Jewish Writing is Over

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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.

In some ways, the essay is — apparently — an updated version of her “Why Do These Men Hate Women?” a look at Bellow, Roth, Mailer, and their misplaced masculinity.

Indeed, in a recent interview with Boston Review (HT: inthemoment), Gornick explains the unsettling connection between Jewishness and misogyny that she perceives.

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. They’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 there’s a connection between Jewishness and misogyny. I don’t think Jews are more misogynistic than gentiles. We’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.

Says Gornick:

Jewish-Americans did something in American literature that no other culture has done — they created world-class literature out of the immigrant experience. And that’s the only thing that mattered in Jewish-American writing. Had Roth and Bellow not been major talents, you wouldn’t have Jewish-American writing. It wouldn’t mean anything. It would just be parochial, local.

But we cannot have major talent writing this stuff anymore because there’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).

She continues:

There’s really nothing to write about. Yet you have young people who keep on doing it. All I’m saying is, it doesn’t count. Take Michael Chabon, or Jonathan Safran Foer. They’re cashing in on a world that’s long gone and they’re writing with open nostalgia. They’re making things out of it that belong to their grandfathers. It’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!

Posted on August 18, 2008

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2 thoughts on “Jewish Writing is Over

  1. Stereo Sinai

    I agree with you 100%. Thank you for saying something so controversial, and so correct. As a twenty-something lover of American Jewish literature, and having studied it in college, I would even go so far as to say that American Jewish literature has gotten BETTER in this latest generation. That is to say, I can identify with the “Jew as Metaphor” even more in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union than I can in American Pastoral. And let me point out some other young American Jewish writers of note: Kevin Coval, Myla Goldberg, and of course the illustrious Matthue Roth! Let’s not forget that the audiences for American Jewish literature evolve in tandem with the experiences of American Jews, and I would even say, with Americans in general.

  2. matthue

    Is it just me, or is the *most* offensive of several offenses when she says that “Jewish-Americans did something in American literature that no other culture has done — they created world-class literature out of the immigrant experience”? Salman Rushdie and Frank McCourt are both writers who I wouldn’t exclude from the realm of “world-class literature” without expecting my 9th-grade lit teacher Ms. Schroeder to kick my butt.

    But the whole idea that all Jewish literature is predicated on one simple idea (let alone a “dead” idea) is absurd. It’s like saying that, without Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, there would be no Native American writing. As long as there’s somebody writing, and somebody reading, it’s making a splash. And if there’s nothing to write about in Jewish lit, then how is there something to write a bloody critique about that’s longer than “hated it”? And her comments about being “parochial” and “local” reflect the sensibility of one of those erstwhile critics who has yet to discover that newfangled “blog” thing.

    Or maybe she’s just going for the same effect McCain had with insulting Paris Hilton — scream something nonsensical, and scream loud, and everyone will talk about you (but possibly still not vote for you).

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