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Jodi Picoult’s Holocaust Vampires

Some historians see the best-selling writer’s new novel The Storyteller as trash. Here’s why they are wrong.

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Faustian Bargain

The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering

Holocaust Pulp Fiction

The Auschwitz survivor known as Ka-Tzetnik 135633 wrote lurid novels derided as pornography when they were published. Now he’s Israel’s Elie Wiesel.

Jodi Picoult’s wildly successful novels, which have sold over 14 million copies, tend to rely on a simple formula: a controversial, sexy topic expressed in a courtroom drama with a twist at the end. Her latest, The Storyteller, which was released last month, weaves together the narratives of three characters: 25-year-old Sage Singer, a recluse and a baker; her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor; and Josef Weber, a 90-year-old ex-Nazi asking for Sage’s forgiveness as a Jew and for her assistance in his suicide.

The conventions of Holocaust fiction—brutality, sexual abuse, forced labor—tellingly overlap with other sensationalist conventions (the young-adult genre, the Jodi Picoult novel). “It’s great material for art,” says Joseph Skibell, a novelist whose book A Blessing on the Moon is Holocaust fiction. “It’s writ large, with big questions like good vs. evil.” Without subjects like war, “all you have is the mundane. It’s why so much American fiction is about white men committing adultery,” Skibell adds wryly.

While Skibell remembers a time when there was what he calls a “prohibition against Holocaust fiction” and his own book was barred from the Holocaust Museum’s bookstore, Holocaust fiction is now a staple in bookstores with its own category on Amazon. But it’s still worth asking—since others undoubtedly will—whether the Holocaust should be treated as fodder for a best-selling thriller like Picoult’s. “I tend to be persuaded by the argument that makes sense of fictionalizing,” David Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston, told me on the phone. “Everything is legitimate if it helps you understand,” he said, with the caveat that, “mythologizing can obscure reality in a problematic way.”

Ruth Franklin, who has written about the question of art and the Holocaust in her book A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, also disagrees with those who wish to remove the Holocaust from the grasp of art. “I don’t think it’s our job to tell people what to write about,” she told me on the phone. Furthermore, she believes “it’s not the artist’s obligation to be a historian. That’s the historian’s job.” To question whether a work of art exploits the Holocaust is, for Franklin, to question the artist’s intent—which is not as interesting or important as questioning the work of art, which must be evaluated on its own terms. “Artists have to cover costs,” she says about Holocaust films that make money, like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, which Franklin says has a legitimate aesthetic claim to the title of art.

But there are those who think that there is something that distinguishes the Holocaust from other bloody historical events, like the American Civil War. Deborah Lipstadt, the author of the books Denying the Holocaust and Nextbook Press’s The Eichmann Trial, felt that Benigni’s film was a mistake. “I hated Life Is Beautiful,” she told me; “It just made light of the whole thing.” Lipstadt believes that when writing about genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust, “the writer has a certain obligation not to play too fast with the truth. Of course, fiction is fiction,” she conceded, “but when dealing with these topics, it is important to make sure the fiction does not distort history.”

Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, has written a book called A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. He, too, believes that Holocaust literature falls into two categories: the insightful, which includes The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart and The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink and the works of 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertész; and the distorting, including William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, with its portrayal of a Polish woman and Auschwitz survivor who is victimized by her “rough and vulgar Jewish boyfriend,” and Life Is Beautiful, the fable at the heart of which bears no relationship to the camps. While he firmly believes that, “No one should legislate what any artist produces,” he thinks that the audiences must learn to read and view critically. “You should think, as well as feel,” he told me. “Since the Holocaust is a crime of such horrific dimensions, one doesn’t want to see it commercialized or trivialized. The past is not fixed, and one doesn’t want to lose the historical veracity.”

All these experts seem to agree that distortion or sensationalizing should be the barriers standing between an author and the Holocaust as setting. But another threat looms in the nature of storytelling itself: It lends closure. Adorno famously said that there is no poetry after Auschwitz, but this might very well apply as well to fiction, and in particular, Holocaust fiction. The bugbear that aspiring Holocaust novelists should fear is not sensationalism, but the inherently tempting but ahistorical comforts of resolution.

Picoult’s success comes from addressing these narrative concerns overtly, for The Storyteller is no less about the nature of fiction than it is about the Holocaust. One third of the novel gives readers the chance to inhabit the day, the life, the thoughts, of a Nazi officer in situ, who, like every Picoult character, is a damn good storyteller. Her skillful prose ennobles abjection even as it brings atrocity close to home. Not so close as to shock, mind you, but close enough to reveal a shift in what sorts of narratives can be told about the Holocaust. Another one of the characters tells a story about vampires, which is woven in with the three narratives—making the comparison of YA novels and Holocaust fiction explicit. The vampiric tale, with its guts and its gore, its love plot and its aggressive sensuality, which the character must keep telling as a means to survival, throws into stark relief the Holocaust tale, denuding the latter of its usual effects by appropriating them and outdoing them.

What’s most shocking about The Storyteller is its unexpected power as a meditation on the power of fiction as a means of facilitating an escape route from the banality of binaries: good vs. evil, victim vs. perpetrator, Nazi vs. Jew. Picoult wanted to understand, more than she wanted to judge, and in doing so, she refuses the easy closure offered by narrative and shows us how using the Holocaust as a subject for popular fiction—even vampire fiction—is not to be feared.

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I have never had a problem with Holocaust fiction any more than any other fictionalized history. It only becomes offensive when the ’causes’ are tivialized. I refer to the “fiction” using the Holocaust as backdrop to alien invasion, demonic possession and the like.

All these vampire books are complete trash. In this world there is real magic and real power. You don’t need the fear and angst to get there. The writers of vampire stories are the real vampires stealing our magical inner fire to fuel their bank accounts. For shame!

pushedoffthederech says:

I 100% percent agree with Deborah Lipstadt. After working on dozens of memoirs, where I try really hard to vet the material so that is doesn’t distort history, with the assistance of Holocaust scholars, and knowing that there are thousands of eye witness testimonies and family histories still to be told, I find 99.99% of Holocaust novels outrageous in their assumptions that the actual stories of that horrific piece of Jewish history are not compelling enough to rate even a half nod from current publishing houses, forcing most survivors to self-publish. And like Lipstat I am not thrilled when the deniers (who are discredited daily) point to the garbage and say the Jews made the whole thing up. So to me, Holocaust novels are a waste of dead trees and energy, and the vampire fans who read this crap aren’t really going to learn anything about the Holocaust that matters…like why it’s important to speak out in the face of injustice, why it’s important to be politically involved and vote, and why it’s important to work on making the world a better place. The only thing kids learn from this is how writers and publishers expoit the deaths of six million Jews, including 1.5 million children to pay dividends to their investors and line the writers’ pockets.

Jill Boniske says:

Have you read this one? Or the article?

Please read the book before you pass judgment. I don’t read vampire novels, and Jodie Picoult didn’t use the vampire story here to exploit its popularity in the mass market. Instead, it is part of the narrative story–why the grandmother wrote it, and how the story unexpectedly kept her alive in the camps. I read the novel, and found it both moving and disturbing. At its heart, it asks the same questions we all ask about the Holocaust and other genocides since. How and why can good people allow such evil to happen? and for me, how and why countries like the US who might have done something to protect the Jews of the world, failed to,do so. i just vieweed the film “The Sharps War,” a stoey of an Unitarian minister and his wife who worked in Czechoslovakia and Portugal before and during The war, risking their lives to,save thousands of refugees and children. we need more history AND more fiction. Holocaust novels are not “instead of” the memoirs and stories of actual survivors. They are “in addition to.” And possibly, just possibly, because Picout’s work is so popular, this novel will bring that history alive to many who would otherwise not read or think about it.

marjorie says:

Wait, “the young adult genre” is a “sensationalist convention”? The ENTIRE GENRE? And can a genre itself be a convention?

Shalom & Erev tov…as a post-Auschwitz Jew, I find Ms Ungar-Sargon’s meditation on Jodi Picoult thoughtful and cogent. What Mr Adorno actually wrote: ‘Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch’. Read this carefully. Thank you, Ms Ungar-Sargon. Kol tuv uv’racha…may you be blessed with all that is good.
STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
Torah G-ddess Yehudi Apikores Ishi / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher

G Shapiro says:

Has anyone heard the interview Jodi Picoult gave to NPR a few weeks ago? In one of her responses, I believe she said that the Holocaust was a human rights problem, not a Jewish problem – I was absolutely appalled by this statement and I’m wondering if anyone else heard this.

James Conohan says:

The idea of a holocaust vampire book is repulsive since the vampire myth has roots in anti-Semitic blood libel lore.

Well said, Andrea Zucker. I’m looking up “The Sharps War” immediately.

csw18 says:

I worried that my Holocaust fiction would be treated rudely for having a less than accurate ending. My young Austrian Jewish lovers live through real Nazi concentration and death camps (Theresienstadt and Auschwitz). I devoted three years and 524 pages to exacting research, just to be certain that each of the events were historically accurate. The names of city streets and Nazi officers were correct. One newspaper editor called it “the Forrest Gump of the Holocaust,” because young lovers walk through real events. Now we are to accept Holocaust vampires? Please don’t tell my publisher. I’ve thought in the past about writing stories of a Golem or other such imaginary Jewish subjects. But, to me, the Shoah was and remains far too terrifying a subject to play fanciful fictional games with veracity. Hardly a Jewish family exists that was not reduced horrifyingly by Nazi Germany. How can an author treat murdered ancestors with a smile and a wink, while making up nonsense about Holocaust vampires? I would not be able to sleep at night…
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, “Jacob’s Courage”
http://jacobscourage.wordpress.com

I don’t usually read JP, but the topic sounds that odd and good. Then I’ll compare it to Helen Shankman’s “Underpainting” — on the same exact topic. I think it’s coming out in the late spring or summer.

AngelaJo says:

Your book sounds good. I will check it out. Thanks

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Jodi Picoult’s Holocaust Vampires

Some historians see the best-selling writer’s new novel The Storyteller as trash. Here’s why they are wrong.

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