|Which one of you will be the next one of us?
Once upon a time, Estonia’s writers inhabited a world in which they created works of art deemed culturally significant and also managed to sell these products to the masses. Or so it is thought. I personally do not know how hungry the workers of Tallinn were for Friedebert Tuglas’ epic poem about the 1905 revolution “Meri,” but we are taught that the author and the work were held in high regard, and for these reasons Mr. Tuglas has streets named after him all over Estonia.
Tuglas is important in another way. He founded the Estonian Writers’ Union in 1922, helping to enshrine his own significance in perpetuity. He’s the granddaddy of the literary scene, the cool cat in the corner with the cigarette holder and the first edition of Voyage au bout de la nuit. In case you are interested, Tuglas is the smart-looking chap at left above. And the thing about Tuglas, is that he has become the model for Estonian writers who fancy themselves as being culturally significant. Each one is like a mini-Tuglas, primping and affecting the posture of a 1920s man of letters.
The main problem for these neo-Tuglases, though, is money. Epic poems are not selling as well as they used to sell. Instead, the Estonian top tens are thick with cookbooks by sexy celebrity witches like Nastja, translations of hits from abroad that have since become a major motion picture (see The Girl with/who …), and, worst of all, Petrone Print’s Minu series books, many of them written by people who are neither writers nor have expressed nor will express a desire to join the Estonian Writers’ Union, ever.
To join this union requires consent from the majority of members of the union’s steering commitee. I know this because Epp applied and was rejected. Somebody in the Estonian Writers’ Union really doesn’t like her. For one, she’s written several bestsellers of dubious literary merit (a recent Sirp review of Minu Ameerika III mostly centered on the question of whether she had produced journalism, literature, or some peculiar mix of the two, and did not manage to answer that question). Two, she managed to peddle her own literary success into a career in publishing. The number one and number two books in the Apollo chain of bookstores right now are Minu Supilinn and Minu Sitsiilia, respectively.
Here I am reminded of Truman Capote’s famous quote about the success of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Kerouac claimed he wrote during three caffeine-infused weeks. “That’s not writing,” said Capote, “that’s typing.” And that’s probably how Estonia’s neo-Tuglases feel about Minu authors. They are not real writers. These books are not literature. What are they then? Well, we just can’t say right now, but it warrants further study …
Forgive me, but I don’t care who the damn author is, be it a woman who works on a cruise ship in Oman or an activist who likes to take his dogs to Mongolia, so long as the book is good. One of the reasons I like Kerouac is because he was from a working class Catholic family and because his first language wasn’t even English — it was Joual. And the literary establishment had its knives out for him too. He was called a “slob running a temperature” and an “imposter” and his book was dismissed as a “sideshow full of freaks.”
Most of my favorite writers have run similar gauntlets. Some might argue that it is this irreverance that makes them truly great. And yet there is that sting, the pain of being cast out, excommunicated, not deemed worthy of belonging. When Epp inquired from a union member (and best-selling author) about how one gains access to the Estonian Writers’ Union, she was informed that gaining acceptance to the union depends on “who you drink and sleep with.” So, apparently I’m to blame for all of this.
I actually did come across some neo-Tuglases on a spree last summer. It was like something out of A Clockwork Orange. There were strange gentlemen dressed like Zorro alternately falling down and trying to stand up outside a liquor store. One writer passed out across from me, snoring on the table. The other passed on my wife in my presence and ordered another bottle of wine. But they are members of the union. They have what it takes, and therefore access to its perks, like the keys to the writer’s retreat at Käsmu where Estonia’s finest can channel the ghost of Tuglas surrounded by lush forests and pristine bays.
These local squabbles intrigue me because I am not an Estonian. I relish it the same way Northerners enjoy tales about Southern family feuds. Those silly country people! Look at how they all hate each other! Isn’t it adorable? I have the luxury of having another homeland. And, truth be told, I fear trying to crack into the American literary scene for the same reasons that one might be intimidated by the Estonian Writers’ Union. Just take the Estonian situation and multiply it by 300.
I’ve thought of joining the Estonian Writers’ Union, sure, but I doubt they’ll accept me. For one, I am not an Estonian. And for two, I’ve been sleeping and drinking with the wrong person. That’s all fine with me though. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.