Janowitz, Tama 1957-
JANOWITZ, Tama 1957-
PERSONAL: Born April 12, 1957, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Julian Frederick (a psychiatrist) and Phyllis (a poet and professor; maiden name, Winer) Janowitz; married Tim Hunt (curator of the Andy Warhol Foundation), 1992; children: Willow (adopted daughter). Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1977; Hollins College, M.A., 1979; postgraduate studies at Yale University School of Drama, 1980-81; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1985.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Model with Vidal Sassoon (international hair salon) in London, England, and New York, NY, 1975-77; Kenyon and Eckhardt, Boston, MA, assistant art director, 1977-78; Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, writer-in-residence, 1981-82; freelance journalist, 1985—. Appeared in film Slaves of New York, 1989; and in the first MTV "literary" video, A Cannibal in Manhattan, 1987. Member of board of directors, Barnard College Arts and Literature Committee, 1974-75.
MEMBER: Poets and Writers, Writers' Community (fellow, 1976), Associated Writing Program.
AWARDS, HONORS: Breadloaf Writers' Conference, 1975; Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize, 1976 and 1977; Amy Loveman Prize for poetry, 1977; Hollins College
fellowship, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1982 and 1986; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines/General Electric Foundation award, 1984; Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation award, 1985; Alfred Hodder Fellow in the Humanities, Princeton University, 1986-87.
American Dad, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981.
A Cannibal in Manhattan, Crown (New York, NY), 1987.
The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, Crown (New York, NY), 1992.
By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, Crown (New York, NY), 1996.
A Certain Age, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.
Peyton Amberg, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Slaves of New York, Crown (New York, NY), 1986, Tri-Star, 1989.
Hear That? (children's fiction), SeaStar Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights (reminiscences), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to Wanting a Child: Twenty-two Writers on Their Difficult but Mostly Successful Quests for Parenthood in a High-Tech Age, edited by Jill Bialosky and Helen Schulman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1999; and Wonderful Town: New York Stories from "The New Yorker," edited by David Remnick, Random House (New York, NY), 2000. Contributor of short stories to magazines and periodicals, including Paris Review, Mississippi Review, and Pawn Review. Restaurant reviewer, New York Press. Contributor of articles to magazines, including Rolling Stone and Mademoiselle.
SIDELIGHTS: Since the publication of her first novel, American Dad, at age twenty-three, author Tama Janowitz has captured media headlines, as much for her flamboyant and engaging personality and notoriety as friend to the late Andy Warhol as for her postmodernist fiction. A witty and sensitive observer of New York City's inner life, she has sometimes been taken to task—along with fellow novelists Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney—for, as Terrence Rafferty commented in the New Yorker, "believing that the goal of their [literary] elders' activity was their celebrity … rather than their vision." Thomas De Pietro described the Janowitz "vision" in the Hudson Review: "Her rock-and-roll sensibility is new-wave and, although her characters prefer groups like Teenage Jesus and The Circle Jerks, she herself comes off like a literary Cyndi Lauper, a connoisseur of kitsch capable of being assimilated into the mainstream." Though often in interviews Janowitz offers a Marilyn Monroe-ish cluelessness, her incisive if indigestible observations on the dark underbelly of U.S. culture belie the pose.
Earl Przepasniak, the protagonist and narrator of Janowitz's debut novel, American Dad, is eleven years old when his parents divorce. Earl's father, a psychiatrist, is an amiable, self-absorbed, pot-smoking philanderer whose unrepressed behavior upsets and embarrasses the family. His mother, a poet, is killed halfway through the novel during a fight with her ex-husband over alimony payments. Earl's father is convicted of involuntary manslaughter—Earl testifies against him at the trial—and sentenced to ten-to-fifteen years in prison. With his mother dead and his father in jail, Earl decides to travel abroad and goes to London, where he pursues women and indulges in various other misadventures. Upon his return from Europe, Earl is, as several reviewers of American Dad observed, predictably wiser, and his enhanced sense of self leads to improved relations with his father.
Although Arnold Klein of the Soho News found American Dad "episodic and trivial," he noted that it has the "considerable virtue of being funny." Klein also appreciated Janowitz's depiction of Earl's psychiatrist father, which he called "an uncannily acute portrayal of a distinct social type." Garrett Epps stated in the New Republic, "There is not a false note in the presentation of this engaging villain." David Quammen, writing for the New York Times Book Review, lamented the untimely death of Earl's mother, whom he believed to be the novel's most well-drawn and endearing character. Echoing the reaction of several other reviewers, Quammen praised the novelist for her "fine comedic inventiveness, especially as applied in light dabs to character." According to Epps, Janowitz also has "a sharp eye for the things of this world … and her sensuous writing enlivens the book." Reviewers generally agreed that the first half of American Dad is the stronger half, and the novel flounders, according to some, after Earl embarks on what one reviewer termed a European rite-of-passage trip. "Earl's adventures are mostly filler," wrote Epps, "[and they mar] what is otherwise one of the most impressive first novels I've read in a long time."
Slaves of New York, Janowitz's follow-up to American Dad, is a collection of twenty-two interconnected short stories—many of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. The stories center on Eleanor, a shy young jeweler who is financially bound to her boyfriend Stash—a self-proclaimed artist—because he has enough money to pay the rent. Slaves takes readers into the behind-the-scenes lives of Manhattan's bohemian elite: painters who adopt blood and ground-up bones as an artistic medium, pimps who contemplate the categorical imperative of philosopher Immanuel Kant, and a host of "couples" whose relationships are dictated by the lack of affordable housing in the Big Apple. "Janowitz writes about people who are not terribly nice," noted Victoria Radin in New Statesman, "with an underlying hopefulness that they'll get nicer; and she shows how little control they have over themselves or their lives without pitying or inflating them." While agreeing that Slaves is "resoundingly successful as a comedic look" at city dwellers, a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review also found that "pleasantly distracted by Janowitz's solid sense of humor, we don't notice that her characters' spiritual quest is largely for show." Indeed, the main criticism of Slaves of New York is that Janowitz's characters possess no depth: Village Voice reviewer Carol Ashnew termed them "permanent transients in a dress-up and play-act milieu full of style without the slightest pretense of substance." Despite (or because of?) the mixed critical response, Janowitz was asked to write the screenplay for a film version of Slaves of New York, which starred Bernadette Peters and was released in 1989.
After the popular success of Slaves of New York, its publisher, Crown, released a work of Janowitz juvenilia in an attempt to continue her momentum on the best-seller lists. A novel of the absurd and heavily indebted to the literature of the past, A Cannibal in Manhattan "begins as a travesty of Robinson Crusoe," according to Newsweek's David Lehman, and "borrows liberally from Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief, broadly imitat[ing] the satire of Candide." Unlike its predecessors, A Cannibal in Manhattan fared poorly with critics, who, as Rafferty noted in the New Yorker, had been fast becoming inured to the "death of the novel….In more idealistic times, … the publication of … A Cannibal in Manhattan … might have been the occasion of panic in the streets of Morningside Heights, or for hastily convened symposia in Partisan Review." Taking place in the heart of the Big Apple, Janowitz's satire finds noble cannibal savage Mgungu Yabba Mgungu (even the unlikeliness of such a name coming from the South Pacific comments on the cosseted ignorance of the characters) plucked from his South Sea island home—where he had been living with three wives and assorted children and pigs—and transplanted to New York City by a society heiress playing part-time Peace Corps volunteer. Believing himself to have been selected to become her spouse, Mgungu attempts to fit in with his fiance's high-society friends, where, according to Times Literary Supplement reviewer Peter Reading, his activities serve "to accentuate the real absurdity, viciousness and debasement of the sophisticated civilization into which he is deposited." At the close of a dinner party after the couple's wedding, some so-called friends finally reveal to Mgungu that all his new bride really wanted was the recipe for a native hallucinogen and that it doesn't really matter now because his new wife has been freshly offered by underworld pals and served up as the main course at dinner. Some critics considered the cynical humor that redeemed Slaves to be unsuccessful in Janowitz's second novel. "Given the book's grisly central metaphor, the tone is shockingly light," observed Rafferty. "If we're really living in a country—or, at least, a city—of cannibals, shouldn't we be a little disturbed?"
Janowitz's same satiric voice "is instantly recognizable," Robert Plunket noted in a review of her next novel, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group for the New York Times Book Review. Janowitz is, he stated, "precise, fearless, with the intuitive rhythm of someone who was born funny…. Most of all, it's great fun to see a first-rate comic mind tackle the important issues of the day—sexual identity, family values, the shocking behavior of rich WASP's with enormous trust funds." In this 1992 effort, readers are introduced to Pamela Trowel, a woman who lives a meaningless existence in a Manhattan apartment and supports herself with a mindless job selling advertising space for a low-budget hunting magazine until she encounters meaning in the form of a nine-year-old boy called Abdhul. She and the homeless waif become attached to each other and, after Pamela gets fired from her job, they decide to escape from New York rather than be separated by a city bureaucracy seemingly intent upon destroying supportive relationships between children and caring adults. The problem of sexual identity implied by the novel's title comes into play after Abdhul becomes lost; Pamela must adopt the identity of the popular "Paul" in order to discover his whereabouts. "In this postfeminist era, when women still suffer from a lack of status and a lot of disillusionment, … Pamela is a kind of comic urban Everywoman," explained Susan Heeger in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "But she's loyal and courageous," Heeger added, "and it's heartening to watch her find her way in the wilderness, despite all those who want to trample her." The author commented on the plight of her protagonist in the Boston Globe, telling interviewer Matthew Gilbert: "God knows the men don't come off well in this book, but the women are even worse. I mean women are so rotten to each other, particularly in New York. They're so competitive and back-stabbing and desperate."
In Janowitz's next novel, By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, she broke away from her customary New York setting to write about life with the Slivenowiczes, a wacky, dysfunctional family living in a trailer on the outskirts of a tacky resort town in upstate New York. Their story involves the explosion of their home and their subsequent wanderings to Florida and Los Angeles. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman approved of the "nimble, satisfyingly nasty, and wholly unexpected humor in [Janowitz's] newest novel." The book features Evangeline Slivenowicz, mother of five children by five different fathers. Her eldest daughter, Maud, functions as the story's narrator, one described by Seaman as "outrageously mercenary and amusingly foul-mouthed." The reviewer found the book audacious: "Who, in their wildest literary dreams, would ever have imagined the city cynic Janowitz parodying that most sentimental and overrated of American poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?"
Not all critics shared Seaman's enthusiasm for Gitchee Gumee, however. Margot Mifflin in Entertainment Weekly found little appeal in the Slivenowiczes or their adventures, stating, "Janowitz seems to believe that a harebrained story starring irretrievably stupid characters constitutes parody…. Even judged by the sitcom standards it aspires to, Gitchee Gumee is pretty thin stuff." A Publishers Weekly reviewer was also unsatisfied with the book, calling it "painfully precious" and finding "equally awkward" the author's "arbitrary footnotes and haphazard allusions to, and quotations from, early American poetry. The dialogue and incidents dart rapid-fire at the reader as in a screwball comedy—but the screws here are loose, and what aims to be funny comes off as merely frantic."
Janowitz returned to her usual New York setting in her 1999 offering, A Certain Age, which the publishing world was already enthusiastically passing around in photocopy form before it appeared in public. The city's social climbers and their cocktail-party circuit are reexamined by the author, this time with the focus on an unmarried woman in her thirties and her ruthless quest for a wealthy, well-connected husband. Mark Lindquist of the Seattle Times highly recommended the new novel: "A few times a decade, at most, the right author mines the right territory at the right time, and that's what has happened here—A Certain Age is a brilliant Zeitgeist novel, smart and funny and fearless. A classic comeback." Lindquist remarked that "Janowitz has an empathy for her characters that distinguishes [the novel] from other postmodern fare." Entertainment Weekly reviewer A. J. Jacobs called A Certain Age "an homage to Edith Wharton's House of Mirth," but found that it fell far short of Wharton's work. The protagonist, Bridget Jones, is "one of the least likable characters in modern fiction history," stated Jacobs, making it hard to take 317 pages of reading about her. Elizabeth Gleick also found the book unappealing, noting in Time: "A hateful heroine and a catalog of her conspicuous consuming do not an amusing read make." A People reviewer was more pleased with the book, approving of its "knowing wink at a decaying demimonde." While allowing that "Janowitz's premise wears thin," the writer asserted that "her story amuses to the end." Emily Symon in the Buffalo News observed, "There's a great tradition of female writers who focus their powers of observation and description on the genteel brutality of upper class life; A Certain Age is simply the latest installment in a long-running serial," adding "Florence, seemingly absent the day they passed out heart and moral fiber, is a classic antihero—a semitragic end seems inevitable for her, though her story is told cleverly enough that it's possible to root for Florence in a wan, curious, halfhearted way" and finally, Janowitz is "still funny, which makes A Certain Age bearable in light of what it so surgically exposes about human female nature." Julie Lewis in a Weekend Australian interview noted, "A woman's status among the elite of New York is still based on who she [is] married to," and quoted Janowitz:"'I blame women for that. I blame women for sneering at other women when they are not paired off with somebody.'" Lewis added, "This feminism-free, super-wealthy class, [Janowitz] feels, is taking over her town. 'New York used to be the sort of city you could come to and still find a cheap apartment, get a job as a waitress, work in a coffee shop, pay the rent, go out at night and do performance art or paint. Now it's a city just for the very, very rich.'" It also seems that by the time she published A Certain Age, Janowitz's own life had veered away from that of her heroines'. The same year, she contributed to a book about the challenges of adopting children. She had met and married an Englishman who came to appraise Andy Warhol's possessions after his death, they had adopted a Chinese baby, and Janowitz had begun writing comic restaurant reviews and (very sensible) parenting advice for magazines. She published the children's book Hear That? in 2001.
Janowitz's next novel, Peyton Amberg, both touched and impressed London Guardian's Fay Weldon, who commented: "Madame Bovary, in the guise of Peyton Amberg, runs amok in Manhattan and is destroyed: that's the gist of this wonderful novel. It's not nice, mind you, not out of some well-behaved creative writing course the other side of the Atlantic, just glitteringly, angrily, ferociously accurate about the realities of the world." Weldon continued, "Janowitz allows her heroine no mercy, as the girl with the mad, abusive mother, 'hideous hippie hair sprouting from her head in various colours, like some terrible mutant dandelion', descends from the fantasy of happiness to the depths of degradation….It is one of the funniest books I have read, and the bleakest." Peyton Amberg comes from a downwardly mobile Boston family, has married boringly, and become a travel agent, which gives her the room to have endless increasingly awful affairs in exotic places. The New York Times's Mary Elizabeth Williams found that "Janowitz's harsh view of modern sex and her smooth way around the ugliest of encounters can make for vivid reading. She writes with brazen realism, but replaces Flaubert's poetic brutality with crude shocks." In the Financial Times, Lilian Pizzichinni commented, "as Janowitz herself has aged, so has her female lead and the result is a bleakness as compelling as was her youthful promise." "What is interesting here is that Janowitz has ditched the glamour to give us the dirt." Pizzichinni continued, "In a series of harrowing episodes Janowitz makes clear that Peyton's schizophrenic mother and absentee father contributed to her inability to connect, feel love or be possessed of a sense of worth. But Janowitz leavens the despair with a captivating ironic detachment: 'There were only another fifty years to get through before (Barry) died,' Peyton figures on her honeymoon. Meanwhile, she seeks out casual sex and new sensations to avoid the drudgery of married life."
Like her protagonist Earl in American Dad, Janowitz is the product of a broken marriage between a psychiatrist and a poet; critics noted that she interjects in the fictional lives of the characters she creates the ability to seek unusual ways of dealing with permissive parents or unstructured lifestyles. Several critics also noted parallels between Janowitz and Eleanor, the heroine of Slaves of New York. "Her story isn't as much mine as eighty of my girlfriends," Janowitz responded to Gini Sikes in an interview for Mademoiselle. "Just because I write that stuff doesn't mean it has anything to do with me." However, she also admitted to CA that an autobiographical element does run through her work. "I write about myself by pretending to be others," Janowitz once explained. "In my first novel I am a young boy trying to win his father's approval; in my second I am an elderly 'primitive' cannibal visiting 'civilized' New York City for the first time; and in [Slaves of New York] Iama young painter who is burdened with the weight of all of history, and is preoccupied with death and immortality."
In commenting on the "writing life," Janowitz has described the act of rising from bed as a daily struggle. "But generally the need to go to the bathroom and the desire for Wheat Chex forces me to get up," she quipped to CA. "Then there is the floor to be swept, and the thought that perchance on this day some mail will come…. This is not to say that I despise life. On the contrary, life is an overwhelming experience for me, so much so that getting out of bed becomes an Everest of Olympian proportions for me to climb. The glory of eating Wheat Chex is quite beyond belief. And then if I can actually drag myself to the typewriter and get some words down on paper, what joy I experience!
"For me, writing is overwhelmingly difficult, yet not so difficult, it seems, as actually having to go out and get a job…. Some people, sadly, are not meant to work, but I have learned this about myself at an early age. Certain people (though whom I cannot say) might feel that as a writer I should be working in order to collect experience; but it was Flannery O'Connor who said that each person has had enough experiences by the age of twenty to write for the rest of his or her life. Or something to that effect."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baltimore News-American, May 24, 1981.
Baltimore Sun, June 7, 1981.
BELL: Belgian Essays on Language and Literature, 2002, p. 93.
Booklist, June 1, 1996, p. 1630; May 1, 1999, p. 1558.
Boston Globe, September 9, 1992, p. 69.
Boston Phoenix, May 12, 1981.
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), December 19, 1999, p. E6.
Childhood Education, fall, 2001, p. 50.
Daily Mail (London, England), August 29, 2003, p. 56.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 27, 2002; August 23, 2003.
Entertainment Weekly, September 13, 1996, p. 125; July 30, 1999, p. 64.
Evening Standard (London, England), July 15, 2002, p. 47.
Financial Times, July 20, 2002, p. 4; August 16, 2003, p. 33.
Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), September 19, 1999, p. E3, interview with Janowitz.
Guardian (London, England), May 20, 2000, p. 11; September 6, 2003, p. 28.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), May 11, 2000, p. 22.
Horizon, June, 1981.
Houston Chronicle, April 4, 1981.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1986, p. 489.
Independent (London, England), July 17, 1999, p. 9; May 13, 2000, p. 11; May 27, 2000, p. 6; August 30, 2003, p. 25.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 27, 1996, p. 25; July 26, 1998, p. 27; July 3, 1999, p. 15; July 4, 1999, p. 5; July 18, 1999, p. 9; May 14, 2000, p. 48; September 7, 2003, p. 19.
Interview, August, 1981.
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), October 4, 2003, p. 61.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1996.
Library Journal, July, 1996, p. 160; May 15, 1999, p. 126.
Listener, February 19, 1987, p. 36.
London Review of Books, February 5, 1987, pp. 12-13.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 26, 1987, p. 14; October 18, 1987, p. 10; September 13, 1992, p. 1; October 18, 1987, p. 10.
Mademoiselle, April, 1989, pp. 102, 104, 276.
Newark Star-Ledger, April 26, 1981.
New Republic, June 6, 1981; February 1, 1988, pp.29-34.
New Statesman, February 27, 1987; March 4, 1988, p. 26.
Newsweek, September 7, 1987, p. 72.
New York Daily News, May 21, 1981.
New Yorker, October 26, 1987, pp. 142-146.
New York Times, October 19, 2003, p. ST11; October 26, 2003, p. 24.
New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1981; October 4, 1987, p. 12; August 20, 1992, p. 3; October 20, 1996, p. 13; August 8, 1999, p. 9; October 26, 2003, p. 24.
Observer (London, England), September 14, 2003, p. 6, interview with Janowitz.
Opera News, November, 1996, p. 26.
People, September 9, 1996, p. 38; July 19, 1999, p. 43.
Pittsburgh Press, July 20, 1981.
Publishers Weekly, June 17, 1996, p. 44; May 31, 1999, p. 62; April 16, 2001, p. 65; November 18, 2002, p. 14; September 1, 2003, p. 61; October 20, 2003, p. 51.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), August 15, 1999, p. 1E.
School Library Journal, June, 2001, p. 120.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), July 29, 2000, p. 2, interview with Janowitz.
Seattle Times, August 5, 1999, p. G16.
Soho News, April 15, 1981.
Spectator, November 14, 1992, p. 39.
Springfield Republican, August 30, 1981.
Sunday Telegraph (Surrey Hills, Australia), November 24, 2002, p. T16.
Sunday Times (London, England), August 31, 2003, p. 52.
Tampa Tribune, August 8, 1999, p. 5.
Time, October 19, 1987, pp. 77-79; September 7, 1992, p. 69; August 2, 1999, p. 96.
Times (London, England), September 12, 2001, p. 17; June 29, 2002, p. 18; August 20, 2003, p. 9.
Times Literary Supplement, March 4-10, 1988, p. 245; July 2, 1999, p. 21.
Village Voice, August 5, 1986.
Wall Street Journal, July 22, 1986, p. 28; October 19, 1992, p. A12; July 30, 1999, p. W11.
Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1992, p. 2; October 20, 1996, p. 6.
Washington Times. August 29, 1999, p. 6.
Weekend Australian (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), August 7, 1999, p. R10.
West Coast Review of Books, July, 1981.
Bold Type, http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ (August 1999), Janowitz biography.
BookReporter, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (March 11, 2004), Joni Rendon, review of Peyton Amberg.
CityPaper, http://citypaper.net/ (July 22-29, 1999), Kristin Keith, review of A Certain Age.
EyeWeekly, http://www.eye.net/ (March 31, 1994), Elizabeth Mitchell, "Seeking That Tama-Friendly Audience."
Guardian Unlimited, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (September 6, 2003), review of Peyton Amberg.
NewYork Metro, http://www.newyorkmetro.com/ (August 9, 1999), Vanessa Grigoriadis, review of A Certain Age.*