Living in the ’80s and Beyond: Tama Janowitz

“Abby, don’t do it. In the old days, marriages were arranged by the parents, and maybe you ended up with a jerk but at least you had the security of marriage, no one would dump you out on the street. In today’s world, it’s the slave system. If you live with this guy in New York, you’ll be the slave” -Eleanor, of Slaves of New York

Tama Janowitz was born in 1957 in San Francisco, California. She was the daughter of a pysychiatrist father and a poet and literature professor mother. Tama’s parents divorced when she was 10 and she was then raised by her mother. She had an interesting childhood and traveled to Israel. She later graduated from Barnard College in New York, where she majored in Creative Writing.

Janowitz published her first novel in 1981, titled American Dad. This achieved a bit of critical success. Following the release of this novel, she wrote four more novels which were rejected. The author then decided to approach writing from a different angle. She decided to write a collection of short stories. She called this collection Slaves of New York. This book, published in 1986, won her almost instant fame and qualified her as an ’80s “it” girl author of sorts. Slaves of New York was a book of short stories focusing on artists, prostitutes and other city dwellers. This book was thought to be somewhat biographical, based on the author’s experiences of living in the artistic world and Soho area of New York City in the 1980s.

The success of Slaves of New York put Janowitz in a certain class of authors who had written popular fiction set in 1980s-era city life. This group also included Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney.
Janowitz became a bit of a staple on the New York City nightlife scene in the 1980s, befriending and partying around the likes of Andy Warhol. Slaves of New York was even turned into a 1989 movie; although the plot of the movie was a bit different and paled in comparison to the greatness of the book.

Janowitz’ career as an author continued with several novels, including A Cannibal in Manhattan(1987), The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group(1991), and By the Shores of the Gitchee Gumee(1996). However, these novels were recieved in a critical backlash, compared to the greater success of Slaves of New York. Nonetheless, these novels had retained Janowitz’ unique flair for describing New York City life or, indeed, life in general, from an innocent bystander’s viewpoint. I personally think that all of Janowitz’ novels up to the Male Cross Dresser Support Group captured the verve of New York City life best and unlike any other author that I have read who wrote about such a subject. I knew that Janowitz would bounce back, critically speaking, with an awesome book and many of her fans indeed remained.

After the critical backlash of Janowitz’ second through fourth books died down, the author took some time off to focus upon creative renewal, family, and perhaps to take a break before getting inspiration for further writing. I imagine that many fans of her writing, and indeed many literary critics, were wondering ‘what had happened to Tama Janowitz?’ Would she ever write another book that was as “good” as Slaves of New York?

Tama came back onto the literary scene in 1999, with a novel called A Certain Age. Even before it was published, various parts of the literary publishing community had been excitedly comparing it to the earlier novel, Slaves of New York. However, A Certain Age is a more mature offer from Janowitz and contains a different plot and subject line than Slaves did. A Certain Age is about the character of a 32-year old woman, who is on a search for a rich husband, in both New York City and the Hamptons, during one summer. As a fan, I would say that while Slaves of New York had a decidedly 20-something feel to it, A Certain Age had a decidedly 30-something feel to it. In any instance, Janowitz’ books can be read at almost any age; starting with the “young adult” age. I started reading her novels as a young teenager.

She has recently also written another novel in 2003 called Peyton Amberg. This is another novel which is different from Slaves, and touches on Janowitz’ ever creative but also further maturing type of writing style.

No matter what comes, Tama Janowitz will remain in the hearts of many as an important author of city life — namely New York City life. I cannot think of any author who has taken her place in this respect since. And, honestly, I do not want anybody to.

Today, Tama Janowitz lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her daughter.

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