Following the earlier post about the 2012 PEN Literary Awards, here’s another awards announcement—one that hits a bit closer to home.
Here’s the official statement by the jury (in Google-ese):
“Dubravka Ugrešić impresses in her essays by brilliant intellectual analysis of contemporary issues that concern us all in Karaoke Culture. The author describes the modern digital world with all its confusions and errors and shows small examples to control where the unleashed new media. Yet their words are easy to read so enjoyable because she is a master of acerbic wit, though a sometimes the laughter gets stuck in your throat.”
Dubravka will be honored at a special event during the Frankfurt Book Fair, and will be introduced by Arnon Grunberg, whose Tirza is forthcoming from Open Letter.
Dubravka is the most deserving author of this award, and if you haven’t read Karaoke Culture, you really should. It’s a stunning book, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
So, last night was the National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalists Reading—a pre-awards-ceremony event at the Tishman Auditorium at The New School, where many of the NBCC Awards Finalists gave readings from their nominated works. Among the authors in attendance last night was our own Dubravka Ugresic, who is a Finalist for her excellent collection of essays Karaoke Culture. In fact, here she is, ripping it up:
(Thanks to Shaun for the pic.)
And tonight is the big NBCC Awards Ceremony itself. (Tickets to the ceremony are free and 50 for access to the reception.) If you’re able to make it, it’s sure to be a great event, filled with incredible nominees.
Best of luck to Dubravka tonight.
This weekend, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its books wards for publishing 2011 and—not to bury the lede—including Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture as one of the five finalists in the Criticism category.
This is the first major book award that one of titles has been nominated for (not counting the BTBA), and we’re extremely psyched. I’ve been on and on and on about this book for the past year, which makes this news just that much sweeter. To celebrate this honor, we’re selling copies of Karaoke Culture through our website for the special price of $9.99.
OR, if you’d rather become an Open Letter supporter and receive all of our fantastic books, you can buy a subscription and we’ll throw in a copy of Karaoke Culture for free.
Going back to the NBCCs, I have to say, the Criticism category is the very definition of LOADED. Check out this list of finalists:
Bellos, Lethem, Ugresic, AND Dyer?!?!? Damn. That’s all I can say.
By contrast, the other categories—all of which contain a few truly excellent books—seem tame. You can read the full press release and list of all finalists by clicking here. And here are my picks for which titles should win in the various categories:
Congrats to everyone, and special congrats to Dubravka Ugresic, David Williams, Ellen Elias-Bursac, and Celia Hawkesworth!
Here are a few highlights from Carolyn’s review:
Dubravka Ugresic does not like karaoke. That doesn’t stop her from trying it, just as her resistance to celebrity doesn’t stop her from putting her head through a cutout on a Hollywood studio tour so that she can be photographed with Clark Gable. Ugresic, a game and inquisitive critic, looks at culture from all angles, which sometimes means picking up the mic.
Karaoke recycles rather than creates, she argues in “Karaoke Culture,” the 100-page essay that lends its name to the title of her new collection. To Ugresic, karaoke is emblematic of our contemporary moment: She sees it as a sad attempt to adopt the trappings of celebrity, an art that’s derivative without enrichment and a practice that degrades the original because it can never be quite as good. “In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world,” she writes. It’s not just singing on stages: Ugresic traces these themes in reality television, fandom, hobbyists, politics, art and, of course, the Internet. [. . .]
Ugresic writes in short, episodic sections, making surprising leaps. An essay that begins with a Hemingway look-alike contest hops quickly to the arrest of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic. The connections are electric: It’s an intellect in action, ideas zapping across the page. [. . .]
Despite these small failings, “Karaoke Culture” is an essential investigation of our times. Ugresic’s best moments come when she connects the personal to the universal, when navigating a political storm is illustrated by her mother’s easy laughter in the face of unpleasantness, or when she extrapolates from her own Internet overuse: “Would Marcel Proust have written ‘In Search of Lost Time,’” she asks, “if he had had a Madeleine cookie on the computer screen in front of him?”
Read the entire review here.
At this past ALTA (which I still need to write about, I know), Dwayne Hayes of Absinthe recorded are few video interviews about people’s favorite books of the year. The first one he posted is the one that I did about . . . Karaoke Culture. You can watch it at the link above (which I approve of, since part of my face is cut off on my browser, making me seem either arty or quite possibly freakish), or below:
And in terms of Absinthe itself, you can order a copy of the new issue (#16) by clicking here. And to get a taste of it, watch the video below in which Dwayne shamelessly uses his cuter-that-should-be-legal son to help explain what’s included. Watch it for the toddler, stay for the international literature!
Over at The New Republic Ruth Franklin (who is working on a biography of Shirley Jackson, which should be amazing) has a piece detailing the five books that came out in 2011 that she wishes she had reviewed.
It’s a great list that includes Teju Cole’s Open City (“Reminiscent of the works of W.G. Sebald, this dreamy, incantatory debut was the most beautiful novel I read this year—the kind of book that remains on your nightstand long after you finish so that you can continue dipping in occasionally as a nighttime consolation.”), Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City, Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, and Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture:
Ugresic, a Croatian novelist and essayist who now lives in Amsterdam, is one of the most stringent and wide-ranging commentators at work today, bringing an ironic sensibility honed under communism to global pop culture. In the pieces collected here, many originally published in European newspapers, she sounds like the fantasy cultural-studies professor you never had, making crazy connections between unlikely ideas that turn out to be brilliant. In the long essay that opens the collection, she riffs on the concept of karaoke as a catch-all metaphor for the new forms of creativity, technologically enabled and often anonymous, that characterize the artists of the digital age—from users of the program Second Life to a performer on “Bulgarian Idol” who became an Internet sensation for her bastardization of the English language, rendering the chorus of her song as “Ken Lee / tulibu dibu douchoo” (“Can’t live / if living is without you”). Ugresic’s anecdotes and aperçus are as irresistibly quotable—“The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies”—as they are haunting.
As I’ve mentioned a million times (or so), and will again (see the next post), Karaoke Culture is one of my favorite books of the year. And thinking about it now, like right now, like days before the holidays start in full, I think this may well be the perfect book for this month. It can help get you through any and all less-than-ideal family experiences. You will laugh. And rage. Seriously, buy it now, read the first essay, and you’ll be hooked. (If you want a preview, click here.
In this week’s podcast we learn the following: Chad is working through the five stages of grief about Albert Pujols and MSU (he is filled with ANGER); Tom doesn’t read a ton of nonfiction, but when he does, it tends to focus on all things violent (see a theme?); faux-karaoke singers on the subway might suck, but Karaoke Culture is awesome; and book people like to totally flip out at most every opportunity (we are an unstable people).Read More...
Kirkus just posted a longish interview by Jessa Crispin (founder/editor of Bookslut) with Dubravka Ugresic about her new collection, Karaoke Culture. (Which, not to give too much away, is one of the books on my “Best of 2011” list that Tom and I will be discussing on this week’s podcast.)
You should go there now and read the whole piece (after which, you’ll head over to your retailer of choice and buy a copy of the book), but for those of you still here, here’s a few choice excerpts:
What’s your relationship to pop culture? Detached observer? Or do you have the last season of The Good Wife on DVD?
Popular culture (or moreover, its products) doesn’t interest me so much. What interests me is cultural populism. In other words, I’m not interested in the saga of the Twilight books and movies, but in the mechanism of fascination these products instill in millions of young consumers.
The patterns of popular culture have permeated every sphere of our lives, our entire mental landscape: politics, relationships, the education system, language, our narratives, trends, fashions, art and literature. Popular culture has even penetrated scholarly enclaves. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about popular culture, because it’s a very particular cultural reservation; popular culture is more like the air we breathe, and that’s why participation in it is so hard to escape.
Much of the Karaoke Culture you write about contains this impulse to remove the viewer from reality as much as possible, or to dunk them as fully into a new world as possible. From the intense fandom sites that put you in the world of the object of your affection, whether that be a vampire book or a television show, to something like Second Life. Is it something about contemporary life that drives this, or are humans always looking for the exit ramp?
Popular culture and cultural populism work two ways. Popular culture is a carrier of “old truths,” myth-like structures, and in this respect it’s always retrograde. But it’s also highly topical, engaged and relevant, because it works as a mirror. It reflects the obsessions, fears, dilemmas and frustrations of many people, transforming them into a pleasure zone, into our contemporary myths, into screens for our projections. Today’s popular culture boasts tremendous power because its consumers are no longer passive: thanks to technology, s/he is an inter/active participant. Technology gives the consumer a strong sense of communality and the power to change things. Whether it’s just a psychological trap, whether one really can change things or not, that’s another question. [. . .]
You write at one point that the reason we don’t have children anymore, referring to the increased rates of violence amongst youths, is because we don’t have adults anymore. Certainly there is little difference in the culture we consume—every generation is listening to the same music, watching the same television shows, playing the same video games. Is there something stunting about a culture that tells us we can all pursue our dreams rather than deal with dreary obligations, and when pleasure is only a few clicks away?
We do live in infantile times, mothers increasingly look like their daughters, and they, mothers and daughters, both behave like little girls. Fathers compete with their sons. We all try to stay young until we die. Nobody wants to be lumped in the “old jerks” category anymore. That’s why the world, or the richest and “luckiest” part of it, resembles a kindergarten.
Popular culture, TV shows, movies, books, games, the Internet, media, technology—these are our favorite toys. Vladimir Putin miserably singing “Blueberry Hill,” accompanied by the best American musicians and applauded by the best American actors, is one of the most grotesque recent images of life in our kindergarten.
However, I write my essays not to preach and moralize, though that’s unavoidable, too, but to see what’s behind the curtain, how the mechanism works. One of my dearest books was, and still is, The Wizard of Oz. And my favorite literary hero is not Dorothy, or her three companions, but Toto, a little dog. He’s the one who pulls the curtain, not because he’s brave, but simply because he’s curious.
I mentioned this in passing a couple weeks back, but The Paris Review website recently posted Dubrakva Ugresic’s “Assault on the Minibar,” which is one of the many fantastic pieces in her new collection, Karaoke Culture.
A number of sites have been linking to this essay, and I particularly like the summary that The Millions posted:
Anyone who travels a lot will enjoy Dubravka Ugresic‘s essay on hotel minibars. As a matter of fact, just about anyone will enjoy this essay regardless of how often they travel.
Here’s the opening of Dubravka’s attack:
At the reception desk I filled in all the necessary details and got the key. Before I headed off to my room the receptionist asked:
“Would you like to open a hotel account?”
“It means that you don’t have to pay for everything you have or use in the hotel immediately, you just give your account number.”
I declined. What do I want with a hotel account? I’m only here for three days. Breakfast is included, and most of the time I’ll be out and about.
The room was large, luxurious, and had that fresh new smell. The furniture was certainly brand-new, the bathroom enormous, and the heavy windows opened gracefully with the touch of a button.
I hadn’t even gotten around to unpacking my things when I heard a knock at the door.
“Can I help you?” I asked the young porter.
“Sorry, but I have to lock the minibar.”
“Because you didn’t open a hotel account,” he said, before heading for the minibar, locking it, and leaving.
All of a sudden I felt the blade of the invisible sword of injustice pressing on the back of my neck. I don’t even use minibars. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me; I don’t like greasy, stale crisps; I hate any kind of peanuts; candy bars of uncertain origin aren’t my thing; random bottled liquids inevitably give me heartburn; and carbonated, nonalcoholic drinks are just plain bad for your health. The bottom line is that a minibar doesn’t have anything I’d ever want. So why did I feel so humiliated? Just because the bellboy locked the minibar? Did he put a padlock on the shower, the bathroom tap, the TV remote, the toilet seat? He didn’t. Rationalizing it, comforting myself with thoughts of the palatial bed or a hot shower, nothing helped. I was inconsolable. It was just the hopeless sense of deprivation.
This week’s Read This Next title is Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic, which is translated from the Croatian by David Williams, Celia Hawkesworth, and Ellen Elias-Bursac, and is coming out from Open Letter at the end of the month.
I’m really excited about this book—in my opinion, it’s one of the best things Dubravka’s ever written, right up there with Thank You for Not Reading and her fiction.
We’ve posted the first four sections of the opening essay—an essay that’s over a 100 pages long and is god damn brilliant—for you to check out.
It needs to be said upfront: I’m not a karaoke fan. This essay was not only conceived, but also half-finished, when it occurred to me to go and catch a bit of real karaoke. They say Casablanca is the most popular karaoke bar in Amsterdam. My companion and I, both neophytes, arrived at eight on the dot, as if we were going to the theatre and not a bar. Casablanca was empty. We took a walk down Zeedijk, a narrow street packed with bars whose barmen look like they spend all day at the gym and all night in the bar. Muscles and baggy eyelids—that pretty well describes our barman at Casablanca, to which we soon returned. On a little stage, two tall, slender young women were squawking a Dutch pop song into a couple of upright microphones. A concert featuring Dutch pop stars played on the bar’s TV screens but was drowned out by the evening’s young karaoke stars. The girls sang with more heart than the guys, and for a second I thought there must be an invisible policeman standing over them. The whole thing was a deaf collective caterwaul: deaf insofar as nobody actually listened to anyone. Amsterdam is definitely not the place for a karaoke initiation. I’m not sure why I even thought of going to see karaoke in Amsterdam—maybe because of the paradox that sometimes turns out to be true, that worlds open up where we least expect.
What is karaoke in actual fact? Karaoke (Japanese for “empty orchestra”) is entertainment for people who would like to be Madonna or Sinatra. The karaoke machine was invented in the early seventies by the Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue—who forgot to patent his invention, and so others cashed in. A few years ago Inoue apparently won the alternative Nobel Peace Prize (the Ig Nobel), awarded by The Annals of Improbable Research. They praised him for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”
Cultural critics are people who are prepared to see more in the craze for tattoos than just a passing fashion fad. I’m a member of this dubious guild. In karaoke I’m ready to see more than just desperate squawking to the backing track of “I Will Survive.” Karaoke supports less the democratic idea that everyone can have a shot if they want one and more the democratic practice that everyone wants a shot if there’s one on offer. The inventor of karaoke, Daisuke Inoue, is a humble man, most proud of having helped the Japanese, emotionally reticent as they are said to be, change for the better. As Pico Iyer wrote: “As much as Mao Zedong or Mohandas Gandhi changed Asian days, Inoue transformed its nights.”
Also, for anyone in NY, she’s going to be reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore on Tuesday, October 11th at 7pm. And for those of you in Boston, she’ll be at the Brookline Bookstore on Friday the 14th at 7pm.
To even write this review is to participate in the Karaoke Culture the Dubravka Ugresic criticizes. To be one of the voices the mass experiment in democratic culture is only one more example of a worldwide culture that is collapsing into parodies of itself as we all become yet another karaoke singer demanding our moment and adding nothing. It is a hard criticism, but Ugresic has little patience for us off key singers. She has a point.
For Ugresic, the problem stems from the whole concept of Karaoke. It is not about creating something new, nor even paying homage to the artist whose work you are singing, instead it is about becoming one the artist represents. The act, though, is not transformative , it is submissive. The participant becomes a facile representation of the artist, attempting to become the artist and, worst of all, surrendering to the celebrity culture that has spawned it.
Karaoke-people are everything but revolutionaries, innovators, or people who will change the world. They’re ordinary people, readers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, consumers and conformists. All the same, the world changes and ordinary people have their part to play.
The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight form themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hod for more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.
To illustrate this she investigates the sub cultures of sci-fi and fantasy, hardcore gamers and strange creations such as Abba world in London. In each she see people who are escaping from reality into worlds that don’t offer any freedom, but make them docile. Her greatest vitriol, though, is for the inhabitants of the former eastern block. She often sees them as trashy fools who have traded the enforced worship of the state idols, for the unthinking idol worship of all the worst of consumer culture. Creating needle point rugs that show scenes from porn movies is not art, but just loss of any kind of objective standards. But who needs standards when we are all creating culture, our own culture that is just a pale shadow of the original. And it is in that so called freedom that we loose ourselves in our own excitement that we too are stars, and loose our ability to think critically.
For her, fan fiction is the worst of all things. It is indicative of a world in which the writer is not the creator, but at the beck and call of the fan. The writer must please like a trained seal. Writing is no longer about high and low culture, the only thing that is important is “the fact that we’re producing.” She doesn’t see any saviors, either.
Criticism has changed. Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature. Publishers don’t want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one. Critics hold heir fire, scared of being accused of elitism. Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case. No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to talk about anymore. University literature departments don’t set out the differences–literature has turned into cultural studies in any case
The freedom we thought we gained with the internet and participatory culture has actually destroyed culture.
Those are strong words, but Ugresic has seen the damage that slavish and unthinking adherence to one cultural ideal can do. The rest of the book is filled with short little essays that detail her encounters with such a world. The pieces look as if they were written as newspaper columns, although the book doesn’t say, and have the conversational feel of a newspaper essay. Over and over again she encounters the paradoxes of the west, for example, describing the lives of Filipino maids serving western families in Hong Kong and living in puny little closets. Or she takes aim at the states of the former Yugoslavia, where once the people all proclaimed they were one, but at the first opportunity they turned on each other. Where ever she turns, she sees people proclaiming one thing and living another, and she can’t stand it.
Ugresic, can be funny when she makes these observations. Her experiences in the Balkans are fascinating and the stories are great. In one she describes a Serbian thug who became part of the government and has created his own folk village, one that is run on almost fascistic terms and whose purpose is really to celebrate the thug. At the same time, the man is an environmentalist interested in preserving the forest around his creation. The paradoxes amongst nationalists she describes are disturbing, a bit terrifying, and comic because there is no alternative.
Unfortunately, despite her insights, she can also sound like Andy Rooney. If I have to see another sentence that uses freshman English constructions such as, now days…, I will have to throw the book down. Her criticism is breezy and reads well, but you constantly have the feeling that shes just complaining because the world has passed her by. I don’t think it is necessarily true, but if when you keep up with the “kid these days” type of criticism, you end up sounding that way. Often times you have the idea that she doesn’t really even know the subject that well. It’s as if she heard about it on the news and is now giving her opinion, rather than first hand experience. It might be a little unfair and first had experience is not required for every criticism one makes, but that sense of the detached outsider doesn’t always work. The other draw back of the book is the short pieces that make up at least half of the book. The essay Karaoke Culture is around a hundred pages and sustains an argument, but the occasional pieces are tedious after a while. Fortunately, towards the end of the book she has some longer pieces that make for more compelling reading.
It is too bad the book has these defects because I was looking forward to reading her essays and although I think the essay Karaoke Culture is interesting, the book as a whole suffers. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading more of her work at some point, as I think it is a great lens for looking at Europe and the world, neither left nor certainly right.
This review was reposted with permission from By the Firelight, a book review blog run by Paul Doyle.
Karaoke Culture doesn’t officially come out until October 25th, but 15 lucky people will win copies of Dubrakva Ugresic’s latest (and in the opinion of some, greatest) book through this GoodReads giveaway. Just click below to enter yourself in the drawing.
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