Vivian Gornick’s forthcoming book The Men in My Life includes an essay called “Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and the End of the Jew as Metaphor” — which was first delivered as a lecture at Harvard earlier this year.
These Jewish-American writers, they have written more virulently, more violently, more angrily about women than have their gentile counterparts. There are very few gentile writers of their age — John Updike, for example — who can write about women the way Roth and Bellow write. Theyâ€™re too sure of themselves. Roth and Bellow suffer from feeling like such outsiders in gentile culture that savaging women seems justified. So in that sense thereâ€™s a connection between Jewishness and misogyny. I donâ€™t think Jews are more misogynistic than gentiles. Weâ€™re talking about these writers.
Yet Gornick also believes that this “outsider” perspective was what allowed Jewish American fiction to flourish — and matter.
Curiously, Gornick then resuscitates the argument once made by Irving Howe, that with the great Jewish immigrant story exhausted, the possibility of meaningful Jewish writing has ended.
Jewish-Americans did something in American literature that no other culture has done — they created world-class literature out of the immigrant experience. And thatâ€™s the only thing that mattered in Jewish-American writing. Had Roth and Bellow not been major talents, you wouldnâ€™t have Jewish-American writing. It wouldnâ€™t mean anything. It would just be parochial, local.
But we cannot have major talent writing this stuff anymore because thereâ€™s nothing to write about.
With the rise of writers like Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Nathan Englander over the last decade, Howe’s eulogy of Jewish American literature has often been cited as obviously premature, so it comes across as purposely provocative when Gornick aggressively offers such a similar assessment (and with no allusion to Howe, at least in the BR interview).
Thereâ€™s really nothing to write about. Yet you have young people who keep on doing it. All Iâ€™m saying is, it doesnâ€™t count. Take Michael Chabon, or Jonathan Safran Foer. Theyâ€™re cashing in on a world thatâ€™s long gone and theyâ€™re writing with open nostalgia. Theyâ€™re making things out of it that belong to their grandfathers. Itâ€™s a habit to go on assuming that this is legitimate writing. But I truly feel it is not.
Unfortunately, if Gornick has worthwhile points to make she loses credibility with such hyperbole.
I’m willing to listen to anyone’s assessment of “good writing” and ” bad writing,” but frankly, this idea of “legitimate writing” is maddening. As if Chabon did something wrong by publishing The Yiddish Policemen’s Union!