In this morning’s Washington Post (Yes, my morning paper of choice even though I don’t live in the Potomac region at all, and should be a New York Times subscriber, but am not. The writing in the NYT has been very lackluster of late, while the Post seems to be running great stuff) I was surprised to read a review of a new book by Tama Janowitz. I thought she had actually dropped off the face of the earth.
Ms. Janowitz and I are the same age, and when I was starting out as a young writer, she was the Hot Young Thing. Her novel, Savages of New York, was a blockbuster best seller, and she was everywhere, and of course I hated her bitterly and was insanely jealous of her success. But I had to admit she was very talented, and steeled myself to endure a lifetime of brilliant offerings from her, which I could not possibly hope to compete against. But that didn’t really happen.
It made me think about the trajectory of a writer’s life, as far as fame goes. It seems only a chosen few get to be famous all their lives: Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates come to mind. And you always have the Brilliant Debut Artist who never produces anything of note ever again. Or, the reverse of that, the sprightly senior who produces a work of genius in the autumn of his/her life—Frank McCourt and that woman who wrote “And The Ladies of the Club…” But for the great majority of us, it’s a bumpier and predictable road, usually through a long stretch of valley, with maybe an occasional up-bump or peak. You’re trying to mesh the best of your talents with readers’ fickle tastes and whatever’s in fashion at the moment. Usually it doesn’t work out so well. But it’s okay, because you have to live your life anyway, and it’s good to have something to shoot for, a golden dream, as you grub along and count up pennies to buy groceries.
I like a writer who’s paid her dues, rather than one who gets sudden fame handed to them on a platter, but I think Ms. Janowitz has done her penance. So I will give her memoir Scream (A Memoir of Glamor and Dysfunction) a chance, if only to see what transpired between those crazy 1980s and now. And we’ll see if she can overturn that old chestnut cliché, about there being no second acts in American life. Or at least in American literary life.