What goes into the making of a “cult classic?” To hear Nicole Cooley tell it when she lectures about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, about the way the women of her college passed laminated photocopies of the pages of the then out-of-print book back and forth, circulating the text and keeping it alive among themselves, one can get a clear picture of how a book gains a cult following. Perhaps the idea of scarcity also has something to do with it – Cha was raped and murdered a week after Dictée’s publication, and Dictée had since gone out of print so another Cha book would never be forthcoming – and so the women of Prof. Cooley’s college laminated their sole photocopy, ensuring the pages would survive being handed off from student to student, everyone clambering to read it but no one being able to go out and purchase her own copy. The story of this group of women and their preserved copy of Dictée just adds to the cult status of the book every time Prof. Cooley introduces her history with and love of the book to a new audience of graduate students who have just read Dictée, usually for the first time, and are more than a little lost in Cha’s genre-breaking work. As Zan Romanoff describes it, Eve Babitz biographer Lili Anolik had a similar experience when reading an out-of-print copy of Slow Days, Fast Company and she then became obsessed with wanting to talk to Babitz about her writing style, spending years trying to develop a relationship with Babitz’s family and her friends in order to gain some foothold in Babitz’s circle, and Anolik eventually succeeded in endearing herself to Babitz. Babitz herself was also touched by near-tragedy that pushed her out of the spotlight and led her to stop writing, but like the life she had documented in her semi-fictionalized autobiographies, even the circumstances of her accident were extraordinary, “a freak accident – a lit cigar, a convertible with the top down, a highly flammable skirt” (Romanoff).
Anolik’s profile of Babitz in Vanity Fair in 2014 was the first time Babitz had given an interview in decades; in it, Anolik questions why Babitz’s status never left cult and her work remained under the radar. Babitz’s agent theorized that it was because Babitz captured the time of Los Angeles in the 1970s in her writing, but the next decades were not kind to Babitz: too much cocaine in the 80s and then her accident in the 90s which pushed her out of public life. Matthew Specktor, who writes the introduction of the 2016 edition of Slow Days, Fast Company, indicates the tendency of readers to hyperfocus on Babitz’s lovers and her nude photo with Marcel Duchamp, both of which obscure her work, and Babitz then becomes “a party girl spattered with genius instead of (this distinction seems important) an actual genius who happened to, y’know, like to party” (Specktor). While Anolik writes that Babitz exploited herself knowingly to give the outer appearance of a pinup girl with the inner life of an artist, it does seem that the glamorous life Babitz catalogued in her books did ultimately overshadow discussions about her craft. Personally, I think that Babitz’s work had a cult following without being able to break into mainstream success was because her books could not easily be categorized as fiction or nonfiction. Book reviewers still can’t seem to decide how to define Slow Days, Fast Company – is it a novel, a collection of short stories, an essay collection, fiction, semi-autobiographical, memoir – and so a reader doesn’t know how to orient themselves in the world of the book. (Cha too defies simple classification; Dictée was initially labeled an “art book.”) Babitz in many ways seems unreal, to me she could have been plucked out of one of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s historical fiction novels about complicated and influential women published in the past few years, and I don’t know how much to trust Babitz’s narrator. How much does she embellish and how can you tell? Like Babitz trying to be both pinup and artist, her work trying to be both fiction and nonfiction puts readers on unstable ground trying to understand Babitz and her body of work, leaving it to the most devoted of fans to spend the time to actually analyze her craft.
Anolik, Lili. “All About Eve – And Then Some.” Vanity Fair, March 2014, https://archive.vanityfair.com/article/2014/3/all-about-eve–and-then-some. Accessed 19 November 2021.
Babitz, Eve. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., Kindle ed., NYRB Classics, 2016.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. 1982. University of California Press, 2009.
Romanoff, Zan. “Meet the Writer Who Chased Even Babitz All Over Hollywood: How Lili Anolik Finally Got Her Subject to Talk.” Literary Hub, 10 Jan. 2019, https://lithub.com/meet-the-writer-who-chased-eve-babitz-all-over-hollywood/. Accessed 19 November 2021.
Specktor, Matthew. Introduction. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., by Eve Babitz, Kindle ed., 2016.