Literature is Over

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Earlier this week, I blogged about Vivian Gornick’s recent assertion that “Jewish writing is over.” Gornick was suggesting that the only worthwhile Jewish literature was that which dealt with the experience of first and second generation American Jews.

While I took serious issue with this position, and more importantly, the way she expressed it, there is a related question that I do find interesting.

Recently, at a conference I was at, I heard a prominent Jewish communal professional bemoan the fact that instead of exploring the contemporary Jewish American experience, Jewish American fiction today fantasizes the past.

The speaker cited Jonathan Safran Foer, Dara Horn, and Michael Chabon as examples of writers who, supposedly, are guilty of this transgression.

The statement struck me as faulty for a couple of reasons. First of all, there is a lot of Jewish American writing that focuses on the present. But more importantly, I thought the speaker was particularizing an issue that is not actually unique to Jews.

The issue: What do privileged, upper-middle class Americans write about? How do you make serious literature in an America dominated by reality television and the shopping mall?

I take a deeper look at these questions in my most recent column for the Jerusalem Post and suggest that two recent books by Jewish American writers — Rivka Galchen and Keith Gessen — are representative of two different approaches to this problem by two contemporary literary schools (and literary journals).

Here are the key selections:

Galchen has been compared to postmodern masters like Thomas Pynchon, and while there are similarities (Liebenstein is obsessed with an obscure meteorological group; Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas with an allusive postal delivery organization), Galchen sits comfortably in a school of contemporaries: the McSweeney’s crowd…

“irony” has traditionally been one of McSweeney’s primary literary tools.

This affinity for irony comes from a very serious place, however. To write about an America steeped in pop culture and consumerism with a straight face would be, to some extent, to embrace triviality.

While Galchen does not employ irony per se, her surrealist touches and postmodern play reflect a style common amongst this cohort…

In the other corner is Keith Gessen…

Gessen and his n + 1 friends play it straight. But they also don’t avoid pop culture or the depiction of socio-economic privilege. Which means there are times when characters like Gessen’s sad, young Harvard graduates come across as unselfconsciously mopey and snobby, but such is the cost of depicting life as it is lived.

You can find the complete article here.

Posted on August 22, 2008

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