a head in the road and then to stumble upon the scene of one's father and stepmother's demise—obviously some larger psychosis or neurosis is involved. But hey, so what? I mean, who the hell actually cares? Life...
(The entire section is 295 words.)
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, unwashed’. Even the trees on the sidewalk have ‘greasy leaves’.
A male writer might at this point have attempted to extrapolate from the grunge some general theory of urban decrepitude (think of the work to which mucus is put by Martin Amis, or the existential mileage Easton Ellis gets out of human innards). Janowitz's pleasant 300-page gossip is blissfully free of such vanities. ‘Yeeauuck’ would seem to be the sum of its satirical take on the world, and much the better it is for it too.
Pamela Trowell is a typical Janowitz creation: a low-rent bundle of bangles and bravado, discount-chic and urban neuroses, eking out an existence somewhere near the bottom of the fashion chain—receiving last...
(The entire section is 805 words.)
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 in the kitchen. Outside, a bomb-shelter broods in the backyard. She is watching her mother who, in a flowered pinny and turban is doing a hundred things at once: mixing the Bisto gravy, worming the cat, sudsing the smalls, dashing away with a smoothing iron, all because she's W.O.M.A.N. Her daughter's never going to grow up like that … In a trice she's become a pouting, blonde dolly-bird in a crochet mini-dress, bowling down the King's Road in a pink sports car. Next, she's in a kitchen, hopelessly stirring mung beans in some rustic commune, bra-less and unencumbered in trailing cheese-cloth. Another click and she's up at the barricades screaming for abortion on demand, wages for housework and lesbian rights. This year she's wearing...
(The entire section is 8333 words.)
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 simply the stupefying tom-tom cadence? As my kids would say: Whatever. Or as I would say: No matter why you decide to set a novel by the shores of Gitchee Gumee, you may get soaked.
By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, Ms. Janowitz's latest novel, is a picaresque satire of 20th-century America. The heroine, Maud Slivenowicz, 19, is one of five children living in a decrepit trailer near the now-polluted Gitchee Gumee (nuclear waste, don't you know?) with their kooky mother, Evangeline. (It might be time for Ms. Janowitz to discuss this Longfellow thing with someone.) Maud, whose favorite pastime is citing bizarre examples from “The Sex Life of the Animals”—“Did you know the blood fluke lives in a state of permanent...
(The entire section is 648 words.)
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 explores in her fiction doesn't have much to do with Coupland's frighteningly candid cultural snapshots. Sure, there are disaffected characters in TamaLand and references to pop culture and lots of funky retro clothing. But in general TamaLand is an upbeat place. Often (as in Janowitz's Slaves of New York and The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group) TamaLand is Manhattan, seen through the eyes of vaguely arty types: painters on the make, hat designers, staffers at obscure magazines. They live downtown, dress excellently, chat glibly, act quirkily, and know they're ultrahip and getting hipper all the time.
By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee is set in Longfellow country, but don't be fooled. Substitute trees for...
(The entire section is 833 words.)
Bellante, John and Bellante, Carl. “Janowitz and Gobbins: Feminist Fatales.” The Bloomsbury Review (May/June 1993): 13.
Examines the “male-bashing” post-feminist strain in Janowitz's The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group.
Bradham, Margaret. “Familial Failings.” Times Literary Supplement (12-18 May 1989): 518.
Contains a brief synopsis and commentary on American Dad.
Driscoll, F. Paul. “Going to the Opera with Tama Janowitz.” Opera News (November 1996): 26, 28-9, 65.
A conversation with commentary between Driscoll and Janowitz that draws parallels between operatic texts and scenarios and Janowitz's fiction.
Janowitz, Tama with John and Carl Bellante. “A Chic, Cheeky Chat with Tama Janowitz.” The Bloomsbury Review (May/June 1993): 13-14, 20.
In this interview, John and Carl Bellante discuss with Janowitz the craft of writing and the role of the author's personal life in her fictional works.
Lehman, David. “Two Divine Decadents.” Newsweek (7 September 1987): 72.
A comparative review of novels by Janowitz and Bret Easton-Ellis.
Plunket, Robert. “Hello, Cruel World.” New York Times Book Review 97 (30 August 1992): 3.
(The entire section is 238 words.)