Pearl Abraham Elisa Albert Steve Almond Jonathan Ames Shalom Auslander Aimee Bender Karen Bender Amy Bloom Danit Brown Melvin Jules Bukiet Tamar Fox Naama Goldstein Rebecca Goldstein Yael Goldstein Laurie Graff Lauren Grodstein Ehud Havazelet Joanna Hershon Dara Horn Molly Jong-Fast Mitchell James Kaplan Binnie Kirshenbaum Sana Krasikov Adam Mansbach Tova Mirvis Gurumurthy Neelakantan Alana Newhouse Jon Papernick Rachel Resnick Thane Rosenbaum Elizabeth Rosner Wendy Shalit Ilana Stanger-Ross Laurie Gwen Shapiro Rochelle Shapiro Andrea Seigel Robert Siegel Terrie Silverman Margot Singer Leora Skolkin-Smith Yuri Slezkine Diana Spechler Steve Stern Ayelet Waldman Katharine Weber Tamar Yellin People of the Book Festival 2006

A Critique Of Modern American-Jewish Literature

I 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 Bellow, Cynthia 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 dead.

Dara Horn -- Unreadable. Post Modern goyishe junk transmuted into Jewish life. Again, no idea how to tell a story. Too much time in writer's workshops.

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 knew?

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.

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 as The 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 Apache Maiden.

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 ha!" moments.

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 art.

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."

Strange 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.

My favorite 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.

The Best Books On Jewish Life

I 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 non-fiction."

Rob replies:

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 don’t entertain me.

Here’s who does: Philip Roth, Gary Shteyngart, Shalom Auslander, Michael Chabon, Etgar Keret.

They’re all men, they all write frequently in a comic vein, they all know how to tell a great story. I suppose the problem is I’m 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 written about.

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.

The 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.

The Best Writing On Jewish Life

Jason 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.

The 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 lasts forever."