I found Wendy Shalit’s Sunday Times piece about the portrayal of Orthodox Jews in literature interesting but ultimately short-sighted.
Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism — or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with — have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light. Admittedly, some of this has produced first-rate literature or, at the least, great entertainment, but it has left many people thinking traditional Jews actually live like Tevye in the musical ”Fiddler on the Roof” or, at the opposite extreme, like the violent, vicious rabbi in Henry Roth’s novel ”Call It Sleep.” Not long ago, I did too.
Shalit argues that often these unsympathetic portrayals come from authors who present themselves as insiders but are, in her view, outsiders. She takes on one of my favorite collections of recent memory, Nathan Englander’s For The Relief Of Unbearable Urges, finding fault with Englander’s portrayals not because of his fictional take on Orthodox life but for what she sees as dismissive comments he made in interviews.
I readily admit that I don’t know nearly enough about Orthodox Judaism to be able to discuss the finer points of shtetl etiquette, but the larger question of who can tell which stories and how has always fascinated me. With a relatively small community that gets very little representation in the mainstream there’s an enormous responsibility on the writer to show all aspects of that community’s life, an incredibly difficult task indeed.
The problem, however, is that Shalit attacks the author, not the work. There isn’t any mention in the article of specific shortcomings in Englander’s stories. Isn’t the text the ultimate proof? Who cares where Englander went to university? Shouldn’t she address whether the book is any good?
In fact, it seems to me that Shalit herself comes to this kind of fiction with her own agenda. One work that finds favor in her eyes, for instance, features “a group of religious American Jews in a settlement on Israel’s West Bank.” Other people call it Palestine, Wendy.
Link via Sarah.
Department of the Tragi-Comic: Some of Pushkin and Lermontov’s poetry is being censored in Russia on grounds of “obscenity.”
A collection of his poems has been seized by Russian police as part of a crack-down on “obscene” literature. The move has horrified the nation’s literati in a country where serious literature is a serious business and popular with the masses. Only last week, Moscow’s foreign ministry published a book of poems by the nation’s diplomats.
The verses by Pushkin and another giant of Russian writing, Mikhail Lermontov, have been seized by Russian police in the city of Ivanovo, 160 miles north-east of Moscow.
Prosecutors are now studying the volumes, with the help of literary experts, to decide whether they constitute pornography, which is banned, or erotic literature, which is allowed under Russian law. If convicted, the booksellers could be jailed for up to two years.
The move was triggered by a complaint from a nationalist leader who backs Vladimir Putin.
Johnson’s sense of the role of the individual in society is a thread that runs through both “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” his latest collection of short fiction, and “Passing the Three Gates,” a compilation of interviews with the author that spans from 1976 to 2003.
The interviews in “Passing the Three Gates” are remarkably consistent in subject matter and literary attitude. For Johnson the questions of literature are the same as in life: Who am I? What is my relationship to the society I live in? How do I balance my own desires with other people’s values and experience?
Few activities are as likely to bring on a fit of depressive jealousy as leafing through the back pages of one’s alumni magazine. While you molder in a studio apartment, stuck in a dead-end job, your former classmates are founding clinics in Thailand, cranking out best sellers and unveiling major new paintings — as well as bearing exceptional children. You thought you’d be a success, or at least have a chance to make a decent stab at it while you were still young. Sorry.
Elsewhere, Jim Ruland recently offered his thoughts about Sam Lipsyte’s work, including Home Land.
That’s it for me this week. The one and only Randa Jarrar takes over tomorrow and every Friday. Have a great weekend!
Late last year, a few people pointed out that the Man Booker prize is considered a major event in Britain, the awards carried on TV, and the nominees showered with lots of attention from booksellers and readers, while, in comparison, the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards here in the States generally go by unnoticed by the general public, and with almost no sales boost for the nominated authors.
The solution to this dilemma, American publishers figured, would be to bring some glamour to the awards. But since, after all, these are American publishers we’re talking about, the idea quickly turned into this: The Quill Awards. (Quill is the distant, shunned cousin of Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy.) But instead of the writers’ work being judged by their peers or by a distingued panel of judges (like the Bookers, say) the Quills will be judged by the American public. Sort of like a People’s Choice Awards for books.
The NY Times‘ Edward Wyatt explains:
Nominations for the award in each category will be made beginning in May by a panel of booksellers, librarians and others. The consumers will be able to vote in the fall for the winners in the categories of best book of the year; rookie of the year, to a first-time author; children’s book; graphic novel; literary fiction; suspense, mystery or thriller; science fiction, fantasy or horror; romance; biography or memoir; religion or spirituality; science; health and self improvement; sports; business; and history, current events and politics.
A special committee will help determine winners in several other categories: the book club award, best book-to-film project, best design and a lifetime achievement award.
You can be sure that they’ll find a way to nominate J.K. Rowling, so don’t even bother tuning in.
The Story Prize, established by Julie Lindsey and former O. Henry series editor Larry Dark, is designed to honor short fiction. The nominees for this first year are Edwidge Danticat (The Dew Breaker), Cathy Day (The Circus in Winter), and Joan Silber (Ideas of Heaven). The prize went to Edwidge Danticat. You can read the announcement in the Seatte PI. And Reuters has a report of the reading itself, at which the prizes were announced.
“I’m very honored,” Danticat told the Manhattan audience. She quipped that her companion at the event had just commented, “This is like the Oscars,” after actresses Jane Curtin, Kate Burton and Sonia Manzano read stories from the three finalists’ works.
“The most precious gift that a writer can get is time,” she said, noting that the cash prize, which organizers said was the largest of any annual U.S. book award, would buy “a lot of time, time that one can invest back into one’s work.”
Danticat is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.
Update: Ron “Where Does He Find The Time?” Hogan provides a write-up of the actual ceremony.