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In 1980 Janowitz enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where she wrote two unpublished plays.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 from Columbia University, Crown Publishers brought out Slaves of New York, a collection of short stories. The book contains twenty-two stories about young people who have come to New York with their dreams and must deal with the daily challenges of living there. “The Slaves in New York” is republished in the collection along with seven other stories about Eleanor and Stash, characters modeled on Janowitz and a former boyfriend. Determined that Slaves of New York should not suffer the same neglect as American Dad, Janowitz made the rounds of nightspots with photographer Patrick McMullan some months before the collection was published. He placed her photographs in trendy New York magazines, and her name was mentioned in popular gossip columns. As the publication date drew nearer, Janowitz handed out excerpts from the book on the streets, then starred in a four-minute “literary video” that ran briefly on the cable television music channel MTV. The collection was widely reviewed, some reviewers praising it for its precise evocation of the New York art scene, others attacking it for shallow characters and indeterminate language. It made The New York Times best-seller list as well as the list in every other major city in the United States. Janowitz became an instant celebrity, appearing on television talk shows and in magazine ads. She was identified as a member of “the brat pack,” a group of young, urban, successful writers who dominated the popular literary scene of the time and included Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis.
A Cannibal in Manhattan, a reworked version of her previously unpublished manuscript, appeared in 1987. It is about a railroad heiress who meets a cannibal while working for the Peace Corps on a remote island and invites him to return to New York and marry her. The novel received a few positive notices, but most reviews were decidedly negative; however, they did not prevent the book from becoming a best-seller.
In 1988 the producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory began shooting a film version of Slaves of New York with a script by Janowitz. She collaborated closely with Merchant and Ivory on the film, but the adaptation turned out to be a critical and commercial failure after its release in March, 1989. Another novel, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, appeared in 1992 to mostly unfavorable reviews. By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee was a generally poorly reviewed parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855), moving from Janowitz’s trademark urban, hip environment to the trailer trash of upstate New York. Janowitz continued her rewriting of classics in A Certain Age, a revisioning of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), also chronicling the downward course of a young woman in New York unable to make an advantageous marriage.
Alford, Henry. “Slaves of the Hamptons.” The New York Times Book Review 149 (August 8, 1999): 9-10. Review of A Certain Age.
Anshaw, Carol. “Hype Springs Eternal.” The Village Voice 31 (August 5, 1986): 46. Anshaw describes a central idea of Slaves of New York, that boys get to be famous and outrageous, while girls get to be girlfriends if they behave themselves. She notes the one-dimensionality of characters and sees Janowitz as standing outside the action she describes.
DePietro, Thomas. Review of Slaves of New York, by Tama Janowitz. The Hudson Review 39 (Autumn, 1986): 489. Describes the work as blurring the distinction between high and low culture. DePietro says that Janowitz’s point in the book is unclear: The tales may be a symptom or a parody of the junk culture she describes.
Prince, Dinah. “She’ll Take Manhattan: Tama Janowitz’s Tales for the Eighties.” New York 19 (July 14, 1986): 36-42. A personality profile focusing on Janowitz’s writing process and social world. Contains many quotations from Janowitz. Her social life and connections with Andy Warhol receive significant attention.
Sheppard, R. Z. “Yuppie Lit: Publicize or Perish.” Time 130 (October 17, 1987): 79. Reports on the commodification of young writers, including Janowitz.
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