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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature / publishing

Remaining Relevant
after Communism

Andrew Baruch Wachtel

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To purchase Remaining Relevant after Communism

Title: Remaining Relevant after Communism
Author: Andrew Baruch Wachtel
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 219 pages
Availability: Remaining Relevant after Communism - US
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Remaining Relevant after Communism - India
  • The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very good overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Slavic Review . Summer/2007 Eliot Borenstein

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The complete review's Review:

       The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union brought with it many changes, and in the fascinating Remaining Relevant after Communism Andrew Wachtel presents a very good overview of some of these, especially the changing role of the writer -- as well as some of the ways in which authors tried to adapt to the changed circumstances.
       Wachtel usefully begins by discussing the role of the writer in the Eastern European countries (which, for his purposes, includes Russia) before 1989. Literature (though not journalism) was held in high regard, and practically each nation has a writer who was a 'national hero', a founding-father-type figure who played a significant role in creating a national identity as well as codifying the "modern national literary language" -- a role which there are practically no Western European counterparts to.
       Writers were privileged and well-paid, and Wachtel notes that many of the advantages writers had accrued even to writers who were ostensibly opponents of the political system, with only a few dissidents truly entirely outside the system. He also suggests that the official-approved literature was of comparable quality to that being produced in samizdat, noting that as far as samizdat went:

Indeed, what is striking when one examines these materials today is their enormous quantity and their generally low level of quality.
       (He also notes that this can be ascribed to the fact that: "it was by definition amateur work, something like writing found on today's Internet. That is, there was no intermediary of literary agent, editor, or publishing house to make choices based on quality.")
       State control put certain limitations on literary output, but also allowed for large-scale and widespread distribution -- and, as he notes, one of the biggest problems facing writers and publishers in contemporary Eastern Europe is the absence of a well-functioning distribution system.
       The change after the fall of communism is staggering. A freed market gave consumers new possibilities, but also imposed great limitations: there was often much less disposable income available to spend on books, and domestic titles suddenly had to compete with previously unavailable foreign titles (often real schlock, but of great appeal in countries that had never had access to it). Wachtel provides a lot of data, which gives a good sense of how dramatic the change was. So, for example:
the large Russian publishing house Sovremennik brought out 365 titles in 1985 with an average print run of 90,000 copies. [...] Books of poetry were published in editions of 10,000 or 20,000 and 50,000-100,000-copy runs for novels were normal. [...] In 1999 Sovremennik published only 28 titles with a total print run of 140,000.
       He does note that some publishers have thrived -- but emphasises that, in contrast to communist times, the "market will not bear fees for works of serious literature that are remotely sufficient to procure its producers even an average middle-class income."
       The collapse of communism also more or less killed Western interest in literature from the area. As Wachtel notes, essentially all works of Eastern European fiction were "marketed as political statements", and, of course:
Now, however, they must pay a stiff price for previous marketing tactics, for in the absence of political relevance neither readers nor publishers find any reason to be concerned with their work.
        (Among the depressing observations: he discusses Russian author Vladimir Makanin's Andergaund at some length and notes that it has been translated into Dutch and French recently, but realistically opines: "it would be surprising if in today's literary market an American press would take a chance on Makanin's 550-page behemoth".)
       Wachtel then discusses some of the different ways in which writers have tried to adapt to the changed circumstances. There are those who went into politics (Havel, Dobrica Cosic, Eduard Limonov) and those who embraced nationalism (resurgent in all these countries). There are those who turned to what he calls "the new internationalism" (works marked by the protagonist making a journey "from the home country to the West and back", and the lessons learnt from that ...) -- an updated variation on an old theme.
       Of particular interest is his look at 'Writers and Journalism', as he notes that writers have taken advantage of especially the Western market for journalism and brief magazine/newspaper commentary to re-position themselves. His look at Tatyana Tolstaya's career is particularly instructive. He thinks she is: "neither more nor less talented than a score of other contemporary Russian writers" -- but notes that, unlike almost all others, she has done very well for herself in securing "translations of her fiction by major publishing houses all over the world." Among the reasons for her success, Wachtel argues that the most important is her: "ability to capture public attention through her production of relatively short journalistic and nonfictional pieces", both in Russia and abroad (especially in the US, in The New York Review of Books). As Wachtel demonstrates, Tolstaya plays something of a double-game here, offering each audience exactly the clichés they want -- even when they aren't truly reconcilable.
       Wachtel levels similar charges against Slavenka Draculic and Dubravka Ugresic (who he argues is "not comfortable with the genre", and wishes she focussed more on her much better fiction).
       Wachtel also notes that it is surprising: "how few literary works have appeared that confront head-on the essence of the new realities of Eastern European society and culture" (though one could argue that there are considerably more such works than he suggests).
       Finally, Wachtel also looks at those authors who have turned to writing what is considered "popular fiction", including authors known abroad ( Boris Akunin) and those who remain more local (if mega-selling) phenomena, such as Aleksandra Marinina.
       Remaining Relevant after Communism is full of fascinating information, and certainly serves -- as Wachtell meant it to be -- as "an introduction to a transnational consideration of postcommunist literature". One can take issue with some of his opinions, and one certainly wishes he had at least mentioned more authors and works, but there is a good deal here, and a good deal to be learnt from what Wachtel offers.
       Highly recommended for anyone interested in Eastern European literature -- and, indeed, for most readers who are interested in publishing, as it offers such a solid overview of systems very different from the familiar Western ones.

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Remaining Relevant after Communism: Andrew Wachtel: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Andrew Baruch Wachtel teaches at Northwestern University, and is general editor of the 'Writings from an Unbound Europe'-series.

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