Bender Amy Bloom Danit
Jules Bukiet Tamar Fox
Naama Goldstein Rebecca
Havazelet Joanna Hershon
Jong-Fast Mitchell James
Kirshenbaum Sana Krasikov
Adam Mansbach Tova
Papernick Rachel Resnick
Shalit Ilana Stanger-Ross
Gwen Shapiro Rochelle
Siegel Terrie Silverman
Margot Singer Leora
of the Book Festival 2006
A Critique Of Modern American-Jewish
found this essay by Dr. Sanford Pinsker provoking:
I knew that serious Jewish-American writers were in trouble several
decades ago when I began giving my classes in "Jewish-American
Fiction" a chance to vote on their favorite text in a survey course
that included a catholic variety of Jewish authors, from Abraham Cahan
to Pearl Abraham. The novel that won, hands down, every semester, every
year, was Chaim Potok's The Chosen, a perfectly good novel
for junior high school readers but not especially challenging, I thought,
for college students. Why, I kept wondering, didn't they choose Henry
Roth's Call It Sleep or Saul Bellow's Herzog?
After mulling this question over for a couple of years, I decided (a)
that estimations about art should never be put to a democratic vote;
and (b) that I had to discontinue my end-of-semester questionnaire.
Curiously, I experienced something of the same disappointment when,
as one of the judges nominating books for a prestigious Koret
prize, I watched as Jonathan
Safran Foer mowed down competition that included
Ozick, and Steve
Stern. A friend of mine tried to console me that
pointing out that Foer's post-modernism appealed to contemporary readers
as Bellow and Ozick's old-fashioned modernism did not. Perhaps, but
I think the explanation is simpler: the bulk of those who sent in email
votes had read Everything is Illuminated but not Ravelstein.
My friend "Yaakov" writes in March 2006:
Allegra Goodman -- Boring beyond words. Has no idea how to tell a story.
Just another Cynthia Ozick wannabe. One is enough, thank you very much.
Tova Mirvis --
Better. She tries to tell a story. But when she hits act three, drops
Horn -- Unreadable. Post Modern goyishe junk transmuted into Jewish
life. Again, no idea how to tell a story. Too much time in writer's
Nathan Englander -- Talented, but a terrible liar and much beloved
by Jihadists for he makes religious Jews look and act like hypocrites
and liars and everything the Jihadists say we are. Basically he's Philip
Roth with long hair.
Rebecca Goldstein -- I read the first ten pages of each of her books.
No idea what was going on.
Every one of these writers have one thing on common: no craft. No idea
how to tell a simple three-act story. No notion how to take a character
from point a to point b and make that character grow and change.
Nooooo, they're all to post-modern for that.
These writers are just ghastly products of university writing workshops.
They read each other's work. The public could care less.
These writers are simply ghastly and I have no doubt that nobody even
reads them except maybe one another -- oh and their white shoe enablers
at the NY Times. The same useful idiots who brought us, ta-da! Raymond
Carver. Now there was a massive dose of Thorazine.
My friend Bava Kama Sutra responds:
You might consider dropping him from your friend category.
It's interesting how so many people don't have a high enough self-esteem
to be able to say, simply, I don't get it. Instead, if they don't like
or get it, it's automatically "bad" and without craft or merit. It's
interesting that The New Yorker seems to like Goodman very much -- but
I'm sure that your friend's level of expertise is far beyond that of
a simple magazine such as that. And, the public "could care less" --
really? Is that why The New Yorker publishes her work? Because the public
doesn't care? My, what an ego your friend has -- he (for it must be
a he) has conflated larger public opinion and his own worthless one.
In short, what a moron. But to each his own.
What has this person written that is better than what these writers
write? If he wants a simple (for the simpleton) "three act story," he
should watch Sesame Street or some other childish rubbish. Go look at
a picture book. Read a fairytale. But stay away from high art. We hate
what we don't understand, don't we?
I'm just so tired of people calling literature bad if they don't like
it. Why should everyone have to write the same kind of "3 act" story?
That's not enough for some people, me for instance. Honestly, I think
Goodman can be "boring," but it's only if you're looking for a certain
kind of quick fix story as opposed to (though not necessarily so) artistry.
And Ozick - - she's brilliant. She's not trying to write simple stories.
Goldstein -- she's not my favorite but I see what she's doing. My students
are reading her now and don't like her -- yet they loved Morrison. Who
I don't care if you post my response, but don't use my name. I don't
really think he's a moron, though. Who does he like to read, for example?
> I have so many friends, I can easily afford to drop them when I disagree
> with how they express their opinions on literature.
I guess some of the literature I now like is an acquired taste-- like
coffee, or wine, or beer. I never could develop a taste for beer, but
the other two I like. I didn't start out liking Ozick (was more of a
Grace Paley/Bernard Malamud fan), but now I couldn't go back.
I don't want your friend to think I'm mean. I'm really not. I'm nicer
than you are.
> On my blog, I try to provide the kind of civilized discourse that
is > essential to the smooth functioning of a democracy. (Allan MacDonell)
You like to antagonize. And now I realize that's the only reason you
sent me your friend's comments. I'm so predictable.
> I was trying to promote democracy, it was either that or invade Iran.
I Want To Be Swept Away
When I read a story, I want to be swept away.
For that to happen, I usually need:
* Linear scene-by-scene construction.
* Status details. I want keen insights into life, into the way we struggle
to avoid humiliation and to advance ourselves.
Much of the best writing on Jewish life comes from such works of non-fiction
New Rabbi (Stephen Fried), Stephen
Bloom's Postville, Jew
vs. Jew (Samuel Friedman) as well as Robert J. Avrech's novel for
kids -- The Hebrew Kid and the
Jewish novelists don't do enough research to make their work compelling.
I just finished Melvin Jules Bukiet's realistic novel Strange
Fire (a Brokeback Mountain story set amongst Israel's political elite)
which is overwhelmingly linear and composed in scenes, just as I like
it, and yes the sentences are often smart and witty and it's all very
literary, but the details of Israeli life aren't sharp and true enough.
It needed more realistic status details. I wanted to experience more "Ah
If Melvin wanted his protagonist to be more convincing, he should've
turned gay for a few weeks and done the hard work necessary for sublime
On August 2nd, Bukiet told me: "The novel I'm working on now is
set in Washington D.C. I know nothing about Washington D.C. and its political
culture. Any Washington insider will know my novel is entirely bogus.
But I'm not writing for that elite audience of Washington insiders. If
I can truly create the Washington of my mind... Some of my books are set
in Germany where I've never set foot. I did no research. It was the Germany
of my mind. I don't distinguish between imagination and experience. If
anything, imagination seems more real. If I get my Washington correct,
I will feel successful and will be able to communicate it to someone else."
Fire was too damn cynical. I didn't care about any of the characters.
Perhaps I'm homophobic, but it puts me off my supper to read about a deformed
old man who wants to bugger boys.
Publishers Weekly liked Strange
Fire because P.W. likes nothing better than a good buggering. My
first book was slammed in P.W. for, among other things, not writing about
gay porn (and for perpetuating negative stereotypes about Jews).
Have there been any bestselling novels with a homosexual as the protagonist?
My hunch is that most heterosexuals are not into reading about the sexual
adventures and libidinous desires of gays.
essay on modern literature was by Tom Wolfe -- "Stalking the billion-footed
beast; a literary manifesto for the new social novel." Harper's Magazine
279.n1674 (Nov 1989).
The truth was, as Arnold Hauser had gone to great pains to demonstrate
in The Social History of Art, the intelligentsia have always
had contempt for the realistic novel -- a form that wallows so enthusiastically
in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and
that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by
the mob, i.e., the middle class. In Victorian England, the intelligentsia
regarded Dickens as "the author the uneducated, undiscriminating
public." It required a chasm of time -- eighty years, in fact --
to separate his work from its vulgar milieu so that Dickens might be
canonized in British literary circles. The intelligentsia have always
preferred more refined forms of fiction...
I remember how funny Allegra
Goodman was in her first collection of short stories (The Family Markowitz)
and how dull she's become since she's turned to churning out refined novels.
Best Books On Jewish Life
email the Editor of the Jewish Journal: "Rob: Do you read much
fiction about Jewish life? I'm interviewing a bunch of Jewish novelists
and developing the thesis that they aren't doing enough research and reporting...
That perhaps the best books on Jewish life now are
I read mostly non-fiction. I find that being in the midst of "Jewish
life," most contemporary Jewish fiction has a kind of flat, self-consciousness
to it. I read fiction for entertainment, and a lot of the people you
mention donít entertain me.
Hereís who does: Philip Roth, Gary Shteyngart, Shalom Auslander, Michael
Chabon, Etgar Keret.
Theyíre all men, they all write frequently in a comic vein, they all
know how to tell a great story. I suppose the problem is Iím not deep
enough to appreciate the serious new Jewish novelists.
A friend replies:
I thought Nicole Krauss's The
History of Love sounded like an imitation of Isaac Bashevis Singer,
disconnected from any real interaction with the people or the culture
Your critique is even more true of Israeli fiction. A. B. Yehoshua
wrote a book about an anesthesiologist who goes to India that has not
one shred of connection to India, medical practice, it was all spun
out of his head and at the time there were a lot of essays about that.
Modern Jewish Girls Guide To Guilt
Many of the stories in this nonfiction collection are more compelling
than most of the fiction created by these same writers.
Daphne Merkin and Gina Nahai are always compelling in either genre, but
folks such as Dara Horn, Aimee Bender, and Rebecca Goldstein, who tend
to write complicated and demanding (or surreal in the case of Bender)
novels, are straight-forward in Guilt.
Best Writing On Jewish Life
Maoz, Editor of The Jewish
Press, replies to my inquiry:
I agree that the best books on Jewish life are non-fiction.
But that's been the case for decades, maybe longer.
Probably the biggest problem with Jewish fiction is that Jewish novelists
tend to be either ignorant of or estranged from the mainstream Jewish
community. Not that there's anything new in that -- when was the last
time a fleshy, content, middle-age, sexually conventional, middle-class,
home-owning, PTA-attending, backyard barbecuing, shul-attending mommy
or daddy crafted a memorable work of fiction?
But at least the Jewish novelists who came of age in the 1930's and
40's and who went on to give us the golden age of the American Jewish
novel -- writers like Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Ozick and Markfield
and Wouk (I'm not including Mailer because he's never struck me as a
particularly Jewish writer) -- were, whatever their individual level
of identification with or alienation from the greater community, usually
first or second generation Americans who grew up with religiously observant
grandparents or at least fiercely ethnic parents. (Even the trade unionists
and unvarnished lefties of that era were more often than not steeped
in the sounds, smells, and memories of Yiddishkeit). As a result, they
could not help but absorb, in their formative years, a relatively traditional
form of Judaism or at least a robust cultural Jewishness.
The contrast with Jewish novelists of more recent vintage is thus all
the more striking, and if these newer writers' depictions of Jewish
life all too often seem forced, contrived, even inauthentic, well, it's
because they ARE forced, contrived and inauthentic.
If the late Irving Howe could, in the early 1960's, decry Philip Roth's
"thin personal culture" and describe him as someone "com[ing]at the
end of a tradition which can no longer nourish his imagination," and
a writer who has "chosen to tear himself away from that tradition,"
what would Howe say -- and what can we say -- about Roth's literary
descendants, the products of a cleanly neutered, hyper-assimilated post-Sixties
American Jewry? Is it any wonder, then, that when they write about Jews
and Judaism they convey all the warmth and heimishness of those blonde
goddesses who aroused such unrequited lust in Roth's alter ego Alexander
Portnoy as they skated around Irvington Park?
Imagine an episode of The Brady Bunch featuring the uber-shiksa Marcia
celebrating her bat mitzvah ("Alice, tell Greg to stop nibbling on the
chopped liver sculpture of Joe Namath!") and you'll have more Jewish
authenticity than is typically found in today's "Jewish" novels.
Return Of Eros To Academe
...And while Professor Stone tried to reassemble himself, she continued
to coo, "Life needn't be nasty, brutish and short. Just act as
if all of your actions could be universal principles."
...Trish cornered him, and opened the hastily bunched robe. "Oh,
gee," she said. "It looks just like Karl Marx."
In his short story, "Paper Hero," Melvin Bukiet writes: "...[A]
journalist's fame lasts until the dog needs walking while the novelist's