Prague in the 90s sheltered thousands of young recession refugees and debt artists fed on the myths of 20’s Paris and 50’s New York.
When Czechoslovakia burst out of the gate in the Winter of ’89, Prague’s candyland props were there just waiting to be sucked on: low rents, cobblestones, a philosopher king with a rock and roll court, the still warm breath of History, literary ghosts.
For the bored liberal arts trained cubicle drone or eager recent graduate, it was too much to pass up. And as the Red Army packed its bags, so began an English speaking invasion of young reporters and would-be novelists.
The published fruit of this happy hoard peaked hard in the mid-90s, and twelve years after D-Day most of the monuments to these efforts are coated with rust and buried in sand, lying around New Jersey basements at the bottom of old boxes marked “Prague”, or stuffed affectionately within historically minded Ikea-bought Vinohrady bathroom reading racks. One can wistfully say with confidence that the “Left Bank of the 90s” is as much history now as the Velvet Revolution, and English language publishing in Prague is no longer the giddy and expansive animal it once was. Indeed, enough faded corpses lay scattered over the battlefield of the last ten years to warrant a historical approach to the subject.
What follows is an account of the newspapers, magazines and journals that have erupted in this town since 1990. A few are recognizable as the current establishment press, but most lay deep in the dustbin of Prague past, representing the lucky fraction of writing done here that ever met the bounded glory of staples and a public, however small.
So to future generations, let it be known: Killroy was here. However humbly.
Anyone who’s ever tried to read The Slovak Spectator, The Budapest Sun, The Warsaw Voice or The Sofia Echo knows that Prague is lucky to have a literate weekly in The Prague Post.
But recent arrivals would be wrong to think The Post has always been the Yankee paper of record in the post-commie Czech Republic. Prague was a real two-paper town until 1995. There was a hard-fought newspaper war here for four years.
The first English language newspaper in Prague – in fact, in all of Central Europe – was called Prognosis.
Founded in 1991 by a 24 and under group of Californians, the paper got early funding from the so-called “Santa Barbara Mafia”, including Oliver Stone and Barbara Streisand. They published high-quality investigative journalism and cultural reporting in a four-sectioned newsprint format, with edgy columnists and a medium-hard left slant to their editorial politics.
Prognosis wasn’t afraid to go after the US Embassy or the values and interests of the local business community, which not surprisingly led to chronic funding troubles. Adding up the lost ad revenue in her well-coifed head, a scheming Prognosis founding member named Lisa Frankenberg broke ranks to start a rival, more conservative weekly called The Prague Post.
She tapped veteran journalist and author Alan Levy as editor, thus bringing immediate skill and experience to the paper. Once the business-friendly Post was up and running, an ideological spilt among expatriates opened up that lasted until Prognosis folded in March of 1995.
As a writer for Velvet (see below) observed shortly after the Post emerged triumphant: “The chasm between the two publications defined a fault line among English speakers, between those in Prague purely for the experience, and those coming here at some stage along the career track.
Of course, most people entering the city fell between those cracks, but the competing publications were forthright in their intentions… [and] for four years these two visions of culture and commerce did battle.”
Invective was hurled back and forth between the two papers, but chants of “yuppie sellouts” from the Prognosis side ultimately proved hypocritical, as many staffers later jumped the sinking paper for jobs in the rapidly growing regional business press.
Still, reading through back issues of the Prognosis one is struck by the verve and range of the writing as well as the European-style mix of agenda and reporting. In retrospect it had to fail, but it was a good paper, and it had had a good run.
Once The Prague Post lost its competition, it settled into a more rounded general interest publication, filling some of the voids left by Prognosis. Over the years it has had its share of gifted writers and editors, as well as its share of blowhards and hacks.
The establishment slant is occasionally punctuated by voices of dissent, with longtime Prague lefties like Christopher Lord and Gwendolyn Albert regularly appearing on the op-ed page. Its most enduring feature outside of news has been Levy’s “Prague Profile” documenting the changed lives of over 400 Praguers since 1991.
The paper’s format and senior masthead continues to evolve, with another veteran European correspondent – Christopher P. Winner – joining the paper as executive editor in 1999. Supposedly funded by profits from a bequeathed oil well in Texas, its position looks assured.
But while The Post currently has no challengers on the horizon, it does have a couple of other victims in its steady stream of dust. The first of these after Prognosis was The Bohemia Daily Standard, founded in ’93 in the belief that Prague was big enough and important enough to support a business daily with in-depth general news coverage.
This belief was badly mistaken, and the effort to put out the Czech equivalent of the Moscow Times ended as quickly as it began. Editor Erik Best then went back to publishing the fax and Internet newsletter The Fleet Sheet, a determined little choo-choo train which continues to this day.
Perhaps the most famous moment of the failed Daily Standard was a controversial English language radio ad it ran on Radio 1, in which Best mocked both The Post and Prognosis for being written by kids barely out of college. Which was partly true.
Four years later The Post would face another Great White Hope in the form of the laughably horrible Threshold Praha.
A free bi-lingual weekly in tabloid format, Threshold appeared in the summer of 1997 as a poorly designed slagheap of CTK newswires, unreadable feature writing and conservative columnists from the Washington Post Writer’s Group and the Universal Press Syndicate.
The partially self-financed editor and publisher Robert Forrester failed to do anything The Post wasn’t doing much better, and quickly ran out of money paying for the rights to print William Buckley and Dave Barry in English and Czech.
He left Prague under the cover of night like some medieval quack doctor, so what exactly he was thinking, we may never know.
The first attempt at a monthly city magazine in Prague was called Velvet (now being archived by Think). Publishing its first number in 1995, the magazine brought together a competent but cocky group of young writers that wanted to be a viable business with lots of ad money, while at the same time being wacky and hip. It’s not an impossible combination, but Velvet lacked the talent and focus to pull it off.
The magazine thus always felt less than realized despite what looked like a lot of early (family?) funding, strong feature writing and a Harper’s Index rip-off called “Vindex. ” The magazine really became famous when The Prague Post ran two pieces publicizing the unfortunate Heroin overdose of one of the founders, Christopher Holland, who in his duties as Editor-in-Chief once dared us to mark his words; “In the future, every gringo in Prague will have his or her own publication. Whether or not it’s for more than 15 minutes seems irrelevant at this point. ” They printed about 7 issues.
A typical issue included bloodless music, film and club guides as well as four or five long articles on some aspect of life in Czech Republic, usually leaning away from politics toward softer game like the future of Czech beer or the history of Zizkov. Simply put, the magazine was slick but dull, and they folded in 1996. Many of the crew’s whereabouts are unknown.
Art Director Justin King is pursuing his craft in NYC and survived the madness there this September. Also in NYC is Michael Wayne Jr., putting to use the skills he picked up in the Wild East. Jed Hellstrom is still a successful publisher in Prague.
A much more ambitious project was the Prague-based Pozor: News from around the bloc. Putting its first 40Kc issue on newsstands in January of 1996, Pozor was a piece of art-school eye candy with a sharp group of young writers covering the underbelly of transition from Berlin to Bucharest.
In the words of managing editor Kevin Bisch, Pozor sought to “combine the aspects of a commercial, highly visual magazine with the integrity and writing quality of a news journal. ” And it succeeded.
Easy to look at, a random issue pulled from their archives finds in-depth and very well-written stories on the history of Polish poster art, the Czech coal industry, Romanian – Hungarian relations, the FBI office in Budapest and the Slovak minority language laws. With artist interviews and bold photo essays, Pozor was a class read.
They started with a print run of 13,000 copies distributed in the Visegrad states (CZ, SK, HU, PL) and unfortunately but unsurprisingly died before they could reach their goal of 50,000 copies in other capitals such as Belgrade, Vienna, Manchester and New York. Sadly, Prague hasn’t seen anything like it since.
Right about the time Pozor was celebrating their first anniversary at the end of 1996, California refugees Keith Kirchner and Jeffree Benet (an advertising copywriter) were laying out the first issue of Think in their small Zizkov apartment.
Modeled on free city magazines common in America and Western Europe, Think offered club listings and unconventional articles on music, fashion and politics in a two-color format and decidedly in-your-face attitude.
Initially the coverage of the local rave scene was dominant, giving the magazine a bad reputation among the opera-goers and assorted members of the self-proclaimed defenders of expat Prague’s intellectual heritage.
But over time the clubbiness of the monthly became less pronounced, and the magazine has since gained a reputation for being above all unpredictable, combining humor and zine style rants with music/book reviews and occasional pictures of boobs. Having just published its fiftieth number at the time of this article, Think’s longevity makes it unique – together with its talented writers and crack smoking readers, of course.
Then there are the more staid publications covering the politics of the Czech Republic and beyond. Transitions Online is the bodiless soul of the original Transitions, a Prague-based monthly that cranked up the presses in 1994. Transitions never tired of advertising the fact that they counted US Senators among their subscribers, but their in-depth reporting was – and is – more impressive than Ted Kennedy’s coffee table. A Czech non-profit associated with the Open Media Research Institute, TOL receives heavy foundational support from the likes of Ford and Soros, and they put up a slick, current site covering all 28 states in the post-communist space.
Their “week in review” brings together reports from their extensive stringer network, and is a healthy part of any well-rounded news diet. Their on the ground coverage and expertise in Central Asia is a little known gem of a resource, especially moving into the Winter of 2001.
Central European Review is another impressive Prague-based site dedicated to serious coverage of the region. Founded by longtime Prague journalist Andrew Strohlein, CER is updated bi-weekly with features and book reviews focused tightly on Central Europe and the Balkans.
The high-powered contributor list includes academics and journalists such as Dr. Sam Vankin. It isn’t as pretty to look at as TOL, (ed. note; they have merged websites) but the content is just as strong.
The political magazine with the most localized identity intact is The New Presence, a monthly turned quarterly published by the Czech-American doctor and pundit Martin Stransky since 1996. Taking its name and cue from the First Republic journal Pritomnost, The New Presence publishes a centrist mix of Czech and foreign writers on local politics and society.
If the fates of its predecessors are any indication, it may very well be grazing on-line before Stransky can wind up to deliver another one of his famously condescending chin-strokers.
LITERARY JOURNALS AND ZINES
The Early Years happened to coincide with a zine revolution in America, so it’s not surprising that a number of literary journals and low-fi rags popped up like Moravian mushrooms on the soil of liberated Prague, especially after the heavy rains of Alan Levy’s famous and widely echoed “Left Bank of the 1990s” Prague Post editorial.
If anything, one wonders that there weren’t more such journals. The tidal wave of Trans-Atlantic DIY publishing chic, combined with low Czech printing costs and the mythos surrounding classic expatriate literary journals like George Plimpton’s Paris Review, all but guaranteed their appearance in droves.
First there was Yazzyk Magazine, a literature and art quarterly that was really an annual. Established in 1992, Yazzyk published mostly Czech writers in English and was sold on newsstands around Prague for 85 crowns until 1995, when it quietly disappeared into the Prague publishing mists.
Which is a shame, as the expat journal managed to find and introduce some really talented young Czech writers. Founder and editor Tony Ozuna currently runs the Humanities Department at the Anglo – American College.
Yazzyk faced a brief challenger in the form of X-Ink, which was published by American Mathew Salt but had deep connections in the Czech art scene. They came out strong in late 1994 but folded after a few issues. As of this writing, the author has been unable to obtain a copy, but is assured by the tribal elders that it existed.
And then there is Trafika, which remains the jewel in the Prague publishing crown. Established in 1993 by an international crew of Ivy League comp lit majors with a taste for translation and highbrow modern letters, Trafika hit the ground running as a thick anthology of big-time bylines and professional layout elegantly set with gorgeous black and white photography.
With Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham as an editorial advisor and assistance from the Nation Institute and The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Trafika had immediate clout and cash to play with, and the result has been a stunning annual publication featuring top international names in fiction, translation and poetry. Names like Don DeLillo and Peter Nadas are common; and their translators, like Richard Zenith, have been recognized by the likes of PEN for their excellence.
The founding Trafika members deserve a highlight in any history of Prague publishing, and they are: Dorsey Dunn, Michael Lee, Scott Rogers, and Alfredo Sanchez. They alone created a Prague journal that endures, aging like a bottle of wine on the bookshelf.
The Prague Review (formerly the Jama Review) put out its first number in the Summer of 1995, and has since established itself as something quite above the dregs but still a notch below Trafika. They still feature a mix of local and international writing, but the international content has increased in recent years, as has the quality.
They may have taken their name from the old Paris Review, but they still haven’t found their Bernard Malamud. One doubts they ever will.
Jejune: America Eats Its Young was founded by editrix Gwendolyn Albert and managing editor Vincent Farnsworth in Oakland California in 1993. Farnsworth, a longtime Bay area poet, and Albert, also a published poet who translated for Vaclav Havel and the Civic Forum in 1989, returned to Prague with the journal in ’95, bringing a real piece of the Left Coast culture with them.
Collage art, interviews with cutting-edge writers like Lydia Lunch, political essays, poetry and fiction all presented simply in black and white – Jejune’s complete lack of pretension and strong content made it a favorite forum for local writers until it ceased publication in 2000.
The journal was also known for its fun and wine drenched readings, which featured Ukrainian performance art by the late Igor Tschay, current-affairs debates and conceptual electronic noise art using old Tesla radio technology, care of the Honorable Reverend Vincent Farnsworth himself.
Moving way down the ladder we find the sturdy little Optimism. Ironically, this least impressive literary mag in Prague history has in some ways been its most successful.
Optimism has been publishing regularly since early 1995 and boasts a long list of institutional subscribers (the silver bullet to making money in an otherwise almost universally money-losing enterprise).
Publisher Tim Otis, also of Radio 1 fame, is dedicated to the cause of publishing all comers just for the sake of publishing expat writers and making an honest buck, and it shows.
The first Prague citing of a standard issue US-style labor of love zine was recorded in 1993, sporting the eminently zinish title Gristle Floss. The poorly photocopied, two- staple 10 crown pamphlet could have been produced in the Sonic Youth listening basements of Anytown, Suburban America, and featured the half-baked humor and sloppily laid out brainfarts of the editors and their friends.
The creators left Prague in 1996 and took their dinky little zine with them.
An advance in Prague zine culture was made with the 1995 debut of Riding Black, a one-staple, part rag, part party invite, four-page little animal that pissed off the snobbies for its BB gun puerility and disdain for the bland prison of PC self-censorship.
With suspicious links to Velvet Listings Editor Lacey Eckl, each issue had a special theme (#3: “Go Pivo!”), and featured original photography from its talented crew of fun loving zinesters. A typical shot showed a man in a Satan costume with the caption “Looking Mala Strana, feeling Holesovice. ” Riding Black was all right.
Yet another advance was made when Globe Coffeehouse employees Dan Kenny and Eric Wargo teamed up to make (Unpronounceable Symbol) in late 1996. Printed in magazine format on colored paper, US offered an eclectic mix of essays, reviews and – most annoyingly – self-indulgent mock-intellectualism by the ever-so-silly editors.
Highlights of the zine’s short life included horoscopes by Dr. Paul Kail and a long tirade by me against the early efforts of Think Magazine. It wasn’t really available anywhere besides the old Globe near Strossmayerovo Namesti, but as a small in-house journal it was nice to have around, and some of the articles and reviews were very good. Editor Dan Kenney had planned a new zine called The Hindenburg after Unpronounceable Symbol folded, but it never happened.
The death of this last zine before it was even born was a fair sign of the times, as one strains to imagine anyone still bothering to publish or support a zine in this town. Where have all the flowers gone, indeed.
THE BIDNESS PRESS
Which brings us to publications that have very little to do with writing and everything to do with making money and effectively serving the business community’s “information needs.”
No doubt the evolution of this sector of Prague publishing could be made into an interesting narrative, with cutthroat competition and ambitious personalities covering their assets, but it will not be told here.
It is enough to say that over the years Prague has seen The Czech Business Journal, Intellitech’s IT News, The Prague Business Journal, The Central European Business Weekly, The Prague Tribune, and The Fleet Sheet.
The author lacks the qualifications and inclination to comment on the respective merits of these publications.
The most freakish animals of English language Prague publishing have undoubtedly been the attempts at up-market city guides. Prague Carrousel, a Russian-English glossy geared toward the wives of Russian and Ukrainian businessmen, features ads for caviar, Hotel Pariz and Alfred Dunhill Pens between feminine features on Prague’s cultural and shopping possibilities for those with money to burn.
In a bizzaro yet classically Russian twist, Carrousel is edited by a New Age Rasputin character named Alexander Zlenko who asks his readers in a typical editorial, “What is eternal, what has value in this world?” before making nonsensical references to Salvador Dali and Sisyphus and offering his hope that his magazine will help people “stay above the humdrum.”
Spookier still was the short-lived but well endowed Prague Affair, a free 60-page hyper-glossy that could be the in-house magazine for a space station colony populated by androids and the somatized consumer-citizens of the thirty-second century.
Slick to the point of having a metallic sheen emanating from each page, this futuro “magazine and guide” issued a monthly hodgepodge of Prague information that was decent in its range but shameful for its lack of order and unreadable with its banality.
Bloodless and uninspired articles about DJ Loutka and local architecture appeared next to boring-to-the-point-of-death interviews with stone faced Dutch businessmen about why “structure can also be part of inefficiency.”
The layout was so bereft of soul that one finds it hard to shake the suspicion that Prague Affair was actually written, produced and directed by robots. The leader of these robotniks must have been Droid-in-Chief Jan Komrska, who once began a hard hitting editorial with the sentence “cities need their own symbols which they can be identified by” and ended it with the chin-stroking observation:
“even though it may not be the best pocket item in terms of a souvenir, Charles Bridge is the place that all visitors must see and experience. It is a place to stroll, a place to which everyone will gladly return.”
One could fill a whole magazine with such quotes (which is, in fact, what Prague Affair did for four months), but sometimes its best to let sleeping metal rust.
The above sketch of English publishing in post-communist Prague covers a range of writing, in motives, form and quality. There were dedicated individuals concerned with craft and the pursuit of truth, and there were hucksters and businessmen; there was great investigative journalism and beautiful poetry as well as anaemic hack work and worthless vanity projects.
All told, the result was something less than what was hoped (and hyped), but probably about what should have been realistically expected. Even though no big names or “schools” emerged from Prague in the 90s, and even though Prague lacks a world famous expat magazine like Moscow’s eXile, still something was accomplished in the flurry of attempts.
Not everything has to last.
And of course not all of the writing inspired by Prague can be found in the periodicals based here over the years. There was a small trickle of books: Douglas Lytle’s 1994 journalistic memoir Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers, Robert Eversz’s 1997 pulp novel Shooting Elvis, and Paul Polansky’s works on Roma and the Czech Holocaust all stand out.
There were also a number of young writers published by Howard Sidenberg’s Twisted Spoon Press. TSP hasn’t had the success or influence of the expat Olympia Press in 50s Paris (which published Alexander Trochi, Henry Miller and first translated Marquis de Sade into English), but it has discovered some great local talent.
There was lots of Prague-based freelance work, too, and journalism careers that might not have otherwise been launched. There were countless op-eds. and dispatches written for hometown dailies and essays recounting transition from the ground. And let’s not forget the thousand or so manuscripts written – autobiographies, novels, and plays – that never went beyond a small circle of friends.
But perhaps it was these unknown circles and subaltern networks, more than the glory of international publishing fame, which defined Prague letters in the 90s. What about the groups of friends that met and held readings and critiqued each other’s work?
Who enjoyed the time to write and think because they were living in Prague and not Manhattan?
Who savored the slow pace of this town, the absence of loud, driving ambition – in short, the lack of distraction in a noisy world consumed with New Economy insanity? Maybe this was the real meaning and gift of Prague, whatever the disappointing published output.
And no doubt this account of that published output has left a lot out, even though the chance of a public outcry is slim. Most of the actors in this ten-year tragicomedy are long gone, their projects yellowed and forgotten. Which is just as well. Most likely they weren’t very good anyway, and as a Prague writer of the last century once said, to remember everything is just another form of madness.
So let us now look soberly toward to the fractured, high-speed future of English letters in Prague. And try not to get too down about it, because nobody ever really read that much to begin with, and at least the bagels are fresh.