The Age of Insolvency
On Tama Janowitz
Tama Janowitz. Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction. Dey Street, 2016.
This summer, a minor feud broke out in the press between Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney, two writers who alongside Bret Easton Ellis were known in the 1980s publishing world as the Brat Pack. This group’s fiction, despite its literary, quasi-experimental aspirations, was succinct, digestible, and directed at middle-class young people who were interested in so-called edgy pop subjects like cocaine, light sexual deviance, commodity culture, the lives of artist-scenesters, and the perils and highs of life on the city’s fringes. It was a literature that did not refuse materialism, but mined it actively to subversive effect. Though Janowitz, McInerney, and Ellis weren’t good friends, they were brought together at readings, photographed at parties, and gossiped about in Page Six. They were at once savage analysts of the Eighties and the era’s fizziest exemplars.
But since the eclipse of the decade they appeared to embody — and the aging of the literary generation they briefly headed — the members of the Brat Pack have taken different paths. Janowitz’s, by all accounts, has been the roughest. This past August, in an interview with the Guardian to promote her new book, Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, she expressed her long-simmering resentment toward McInerney, whose eighth novel had just come out. At the heart of the kerfuffle stood McInerney’s suggestion, in an interview way back in 1998, that Janowitz shouldn’t have appeared in ads if she’d wanted to be considered a serious writer rather than a “whore.” (In the ’80s and ’90s, following the publication of her breakout story collection Slaves of New York, she had done advertisements for Apple and Amaretto, among other brands.) Janowitz said that she was still hurt by McInerney’s suggestion and had felt “singled out.” Other authors, she said, had done ads. “I just couldn’t understand why . . . one author would call another author a whore, especially when that author kept marrying rich women.” (McInerney’s current wife, his fourth, is the heiress Anne Hearst.) “I needed money and I also didn’t want to sit at the desk every day.” Asked if she had ever told McInerney or other critics how she felt, she responded in the negative, saying, “It’s ridiculous to argue with idiots.” When approached by Page Six, McInerney seemed to take the high road, wishing Janowitz luck with her memoir. He claimed he didn’t remember censuring her for doing ads but did recall praising Slaves of New York in a review for the New York Times that, he suggested, “put her on the map.”
It’s certainly true that Janowitz was on the map, whoever put her there. For a time in the late ’80s, she managed to ably straddle the divide between the literary and the truly popular. While several of the Slaves of New York stories were published by William Shawn in the New Yorker before they were collected in the book, Janowitz’s success went beyond the conventional middle-to-highbrow road. As the poster girl of what David Foster Wallace called a CY (“conspicuously young”) writer, she was a new kind of literary celebrity. The hype surrounding her was relentless. With her vivid Stephen Sprouse dresses, pouffy dark mane, and bold makeup, she cut a striking figure, attempting with her persona as well as her writing to, as Entertainment Weekly assessed, “lure pop-cult fans away from the tube and into the bookstore.” The Merchant Ivory film adaptation of Slaves, for which Janowitz wrote the screenplay; her friendship with Andy Warhol; her magazine covers and Annie Leibovitz–shot ads; her star-studded parties and multiple appearances on Letterman (including one in which she chewed gum and dared the host to open a can of sardines on air) — it all made for great copy, and Janowitz delivered.