Tama Janowitz

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tama Janowitz is best known for her short-story collection Slaves of New York, the first such collection to become a best-seller since Philip Roth’s Goodby, Columbus earned that distinction in 1959. Of Polish and Hungarian ancestry, Janowitz was the older of two children of Julian Janowitz, a neo-Freudian psychiatrist, and Phyllis Janowitz, a poet and assistant professor at Cornell University. Tama was brought up in a permissive household and showed an early inclination for reading and drawing. When she was five years old, the family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, and when she was ten, her parents were divorced. Her mother raised Tama and her brother in Israel for a while, then returned to Massachusetts and lived in Amherst, Newton, and Lexington. Young Tama viewed her mother as a poet who lived in another world, and she became her confidante when her mother suffered through the divorce. This close relationship has endured, and Janowitz has said she considers her mother her best friend.

Janowitz graduated from Lexington High School a year ahead of her class in 1973, then attended Barnard College in New York City, where she received several important awards. Majoring in creative writing, Janowitz received a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize, and the Amy Loveman Prize for Poetry. After graduating with a B.A. degree from Barnard in 1977, she became an assistant art director at a Boston advertising agency, a position for which she had neither training nor experience. She was laid off after six months.

In 1978 Janowitz received a graduate fellowship to the writing program at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, from which she earned an M.A. a year later. There she wrote a novel, American Dad, a section of which appeared in the prestigious Paris Review and which was published in its entirety by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Barely disguised autobiography, the story centers on the son of a neurotic psychiatrist and an eccentric poet. Reviewers generally praised the book, but it sold fewer than a thousand copies.

In 1980 Janowitz enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where she wrote two unpublished plays. The following two years were spent at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, after which a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Arts permitted her to move into an apartment in Manhattan. She finished the manuscript for a second novel, A Cannibal in Manhattan, which at the time could not find a publisher, and continued to write three more novel manuscripts. After attending a gallery opening in SoHo, she fell in with the art crowd of lower Manhattan. She made a wide variety of friends and used the art scene as the basis for some short stories. Several were accepted for publication, including “The Slaves in New York,” which was published by The New Yorker in 1984, followed by three more stories based on the same characters.

In 1986, a year after Janowitz received an M.F.A. degree...

(The entire section is 1,144 words.)