What Do Jewish-American Writers Need (and I Mean Really Need)?
By SANFORD PINSKER
Answer: They need great
readers, in the way Walt Whitman meant when he pointed out that “to have
great poets, there must be great audiences.” Granted, Whitman was talking about
poetry, and more important, about himself, but his idea applies to our Chosen
scribblers as well.
Now, I can hear some of you whispering that non-Jewish authors also need
intelligent, sensitive readers. True enough, but I would argue that serious
Jewish-American fiction writers need them more because the audience that made
the Jewish-American renaissance possible—and that were informed readers of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and the early Philip Roth—has
largely disappeared. The late Irving Howe would chalk this up to the fact that
Jewish-American fiction has one subject: the journey from immigration
adjustment to mainstream acceptance. And once this subject had been fully
explored, Howe argued, serious Jewish-American writers would have no more to
say, or to write.
Dozens of writers have tried to prove Howe wrong, and some have succeeded—I
think of Steve Stern’s The Angel of Forgetfulness
or Dara Horn’s The World to Come—though dozens more
suggest that finding a new source of authentically Jewish material has not been
easy. A handful of novels by sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors were
promising, although it's hard to see how they can sustain themselves, especially
since publishers are increasingly reluctant to publish anything about the Holocaust. Their attitude is not quite “been
there, done that,” but, rather, one that gives a close read of the bottom line.
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
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.
Ruminating about Jewish-American novelists I am reminded of the story that a
colleague of Alfred Kazin liked to tell. Judah Stampfer was a scholar of the
English renaissance and something of a “renaissance man” himself. A published
poet and novelist, he gave Kazin a typescript of a just-completed novel and
awaited for any impressions or suggestions Kazin might care to make. He
returned the manuscript with a terse note scrawled on the cover page: “Too
Jewish.” That was decades ago but the problem of novels about spiritual hunger
and protagonists returning to (or discovering for the first time) a life of
religious observance has continued. Most suffer from the same condition that T.
S. Eliot once argued doomed the bulk of religious poetry: such poets, he
pointed out, describe feelings they would like to have but, alas, do not.
Moreover, such poets are conscious where they ought to be unconscious, and
unconscious where they need to be conscious.
A few years ago I noticed what seemed to me very close to a
trend—Jewish-American novelists writing about Israel and the way it turned
their protagonists back to a life of Jewish observance. I was thinking about
novels such as as Risa Miller’s Welcome to Heavenly Heights (2003), Ruhama
King’s Seven Blessings
(2003), and Naama Goldstein’s The Place Will Comfort You
(2004). Their respective protagonists become religiously observant only after
they spend considerable time in Israel. Moreover—and why am I not
surprised?—any narrative tensions they may have experienced before their
respective “returns” simply disappears in the ritual and prayer that now
Two new books about Jewish-Americans and Israel radically change this dynamic,
and in the process, reveal a new configuration for the old formula of Jewish
protagonists caught between two worlds and uncomfortable with each In both
Margot Singer’s The Pale of Settlement
(2008) and Danit Brown’s Ask for a Convertible (2008), the “two
worlds” are now America and Israel.
What the Israeli-born characters discover is that America has “stuff”—big
screen TVs, enormous SUVs, and supersized fast food—but little soul; what the
American-born discover is that Israel is noisy and not at all the bucolic paradise
they had imagined. Both writers are clear-eyed and both eschew the
sentimentality that spoils novels too dependent on lushly describing Jerusalem
sunsets and the exoticism of the ultra-Orthodox.
I do not mean to suggest that Brown and Singer are the only bright spots to be
found. Senior Jewish-American novelists such as Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick
continue to write, and a slightly younger Steve Stern (now in his early 60’s)
doesn’t give a fig when editors suggest ways that his forthcoming novel might
sell more copies. If he is destined to be our most underappreciated
Jewish-American fictionist, so be it. But he can take some small measure of
comfort knowing that if the grumpy Irving Howe were still alive, he would have
loved The Angel of Forgetfulness a
great deal and North of God
Even better news attaches to much younger writers who are two to three books
away from excellence: Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men),
Adam Mansbach (The End of the Jews),
and Ehud Havazelet (Bearing the Body).
Taken together, they all have talent and ambition. What they need are readers,
and that depends, among other things, on a more enlightened cultural climate.
Saul Bellow once wrote about the “distractions” that plague fiction writers; he
did not mention the distractions that afflict readers: a shoddy cultural
moment, the failures of high school and college educations, the banality of
television, and the information overload of the Internet.
What, if anything, can be done? Literary prizes designed to encourage young
Jewish-American writers have probably helped, as have the various Jewish book
clubs that attach themselves to synagogues and Jewish community centers. But
taste is akin to a gossamer wing; you can see it flitter by but you cannot
catch it, much less reduce it to a formula. My hunch—and I say this with little
pleasure—is that The Chosen would
prevail in any literary poll I can imagine, just as Leon Uris’s Exodus remains the Jewish-American novel about Israel.
As a conservative guess, I figure it will take another 500 years to produce a
literary giant such as Saul Bellow, and it will take at least that long to
create a readership that recognizes, and enjoys, novels with complexity and
texture. I used to take heart when I saw the lines, in the early afternoon,
when I wasn't teaching, at my town’s Barnes & Noble. How bad could things be? I asked myself. It’s always a good thing when people in large numbers buy books, right?
But then I noticed the rather lousy volumes that people in the line were
clutching, and my heart sank. Later, I remembered the old law about bad money
driving out good and I realized how hard a time high standards have. That
doesn’t keep me from hoping that things on the literary front will improve or
from opening a new Jewish-American novel with great expectations.