Tag Archives: communist Romania

The suffering of innocents: Romanian orphanages during Ceausescu’s regime


One of the most distressing aspects of the Holocaust is the fact that millions of children starved, fell ill and died as a result of Hitler’s genocidal policies. Even before studying the history of the Holocaust in greater depth, I became sensitized to the issue of children’s suffering during communism in the infamous orphages of my native country, Romania.

From the beginning of his rule, Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.

The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. Doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.

By the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, there were approximately 100,000 children in Romania’s orphanages. Given the regime’s pronatalist policies and the country’s low standard of living, many families were placed in the impossible position of choosing between food and their newborn babies. Thousands of children were placed in orphanages whose living conditions resembled those of concentration camps. SoRelle notes that even older children were not potty trained and were left to wallow in their own waste. Children slept huddled together on cots or on the floor, covered by the soiled blankets. Many lacked shoes or appropriate clothing for the cold winters. Many were also lice infested because of the unhygienic conditions and lack of proper cleaning supplies. Dunlap observes that orphanages didn’t have disinfectant, soap and hot water. Diseases were rampant and medical care insufficient. Instead of playing with toys, the orphans played with dirty needles. Babies lacked proper attention and children were left unattended and uneducated, remaining illiterate into their teens. Even the international attention such a blatant human rights violation received did nothing to change the dictator’s pronatalist policies or the appalling conditions of the Romanian orphanages.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon



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Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

A room of onee's own

Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

Claudia Moscovici

In 1929 Virginia Woolf published a series of lectures that she delivered in 1928 at Newnham and Girton colleges (the women’s colleges at Cambridge University), which we  know under the title “A Room of One’s Own”. She argued that women don’t have their own creative space, both figuratively, in the male-dominated tradition of male writing, and literally, meaning the time and space to write. I think that nowadays few writers, both male and female, have a room of one’s own. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing is a passion, a talent, even an identity, but it is no longer a profession. To put it bluntly, most writers can’t earn a consistent living from it. Even journalism is barely hanging on, as the major newspapers in the U.S. are bought at low prices and blogging has taken over what used to be professional journalism. Ever since I was in college, at Princeton University, I’ve dreamt of being a fiction writer. Knowing, however, that writing isn’t a full-fledged profession, I didn’t take the plunge until my family and I achieved some level of financial stability. I studied and got a doctorate in Comparative Literature at Brown University and became a literary critic and professor for nearly 15 years. Although I had some financial stability at that point, I wouldn’t say that I had a room of my own, either literally or figuratively. I was busy raising a young family, my lovely kids Sophie and Alex, so I didn’t have much time to write fiction.bookbloginterview3

Professionally, for many years I wrote scholarly essays and books. To give voice to my creative side, in  2002 I founded an art movement called postromanticism (http://postromanticism.com), devoted to some of the aesthetic values that I thought were being neglected in contemporary art: verisimilitude, passion, sensuality and beauty.Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

The internet became, to some extent, a room of my own: a space where I could discover and interact with artists from all over the world (France, the U.S., Switzerland, Taiwan, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) who shared my aesthetic vision. But I still didn’t have the time and space to fully express my own creativity as a writer until I became a full-time writer in 2008 and subsequently published my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, in 2009 (translated as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) and my second novel, The Seducer (2011). At that point in my life, my children were old enough that they no longer needed to be nurtured in the same way, or in the same space with me at all times. My space as a writer changed again and I could finally have the time and place to write.


I write at my desk on a Mac computer, with my cat Jewel serving as a constant companion (and, I’d say, also muse). As all my Facebook friends know from the cat pictures I post, I’m a big cat lover. This is why I chose a picture of Jewel in my library as one of the photos included for this interview. This picture of my cat perched on my books also shows that even when I write fiction I still follow some of the research habits  that I acquired as a scholar. I research throughly every novel I write. To write Velvet Totalitarianism, for instance, I read dozens of books on communism, the Ceausescu dictatorship, the political history of Romania and the revolution of 1989. To write The Seducer, a novel about psychopathic seduction that follows the structure of my favorite novel, Anna Karenina, I researched psychopathy, narcissism and other personality disorders. The plots of my novels may be fiction, but to write about anything that has a basis in history, psychology or sociology I believe that one has to have some foundation in facts.

Seducer Cover

We are used to thinking of writers as being occupied mostly with writing. I believe this too has become a fiction. If the writer has a family, then a large part of his or her life revolves around that family’s needs. Second, a writer has to wear many hats, so to speak: researcher, writer, and publicity director all in one. As a literary critic, fiction writer and founder of an international art movement, the publicity hat is very large for me. I not only have to publicize my own books, but also the postromantic movement and the art of the dozens of artists I collaborate with (you can see some of my essays about them on my art blog, http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com).bookbloginterview2

This is why for this interview I’ve included a press photo of me during my visit to Romania, taken by Claudiu Ciprian Popa, for the launch of my novel Intre Doua Lumi, in 2011. Book publicity has become almost as important to me as the computer at which I write. And this isn’t just because nowadays publicity has become a necessity: without effective publicity most writers wouldn’t be read. It’s also because I’m trying to find a place in the publishing industry that isn’t that of simply being a writer. I’ve witnessed enormous changes in this industry in the U.S., as most of the small and medium publishing houses have died, or been swallowed by the large publishers. Even the large publishing houses have had to merge to survive. Most authors are left without a publicity budget, which means with less consecration and access to readers and reviewers. The final picture I’m including of this room of my own is a still shot from the movie video book trailer for my novel “Velvet Totalitarianism,” called “Velvet Love,” made by Andy Platon.


This photo indicates the direction I believe the publishing industry will take: namely, producing relatively inexpensive, creative and cutting-edge ways in which individual authors and publishers will publicize books in the future. In the past few years my writing space, or room of my own, has changed yet again, to encompass a network of collaborations among the various arts, including music, film and literature, which I believe will become increasingly important to authors and publishers alike.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under A Room of one's own, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, interview with Bookblog, Intre Doua Lumi Claudia Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Virginia Woolf A room of one's own

Interview about my novels The Seducer and Velvet Totalitarianism with Ziare.com (in English)

photo credit Romani Celebri

photo credit Romani Celebri

I’ve translated below parts of my interview with Diana Robu, which was originally published in Romanian in Ziare.com (Newspapers.com).

1. Tell us a little bit about when and under what circumstances you left Romania.

1. I left Romania in 1981, at the age of 11. I haven’t returned until 2011, for the launch of my first novel Velvet Totalitarianism in Romanian translation, Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche). My father defected from the country two years before my mother and I legally immigrated to the U.S. He was a world-class mathematician and his boss was Zoia Ceausescu. She had let it be known that he wouldn’t be able to travel abroad to mathematical conferences anymore (because Nicolae Ceausescu was tightening the Iron Curtain). So he decided to take his chances, as several mathematicians had before him, and defect to the U.S. in the hopes that we would rejoin him soon. I filter aspects of our struggles to unite our family in my first novel, Intre Doua Lumi, as well as describing aspects of the adaptation to the U.S. (even though I fictionalize everything, of course, since I wrote a novel not a memoir).

2. What was your reaction when you returned to Romania, so many years later?

2. When I returned to Romania for my book launch decades later, in 2011, I was shocked and impressed to see how much the country has changed in its physical aspects, in its modernization, and in the standard of living. Of course, I only caught a privileged glimpse of Bucharest, from the perspective of an author on a book tour. So I didn’t get an inside glimpse, nor a global view of the country. It was a very brief and limited, but also very positive experience.


3. Tell us about your professional life and impression of the American academia.

3. In the academia, I taught in several departments–philosophy, art and comparative literature–since I love all of these fields. I emphasized love of art, love of literature, and clarity of expression. Personally, I subscribe to Albert Einstein‘s wise saying: “If you can’t explain something clearly, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

4. What would you advise Romanians who might be interested in moving to the U.S.?

4. I’d advise any Romanian who is thinking about immigrating to the U.S. to visit the country for a considerable period first and find out about professional opportunities and day to day life. Just as it was easy for me to idealize Romania when I was a tourist there in 2011, it’s easy for anyone visiting the U.S. as a tourist to do the same. You never know how you’ll feel in a country until you actually live there, and find a place to work and a place to live. There are some professions, like medicine, where the degrees from one country don’t automatically get accepted in another. Many doctors from Romania have had to start from square one (medical school) or do something else related to medicine. It’s always more prudent to know exactly what you’re getting into before you make any drastic move.

Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

5. Do you wish to visit Romania again?

5. Yes, I hope to return to Romania for the book launches of my art criticism book, Romanticism and Postromanticism, translated by the writer Dumitru Radu Popa, and for the launch of my second novel, The Seducer, which hasn’t been translated yet. During this period I hope to get to see more of the country outside of Bucharest, such as Drobeta Turnu Severin and Timisoara, where some of my family lives.

Cover Intre Doua Lumi

6. Is your first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, autobiographical? If so, in what ways?

6. Velvet Totalitarianism, translated into Romanian by Mihnea Gafita under the title of Intre Doua Lumi, does incorporate some of our family’s struggles with the Romanian Securitate and the challenges of immigrating to the U.S. However, I fictionalized the entire plot, included a fictional spy thriller element (the Radu/Ioana plot line) and changed everything structurally to make the story work as a novel. Reality was only a point of departure (and research). But the novel is, after all, fiction.

Cover of The Seducer

7. You write books in several different domains. What leads you to do so? 

7. Since I was young, I loved several fields: art, literature and philosophy. The arts are, in fact, conceptually very closely related. They’re separated only by institutions and how they’re taught. But it’s natural to look at them, and appreciate them, together, which is exactly what I do. I write about the international art I appreciate on my art blog http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com. In 2002, I founded an international art movement, called postromanticism, devoted to celebrating verisimilitude, sensuality, and beauty in art. It was intended as an alternative, not a replacement, to more abstract and conceptual traditions in art. I believe in pluralism, not dogmatism, in the art world, particularly since matters of taste and definitions of art are more or less subjective. I also spend part of each week working on my new book, Holocaust Memory. Finally, I write literary reviews from time to time about books I really like. I also enjoy learning about and writing about different fields related to my areas of specialization. My ideal is of the salonnieres and philosophes of the eighteenth century, who could write and converse about all aspects of the arts and humanities, often even mathematics, physics and natural science. I’ve lost any hope, however, in being able to know much about science or math. My parents, Henri and Elvira Moscovici, are both mathematicians, and I saw how different (and difficult) these fields are from the arts and humanities. But even in this day and age, of focused specialization, we can still do our best to expand our horizons.

8. How do you see Romania’s future?

8. I see Romania’s future as being increasingly open to international collaborations and the country as being more visible internationally. Of course, success stories like Herta Muller and Cristian Mungiu add to the country’s visibility. I predict that there will be more success stories like this. In the field of journalism and literature, Romania already has collaborations with Conde Nast Publishing, Forbes Magazine and others. I think such international collaborations in journalism will expand. Culturally, in every country groups and individuals create worthy art and literature and compete for limited consecration and power. The content of the art or literature are often inseparable from the institutions competing for influence. This is part of human nature and won’t change. The politics in Romania is the wild card. I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of politics in the country to make any predictions about it. It would be best for the country and its people, needless to say, if the infrastructure and laws of a democratic nation are taken seriously.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Diana Robu, fiction, Henri Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Totalitarianism, Ziare.com, Ziare.com Claudia Moscovici

Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portrait of the Communist Era

a)    Thank God for Cannes!

In an interview with Domenico La Porta given on May 19, 2012, Cristian Mungiu, winner of the Palme D’Or for feature film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for his movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, explains the reason why his movies are more popular abroad than in his native country, Romania: “Our industry’s problem is not funding, it’s cultural. Films that are not entertainment are not popular in Romania. This is why we receive less money from the state for arthouse films, and why I had to look for international funding. My film will be seen much more abroad than it will be at home. That’s just how it is. We have to hold on and continue to produce good quality films also aimed at the Romanian people.”

This problem, unfortunately, is global.  In popular culture, it’s easy to make fun of Cannes and the movies it features, awards and promotes. Often described as political, boring and pretentious in its consecration of avant-garde cinema, the Cannes Film Festival is very prestigious (with movie critics and directors) yet… oddly unpopular with the general public. There’s even a (pretty good) joke about it in Romania that one of the movies that received an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 was shot by accident on surveillance cameras. And yet… let’s turn it around. Take a moment to imagine how much easier it would be to make fun of today’s popular Hollywood movies! Formulaic plots, broomstick, one-dimensional characterizations, weak acting, lots of special effects as a distraction for lack of substance: for the most part, these are the movies that draw the public make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, internationally.

Frankly, I can’t understand how viewers manage to stay awake, much less laugh, during yet another formulaic romantic comedy about one-night stands becoming love of one’s life; another Las Vegas vacation gone wrong; or another “friends with benefits” scenario that ends up, predictably, becoming a hot and heavy, meaningful romance. In its prejudicial preference for hyper-promoted, over-funded and, frankly, silly films as “real entertainment,” the general public risks missing out on well-acted, beautifully shot, and incredibly moving and entertaining movies, made both by independent and by some Hollywood filmmakers.

b)  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portait of the Communist Era

In the same interview I cited above, with Domenico La Porta, Cristian Mungiu discusses his recent movie, Beyond the Hills (which won an award for “best screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival 2012, and for which the leading actresses, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, shared the “best actress” award). Mungiu states that his movies are not intended to be portraits of an era. He states that Beyond the Hills in particular doesn’t make any general comments against religion: “There is no generalization, and I’m not describing Romanian society through this little community. A film is not able to be all-encompassing.” I would beg to differ with the last statement. I find  that the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days–which, along with The Lives of Others (2006) is one of my favorite movies–is an accurate and sweeping portrait of the drab and repressive communist era. In fact, I remember thinking of Mungiu’s movie and of The Lives of Others as I was writing my novel about the communist epoch under Ceausescu, Velvet Totalitarianism (translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche 2011). These two  movies showed me that you don’t have to try to describe all aspects of a society or of a historical period to offer a sweeping portrayal of that epoch.

In fact, it can be much more effective to show compellingly and in-depth a slice of life, as Mungiu does in  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, that offers viewers (or readers) a glimpse upon the vaster forces—of repression and corruption—that governed society and culture in Ceausescu’s Romania. A. O. Scott from The New York Times declared this movie the “number one film of the year”. The high praise is well-deserved. The movie describes how two close friends—Otilia, played by Anamaria Marinca, and Gabita Dragut, played by Laura Vasiliu, cope with the practical and moral difficulties of one of them getting an abortion during the 1980’s. This is not an easy decision, morally or practically, given the fact that birth control and abortion are outlawed at this time in Romania and those who violate the law risk facing severe penalties. I’d like to offer a little background into the period, which the movie captures so well.

c) “Pronatalist” Policies in Communist Romania

From the beginning, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s tyrannical communist dictaor, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.

The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. As Mungiu’s movie illustrates as well, doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.

d) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Compelling characterizations and stunning cinematography

So what did women do when they got pregnant and did not want to raise children in such dire conditions? They often made the difficult choice that Gabriela Dragut was forced to make in the movie 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days: getting an illegal abortion. This choice carried with it two inherent risks. First, there was the obvious one of violating the law and getting caught, which could result in loss of job and status and even long jail sentences.  But as the movie illustrates, there was an even greater danger of falling into the hands of those who habitually violate laws: unscrupulous sociopathic predators. This is precisely what Gabriela and Otilia encounter in the man they desperately appeal to for help: the illegal abortionist that goes by the name of “Mr. Bebe”. From the beginning, we get the sense that there’s something not quite right, psychologically, with Mr. Bebe. He takes charge of every situation and appears as a bully even when he doesn’t raise his voice. He’s also exceedingly controlling. For instance, he forbids his own mother from exiting the apartment to buy sugar. We know that’s a red flag, since sociopaths foster isolation and minutely control their victims.

Taking charge of the two young women as soon as he finds himself alone in the hotel room with them, he bullies them into accepting to sleep with him. Typical of a sociopath, he presents this act of rape as a moral highground. Turning the tables on them, Mr. Bebe makes them feel immoral and cheap. He screams at them that that he’s not a beggar and that he’s not going to perform an illegal action which may result in the loss of his freedom for a mere 3000 lei, the amount of money the girls were able to scrounge up to pay for the illegal abortion.  Not seeing any way out, the young women agree to his price, which emotionally is far heavier than they had anticipated. While they are very traumatized by this experience of prostituting themselves for an abortion, Mr. Bebe takes it all in stride. After he sleeps with them, he even begins to address them in a familiar and friendly fashion, as if nothing happened. The sociopath’s shallow emotions contrasts sharply with the emotionally charged, devastated response of the two young women.

The movie captures the darkness of the communist era not just in its compelling characterizations and realistic plot, but also in its spectacular cinematography. Almost every shot is gray or dark, with the exception of the clinical, white images of the medical scenes. Otilia is usually shot from the back, to suggest that she lacks agency when the choices she is forced to make are so limited and abject. After Mr. Bebe leaves their hotel room, the two young women ruminate about the situation, going over their mistakes and what they could have done differently to avoid the deep humiliation they just endured. Otilia blames her friend for getting her into such a difficult and dreadful situation, almost shifting the blame from the sociopathic predator beyond her control to her sweet, helpless and passive friend Gabita, who is a fellow victim. Yet their situation is symptomatic of what practically every Romanian citizen endured at the time in many life decisions: a severe limitation of one’s freedom, of one’s choices and the repeated violation of one’s moral and emotional boundaries. When most normal aspects of human life are forbidden, as they were during Ceausescu’s repressive regime, one is forced to take drastic—and often illegal—measures, which are often the domain of the most unscrupulous and usurious people on earth: of sociopaths like Domnu Bebe.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has skilled and stunning cinematography appropriate to the subject and period it depicts; historical accuracy; realistic and moving characterizations; wonderful acting and above all great directing. If this is not  real entertainment—from which viewers will also learn something about history and about human nature—then I don’t know what is! Before Hollywood embarks on yet another predictable romantic comedy or cartoonish action movie, I think it should take a few notes from Cannes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, abortion, book review, Cannes, Cannes Film Festival, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Cristian Mungiu, fiction, film review 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Intre Doua Lumi Editura Curtea Veche, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Mungiu, Saga Film, Velvet Totalitarianism

How the Publishing Process Works in the United States: A Writer’s Perspective

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici


Two of the most major transformations in the U.S. publishing industry over the past few decades have been a) the rising importance of literary agents since the 1980’s and b) the rise of e-books in the early 2000’s. While in Romania and France unagented submissions remain the norm, it’s almost impossible to publish a book with the large publishing houses in the U.S.– particularly fiction–without representation by a very reputable literary agent.  Agents sift through the enormous number of submissions and recommend to the editors of the major publishers the books they believe will sell well. I found this out not from a book about the publishing industry, but directly from one of my favorite American writers, John Updike.

Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici

In 2003, when I had finished a few chapters of my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (published by Editura Curtea Veche in Romanian translation under the title Intre Doua Lumi), I wrote a hand-written note to John Updike. I told him about my background and the subject of my novel—namely, life under the Ceausescu regime in communist Romania and immigrating to the U.S.—and asked him, if he liked the chapters he read, to recommend me to his literary agent. It was a longshot, but worth a try. To my pleasant surprise, he responded–also in a hand-written note–offering very positive input about the sample chapters I had sent him but telling me that he never had a literary agent. He worked directly with the publishing house. This was common practice during the 1960’s, when John Updike began publishing. By 2003, however, unmediated contact between writers and editors was practically unheard of in the U.S., where the major publishing houses had long instituted a policy of not accepting unagented submissions.  So how does a writer go about finding a literary agent?

Intre Doua Lumi de Claudia Moscovici

You can do it the hard way, which, quite frankly, has relatively small chances of success: buy the latest edition of The Writer’s Market, which lists the contact information for literary agents in the U.S. There you have to figure out who are the most successful agents as well as sift out agents who charge to read your manuscript (this practice has become increasingly unpopular) from those who don’t. Then you send them a query—by regular mail or, more rarely, by email—introducing yourself and your credentials; describing your book; explaining why you think it would sell well and including a few sample chapters. I later found out from agents themselves why this impersonal process is not likely to yield positive results for most authors. When I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I organized a few panel discussions at the Ann Arbor Book Festival (in 2005, 2006 and 2007). In 2007, Amy Williams, who is Elizabeth Kostova’s literary agent, and Susan Golomb, Jonathan Franzen’s agent were two of the guest speakers in these panels. They discussed, among other things, the publishing process, explaining that they receive as many as 100 to 200 submissions a day from authors seeking representation. This deluge of queries is colloquially called “the slush pile”. Like most very successful agents, they usually sift through the queries and focus mostly on submissions by successful authors they know of or authors recommended by successful authors they know. Only rarely do they find in the slush pile unknown and unrecommended authors they wish to represent, and even in those cases, they are usually students at very reputable M.F.A. programs or have published with important magazines or literary reviews. So if you don’t want to go through the time-consuming process of finding an agent or don’t make it past their slush pile, what do you do next? As mentioned, writing directly to the editors of the major publishing houses is no longer an option nowadays. So logically, you would try avenues that don’t require agent representation: medium-sized or small independent publishing houses.  This avenue, however, has also become increasingly narrow over the past ten years.

During the 1990’s many of the small and independent publishing houses have folded or were bought by the major publishers. There are some noteworthy exceptions: my own publishing house, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, which is, as they advertise, the “largest independent publishing house in North America” has continued to expand by buying smaller publishers and has begun to publish fiction works by successful authors who have already published scholarship with them (as was my situation). There are also several small publishers that publish between 2 and 10 books a year; academic publishers that publish mostly scholarship (and are often non-profit or low-profit, partly sponsored by universities) and increasingly few medium-sized publishing houses like MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco.  I’m including below a list of some of the medium-sized and small independent publishing houses in the U.S.:


If you succeed in publishing your book with one of these independent publishers, you may be more fortunate than you think. Although smaller publishing houses have correspondingly smaller publicity budgets than the big publishers, please keep in mind (as the agents on the panels I organized discussed), that the big publishers don’t divide their annual publicity and promotion budget evenly among the hundreds of books they publish each year. Celebrities that publish with them—such as Paris Hilton or former president George Bush publishing their autobiographies—have their own publicity agents who help a lot with the promotion of their books. In addition, because of their name recognition, the media helps spread the word and the popularity of their books.  So basically the major publishers invest most of their annual publicity budget on the new books they believe will sell best. Those are usually represented by the most reputable literary agents and sell at auction. An auction is when several of the big publishing houses bid for the same book. To offer an example from one of the book fair panels I organized, in 2005 Little Brown & Company won the bid for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, an exquisite work of literary fiction about the legend of Vlad Tepes/Dracula. They invested about 2 million dollars, or a large chunk of their annual publicity budget, into promoting that novel.  This bid paid off because the novel was very successful internationally as well as because it sold movie rights to Sony Pictures in 2007. As we’ve seen through the enormous success of the Harry Potter and Twilight Series, novels that become blockbuster movies grow exponentially in popularity.

But by far most writers publishing with the big publishing houses don’t fall into the category of “celebrities” whose books practically sell themselves or hit the jackpot with getting most of the publicity budget of that publisher for that year. In those (majority) cases, even if they manage to catch the interest of one of the best literary agents and to publish with a major publisher, they still have to work very hard to promote their books.

Ebooks and Self-Publishing

Given that the odds are heavily stacked against new authors, it’s not surprising that many of them choose to self-publish e-books, via, for instance, the very popular Amazon Kindle program.  Unlike publishing with vanity presses that charge a lot of money to print books, this option is easy and inexpensive. But there’s a large downside to it as well: there are so many books out there, particularly now that anyone can self-publish their work on Kindle and other venues, that the sea of information has become so vast that each author who lacks a large promotion budget and media connections is nothing more than a drop in the ocean of books and deluge of information. To rise to the surface requires a lot of ingenuity, luck and networking.

Like many authors, I’ve been asked the question of where do I believe the publishing industry is heading next. I think that self-publishing will grow and that the future is already here with e-books. E-books have the advantage of cutting out most of the distribution cost. This is a huge advantage for both authors and publishers, since the cost of shipping books all over the world is very high. This is why authors generally receive only between 5 and 10 percent royalties from the (hardcopy) books they publish. The percentage of royalties depends in part on the number of copies sold (the more it sells, the bigger the royalties for the author) and in part on what kind of contract a given author or agent is able to negotiate with the publisher. Still, for most authors, 5 to 10 percent profits is not enough to make a living just by writing books. Since e-books don’t have the same distribution costs, authors can negotiate more advantageous contracts. E-books are also very convenient for readers, since it’s so much easier to carry around with you a Kindle or Nook than twenty or thirty books.  It’s true that many people still prefer to leaf through an actual book. But I believe this preference is largely a matter of habit; of what they grew up doing. In the next few years, my daughter’s school system is planning to replace hardcopy textbooks with e-books. This transition will soon happen in schools throughout the country, such that the kids starting primary school will probably not even hold books in their hands. Those growing up strictly on e-books in school, with little standard of comparison, are not likely to prefer actual books as adults.

Foreseeing such major transitions, the major publishing houses are trying to adapt best to the new media and new demands of readers. I’m including below a relevant article on this topic by Christine Kearney (Reuters) about Book Expo America:


The one major current downside of e-books is that they’re still, for the most part, tied to the companies that produce the e-readers—such as Amazon for Kindle—which are not universally adaptable to other reading programs. If they were, then the risk of losing profits would be much higher: it would mean that anyone could forward a book by email, so nobody would need to pay for it.

Hypotheses about the future of publishing:

a) Print books versus e-books

So what predictions do I make about the future of publishing in the U.S.? I think that for the generations of readers that were brought up on print books, they will continue to cherish reading an actual book as well as adapt to the convenience of e-books. The new generations, brought up just on e-books in schools, will choose them over hardcopy books in the same way that kids brought up on computers don’t use typewriters.  The publishers that can see into this near future and dominate the e-book market will be the ones that will rise in power and influence in the publishing industry.

b) Promoting and marketing your book(s)

The era of the timid or reclusive author, shying away from or outright rejecting the media and contact with readers, is long gone. Whether you publish with a big publishing house, a smaller independent publisher or on your own, you have to be willing to share your work with others through every venue and opportunity you can. Aside from networking, promoting through the new media—such as book trailers, music videos and films—will grow in importance. We are becoming, internationally, visual cultures predicated upon instant gratification. Videos make a direct and immediate impact on viewers, tempting them to find out more about your book. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with very talented Romanian photographers, actors, musicians and music producers on the book trailers for my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua LumiAndy Platon, Anthony Icuagu, Marcel Lovin, Ioana Picos, Mihai Marin, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, Elena Rotaru, Elena Xing, Andrei Dombrovski–to which I’m extremely grateful and with whom I hope to collaborate again for future book launches.



Film in particular is a mixture of all the arts and a feast for the senses. Authors who succeed in working with movie directors and having their novels made into films will increase the chances of success for their books.

c) Literary agents

As mentioned, the influence of literary agents in the U.S. and Great Britain has risen to enormous proportions during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but it is now waning for two main reasons. First of all, as I explained earlier, there’s a bottleneck of “slush pile” submissions. This means that the most reputable literary agents are no longer accessible to most authors. Secondly, self-publishing has improved—in both reputation and the possibilities for success it offers–giving authors the chance to succeed on their own. The number who succeed in becoming best sellers in any venue or through any process is very small. This will not change, no matter what changes the publishing industry undergoes. Huge mainstream success is hard to attain and depends upon so many factors outside the author’s and publisher’s control. But keep in mind that success is a journey not a destination and enjoy every step of the process of writing, publishing and promotion, each of which presents so many challenges and rewards.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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My Interview about Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer in Celebrity Dialogue

Claudia Moscovici: Novelist, Non-Fiction Author & Art Critic PDF Print E-mail
March 11th, 2012
Interview of Claudia Moscovici on CelebrityDialgoue.com
Claudia Moscovici is an American Romanian Novelist, non-fiction author and art critic. Her latest novel “The Seducer” is a psychological story of a married woman trapped in the love of an unassuming psychopath. Claudia is the author of “Velvet Totalitarianism,” a critically acclaimed novel about a Romanian family’s survival in an oppressive communist regime due to the strength of their love.

CelebrityDialogue: What is the basic plot of your latest novel “The Seducer”?Claudia: “The Seducer,” my new psychological thriller, shows both the hypnotic appeal and the deadly danger of psychopathic seduction. This novel traces the downfall of a married woman, Ana, who, feeling trapped in a lackluster marriage, has a torrid affair with Michael, a man who initially seems to be her soul mate and her dream come true. Although initially torn between love for her family and her passion for Michael, Ana eventually gives in to her lover’s pressure and asks her husband for divorce. That’s when Michael’s “mask of sanity” unpeels to reveal the monstrously selfish psychopath underneath. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” my novel shows that true love can be found in our ordinary lives and relationships rather than in flimsy fantasies masquerading as great passions.
CelebrityDialogue: What inspired you to write this novel?

Claudia: I have always been a big fan of nineteenth-century fiction that focuses on the theme of seduction: I’m thinking of classic novels like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. I also read with great interest the libertine novel tradition of the eighteenth-century: my favorite in this genre being Laclos’ epistolary novel, “Dangerous Liaisons”. I think in his depiction of Valmont, Laclos gets the seducer profile exactly right: he is a dangerous psychopath—essentially a social predator who plays games with the lives of others, having malicious fun at their expense– rather than a libertine maverick (as in Casanova) or a tragic romantic hero (as in Tolstoy). I did four years of psychology research of the most dangerous personality disorders—psychopathy and narcissism—to create a realistic and up-to-date psychological profile of the seducer in my new novel by the same name.
CelebrityDialogue: Would you like to introduce our readers to a non-fiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons”, that you wrote in 2011?

Claudia: Although the theme of psychopathy comes up mostly when we hear about (psychopathic) serial killers, it is actually much more commonplace and pervasive, in both fact and fiction. What do O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson and the timeless seducers of literature epitomized by the figures of Don Juan and Casanova have in common? They are charismatic, glib and seductive men who also embody the most dangerous human qualities: a breathtaking callousness, shallowness of emotion and the incapacity to love. In other words, these men are psychopaths. Unfortunately, most psychopaths don’t advertise themselves as heartless social predators. They come across as charming, intelligent, friendly, generous, romantic and kind. Through their believable “mask of sanity,” they lure many of us into their dangerous nets. My nonfiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons,” explains clearly, for a general audience, what psychopaths are, why they act the way they do, how they attract us and whom they tend to target. Above all, this book helps victims find the strength to end their toxic relationships with psychopaths and move on, stronger and wiser, with the rest of their lives.

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CelebrityDialogue: What exactly is psychopathic seduction?

Claudia: Psychopathic seduction happens when someone is seduced (targeted, lured with false promises or under false premises, deceived, manipulated, isolated and brainwashed) by a psychopathic social predator. Psychopaths are far more common than one thinks. Experts estimate that between 1 and 4 percent of the population is psychopathic. This means that there are millions of psychopaths in the United States alone. The influence of these very dangerous individuals extends far beyond this percentage however. Psychopaths are generally very sociable, highly promiscuous and con countless people: sexually, emotionally and/or financially. They poison tens of millions of lives in this country and far more, of course, internationally.

Claudia Moscovici The Seducer

CelebrityDialogue: Your novel “Velvet Totalitarianism” is about a Romanian family’s survival against communist regime. Since you have Romanian roots, did any true life events prompt you to write this novel?

Claudia: “Velvet Totalitarianism”, which was recently launched in Romanian translation (“Intre Doua Lumi,” Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), is inspired in part by events in Romanian history as well as by elements from my life and my parents’ lives: including my father’s defection to the U.S., our dealings with the Securitate and our immigration. Nevertheless, I fictionalized both the historical and the biographical elements to give the novel a tighter and more dramatic structure.
CelebrityDialogue: You must have felt proud when this novel was published in Romanian language?

Claudia: I was delighted that “Velvet Totalitarianism” was published in Romania, both because it was written about the history and struggles of the Romanian people and because I have a sentimental attachment and cultural ties to my native country. I was especially happy to see how well-received the novel in translation (“Intre Doua Lumi”) was by the mainstream media in Romania, where it was featured not only in literary and culture magazines such as Scrisul Romanesc and Viata Romaneasca, but also in Forbes.ro, women’s glossy magazines (such as Revista Avantaje), and general interest blogs like Catchy.ro and VIP.net. Since I aspire to being a public writer and intellectual, I wish to reach a wide community of readers, internationally.
CelebrityDialogue: Which are your other major published works?

Claudia: I have published several scholarly books, but I’d consider “major” works only those books that I wrote for a general audience. These include my art criticism book “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, on the Romantic tradition in art and literature and its postromantic survival; my novels “Velvet Totalitarianism” and “The Seducer”, and my psychology book about psychopaths and dangerous relationships, “Dangerous Liaisons”.
CelebrityDialogue: You are the co-founder of” Postromanticism”. For those who may not know, please shed some light on this movement.

Claudia: I believe that art movements are not only diachronic, emerging one after the other, as they tend to be taught in art history, but also synchronic, in that each new art movement borrows from many aesthetic traditions of the past. Postromanticism, the international art movement I co-launched in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, is no exception. It is inspired by several traditions in art history, including Neoclassicism, Romanticism and art nouveau. Postromanticism places emphasis upon beauty, sensuality and passion in contemporary art. You can see samples of postromantic art on my website, http://postromanticism.com.
CelebrityDialogue: Since you write about love, beauty and passion, what does love mean to you in real life? Were you able to find love in your life?

Claudia: Being a novelist and art/literary critic, for many years I looked mostly at fantasy—since, after all, that’s what art and fiction are–to describe love as a romantic ideal rather than as a daily lived reality. But for the past few years, particularly after studying personality disorders, I have come to appreciate much more the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of real love. To me, love implies mutual commitment, supporting one another through thick and thin, fidelity and caring about one another: everything that the wedding vows promise and that my wonderful and supportive husband, Dan Troyka, has offered me in real life for over 20 years, since we met and fell in love in college.
CelebrityDialogue: What are you working on these days?

Claudia: Since my interests are in several fields—fiction, art and psychology—I always work at several projects simultaneously. This “multitasking” keeps me from becoming bored with any one subject or stuck in a rut creatively. Right now I’m researching the psychology of cults, which will be the subject of my third novel, “The Cult”. Since cult leaders are often charismatic psychopaths, this novel will incorporate a lot of the research I’ve already done to write “The Seducer” and “Dangerous Liaisons”. In addition, I have just finished writing the preface for an exciting new science fiction novel called “The Cube”, written in the tradition of Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Orwell’s “1984”, which will be published by my publisher in a few months. At the same time, I’m working closely with the Romanian-born movie producer Bernard Salzman, whom you’ve already interviewed in Celebrity Dialogue, on the screenplay for my first novel, “Velvet Totalitarianism”. Hopefully this will be an American-Romanian production, since a large part of the plot takes place in Romania. I also continue with my art criticism and am preparing for the launch of “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, translated by the writer and critic Dumitru Radu Popa, in Romania next fall. It’s a Latin country so I’m hoping for a warm reception of postromanticism, the art of passion!
CelebrityDialogue: Thank you so much Claudia. It was a pleasure.

Claudia: Thank you for this interview, the pleasure was mine.

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Dan Troyka Claudia Moscovici, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nat Karody The Cube

My fresh impressions about Romania, thirty years later

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

This is an essay about my fresh impressions about my native country, Romania, thirty years later, published in Litkicks.com and translated into Romanian on Catchy.ro.

Claudia Moscovici, Literatureasalon



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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi by Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism