Slovene week

Of the Cute Cat and Her Journalist Pet

/ by Maja Šučur

For the purpose of this article, let us put on the overalls of the somewhat boring and traditionally harmless, hence practically likeable, journalists of the culture desk at the fictitious daily Newspaper in the Republic of Slovenia. Despite its proverbial smallness, the latter, in this case, is rather concrete, certainly more so than the resolutions of its Ministry of Culture. Had checkered, elbow-patched shirts not always been worn by the most conservative of proofreaders, they would adorn the scrawny bodies of the esteemed writers of culture news, as proof of their former youthful progressiveness. Seeing as culture journalists, as we all know, never eat and never sleep and, being the introverts that they are, prefer to avoid office parties, do nothing but read (or reread the same books, over and over again), go to the theater and, on lonely nights, listen to classical music, as they pore over a crossword puzzle with a glass of brandy in their hand and a cat on their lap. Something extravagantly colorful or temptingly revealing is out of the question.

And so, all that is left for us to do is to push up our glasses; we can skip the pencil-behind-the-ear part, on this occasion. Let our back buckle under the weight of incurable seriousness, if one is a woman, or a chronic lack of humour, if one is a man, neither of the two having the time to shave (once again, feminism is to blame). Not a lot of people wander to the culture desk on purpose, and the journalists in question don’t care much about the various Slovenian jazz club owners, heads of Slovenian international festivals, and publishers who come barging in every once in a while, crying out in fury about how the lousy journalists dared to overlook their unique cultural events or their latest book releases. What is most bothersome is the fact that the relevant boor has disturbed the balance of our hard-earned peace.

After the Newspaper culture editor frees his or her hacks from pursuing their monthly quotas of characters with spaces and lines with characters, the peaceful journalists run to the machines for their fourth cup of bitter coffee, and return to their posts, where they toil on until late into the evening. Our moment has come; we are going to take a deep breath, smoke the very last cigarette of our lives, boldly unbutton the top button of our shirt, fiercely roll up our sleeves and hastily remove the restraints of our stifling watch – and turn from unpopular hacks into writing swans (with a cat).

The fact is that, after only a few years on the job, the culture journalist in Slovenia gets to know most of the local literary lot, book editors included. Four, seven, thirteen years down the line, at least one of the publishing houses that they sometimes even wrote about in superlatives will make the dreams of every serious culture reporter come true – the publication of their novel. Or a book of short stories, at least.

And really – who could blame the Slovenian culture journalist for trying to escape reality, turning to fiction, instead? Currently, their alternatives include writing about a) a potential political hire with the appointment of the artistic director of the main Slovenian theater festival, the Maribor Theater Festival, b) the Minister’s hesitation to dismiss the director of the main national music institution, the Slovenian Philharmonic, whom several bodies accuse of causing artistic and business damage to the institution, or c) the Minister going back on his promise to bring back the national Center of Contemporary Dance Art; after all, this year marks ninety years of contemporary dance in Slovenia. It’s safe to say that, this summer, we didn’t waste our breath on silly seasonal news.

Meanwhile, 110 contemporary Slovenian novels, and at least 150 poetry collections, published in the last year, patiently await their literary reviews. But, in a nation of two million people with more writers than readers, only a handful will actually be read. 48% of Slovenians haven’t bought a single book in the past year, and 42% haven’t even read one – so why would they read reviews? Even painters will stop painting before someone in Slovenia is prepared to pay them their exhibition fees; only dinosaurs still write about the non-existent art market. The fact that a third of Slovenian freelancers working in the cultural field are on the verge of poverty is unpublishable, as it is considered to be old news.

But, day in and day out, the spark in the eyes of the melancholic Slovenian culture journalist is lit not only by a pot of bitter coffee, but also by the notable success of our “national treasures.” Two weeks ago, one of the awards at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival went to director Rok Biček, whose feature film, The Family, filmed in the manner of Linklater’s Boyhood, won the award of the Critics’ Week section. The fact that one of the recipients of the Shooting Stars Award at this year’s Berlinale was Slovenian actress Maruša Majer is no coincidence. The Slovenian presentation at this year’s 57th Venice Biennale also caught the attention of the international public; The Guardian put the project of socially-engaged artist, Nika Autor, among the top five. Another Slovenian – intermedia artist Maja Smrekar – received praise at the last Ars Electronica Festival in Linz; her series of projects, K-9_topology, won her the Golden Nica Award in the category of hybrid art. Jasmin B. Frelih’s novel In/Half also caused a bit of a stir last year, bagging the European Union Prize for Literature. And these are only the triumphs of the generation of artists under forty, which means we will definitely hear more about them in the future.

“There will be more talk about them abroad than here at home,” says our culture journalist ironically, awkwardly trying to force a smile. And it is not so far from the truth; rare are the nations who associate the founding of their country and their identity with culture (especially literature) as strongly as Slovenians do. Only the Portuguese are a match for us, when it comes to the number of statues depicting not warriors, but poets and writers (sculptors have long stopped wasting materials on female artists). However, the Portuguese probably don’t feel such passionate ambivalence towards their artists, praising them for earning them their independence one day, and contemptuously proclaiming them to be leeches of the worst kind, who suck on public funds the next.

Equally symbolic (schizophrenic) is the attitude of the readers of the fictitious Slovenian daily Newspaper. For a number of years now, culture pages have been recording one of the lowest readerships but, as polls continue to show that they also have the highest ratings, the wise media house (football club and yacht) owners are only just able to refrain every week from getting rid of the culture desk. After all, culture pages could be replaced with photographs of cute cats. Even if they appear in the titles of online articles, the news attracts more clicks (profit) and they are much more pleasing to the eye than the colleagues in an identity crisis, culture journalist (writers?), dejectedly and pensively roaming the hallways of the media house. Are they working on a new Bildungsroman?
To avoid the feeling that the culture journalist is overdoing his or her melancholy manner, let me add another piece of information – according to the daily, Delo, a recent survey of the Slovenian Ministry of Culture showed that nearly 50% of respondents used Facebook as their primary or secondary source of information about culture, while newspapers and magazines were far behind. In short, the Minister’s investment of nearly 14,000 euros was wise – it is a fact that the survey results completely correspond to the cultural awareness of the average Slovenian.

As already signaled by the elbow patches, the Slovenian culture journalist is not merely a dreamer, but also (above all?) a rebel. Fiction is only their best way of stoically fighting for the cat not to also get their tongue. 

Maja Šučur

(1989) is a literary critic and cultural journalist at the Dnevnik newspaper. Her literary criticism, also published in the Literatura and Dialogi journals as well as the web portal, won her this year’s Stritar award for up-and-coming literary critic. She regularly organises and moderates literary events such as critical debates at the international Pranger – Gathering of poets, critics and translators of poetry. Since 2014 she is a coordinator at the Society of the Slovenian Literary Critics.