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The New Defenders of the Faith

Authors need to stop relying on victim narratives to sell books—not only because it tokenizes minorities, but also because it makes one dependent on the whims of liberal elites who are quick to adopt new pets

Sheluyang Peng
April 09, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

This past year’s National Book Awards gala presented an ironic, yet at this point increasingly familiar scene: Held in the glittering halls of Cipriani’s on Wall Street, the attendees—dressed in their finest, dining at one of New York’s famed upscale spots—spent the evening showering prizes on a very specific subset of writing: for young people’s literature, a graphic memoir of an awkward Asian American teen coming of age during a class trip in Europe; for translated literature, a novel about an old gay man who reflects on his clandestine teenage romance with his best friend; for poetry, a collection about the history and culture of the Chamoru people native to Guam; for nonfiction, a Howard Zinn-style history of the United States from a Native American perspective; and finally, for fiction, an experimental novel about two queer Puerto Rican men that wax on about the work of a pioneering sexuality researcher. Other finalists for the fiction award included a novel about Black prisoners being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of racist white viewers, a novel about three generations of Native Americans forced to attend boarding schools set up by racist white government officials, and not one, but two novels about racist white Christian missionaries that try to convert BIPOC souls.

The message was clear: In the book business, at least, it literally pays to be a victim.

Of course, the authors of trauma narratives are simply playing their part in a symbiotic dance with the trauma-hungry gatekeepers of elite spaces. Readers of this magazine are no doubt familiar with the “woke meritocracy” of American academia and letters, according to which the only entrance to the upper echelons of American society is gatekept by those who seek to “check their privilege” and feel absolved through the consumption of victim narratives. Every college student who dreams of ascending the ivory tower knows that the people at the top reward those that can claim their rise was prickled with thorns, just as every struggling product of elite overproduction desperately tries to think of how many victim identities they can check off in an ever-shrinking pool of positions in academia and the workplace.

There is, of course, a paradox in the demand for “diverse voices”: Rather than seeking an actual diversity of viewpoints, our DEI commissars instead seek a racially diverse group whose members will hold the same viewpoint. This one off-the-shelf sob story is now the only viable route to elite advancement.

In fact, the ubiquity of the victim narrative has led to a new genre of metafictions making fun of these victim narratives themselves. Last year the literary world was abuzz over fantasy novelist R.F. Kuang’s first nonfantasy novel, titled Yellowface, about a struggling white female novelist who takes on an Asian woman’s persona and is able to use her “diverse” status to move up the publishing industry’s ladder. The new film American Fiction features a Black novelist who can’t get his novels repurposing Greek mythology published—but suddenly rises to meteoric fame when he writes a book about poor Black people in the ghetto. Andrew Boryga’s recently released novel Victim is about a young Latino novelist who struggles to get published—until he figures out that he can become famous by making up stories about the experiences of “underprivileged groups.” Each of these works directly mocks the mostly white liberal elite that are addicted to the trauma narrative even while recognizing that its audience is largely composed of the very people they are mocking.

Within this new feedback loop, the self-loathing woke class “does the work” of recognizing their own “tokenization of diverse voices” which in turn leads to further demands to propagate trauma narratives. Take, for example, a scene in Victim in which the protagonist Javi, at the time a teenage boy, receives college-admissions counseling from a nice white liberal named Mr. Martin, who encourages Javi to write an admissions essay for an elite college (a thinly veiled stand-in for Cornell). However, Javi doesn’t see himself as a victim, and is even offended when Mr. Martin asks him to reframe his past lived experiences as sob stories. When Javi finally embellishes his alleged hardships, Mr. Martin says that Javi has “real hardships” unlike the rich kids he also tutors before explaining his rationale for taking this job: “You see, I do this here, at a school like this one, to work with kids like you, because it makes me feel like I’m able to give back.” Mr. Martin then breaks down in tears.

Of course, the reader knows that Javi is only furnishing his victim card to fulfill a white liberal’s savior fantasies—pandering to the same kind of well-meaning white liberal who seeks to buy books written by “diverse voices” like the author himself. But Javi learns the power of victimhood in the woke meritocracy when he is admitted into thinly veiled-Cornell and finds that the more he makes up sob stories about being discriminated against for being Latino—such as supposedly being told to “go back to your country” by white frat boys on campus—the more prestigious writing opportunities and acclaim from liberal elites he gets.

Our Mr. Martin types are nothing new. In an essay in Negro Digest in 1950 titled “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” acid-tongued novelist and contrarian extraordinaire Zora Neale Hurston fired a barrage of broadsides against the publishing industry. She opens with the declaration that “I HAVE been amazed by the Anglo-Saxon’s lack of curiosity about the internal lives and emotions of the Negroes, and for that matter, any non-Anglo-Saxon peoples within our borders, above the class of unskilled labor.”

After chastising the white liberal publishing establishment, Hurston trains her fire toward well-to-do Black writers who repurposed the struggles of poor Black Americans for personal gain: “The fact that there is no demand for incisive and full-dress stories around Negroes above the servant class is indicative of something of vast importance to this nation. This blank is NOT filled by the fiction built around upper-class Negroes exploiting the race problem.”

Indeed, such a dynamic is mocked in a scene of American Fiction where the protagonist, the upper-class writer and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, goes to a live reading from a bestselling Black novelist. The novelist introduces herself as having graduated from Oberlin College before working for a publisher in New York and finding that “Too few of [the stories being considered for publishing] were about my people … Where are our stories?” She then code-switches to an AAVE-inflected accent as she reads an excerpt from her new book We’s Lives in da Ghetto, which, as the title implies, is definitely not about the lives of well-off Black people like herself. Monk later goes on to parody this by writing his own ghetto-trauma book, My Pafology (later titled Fuck), which he sends to his publisher as a joke, only to have the book also become a runaway bestseller and showered in accolades by white liberals.

Watching the scene, one can’t help but think of Hurston’s own words, from long ago: “Publishing houses and theatrical promoters are in business to make money. They will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension.”

Hurston’s mention of Jews turned out to be an apt premonition. Fast forward a few years to 1962, when the legendary Jewish novelist Philip Roth appeared at a symposium hosted by Yeshiva University titled “A Study in Artistic Conscience: Conflict of Loyalties in Minority Writers of Fiction” alongside novelists Ralph Ellison and Pietro di Donato, in what would become a defining moment of Roth’s then-nascent career. The packed audience was mostly there to challenge Roth for a short story he wrote a few years prior—a story that can be viewed as a prototype of today’s victim satires.

Titled “Defender of the Faith” and set in a military camp in Missouri during the tail end of WWII, the story centers around the actions of a Jewish soldier, Private Sheldon Grossbart, who repeatedly guilt-trips his Jewish commander, Sergeant Nathan Marx, into allowing Grossbart to have more special perks due to his faith—getting to attend services on Friday instead of cleaning the barracks, getting kosher food at the chow hall, and getting a special pass to leave camp to attend a Passover Seder. However, Marx learns near the end of the story that Grossbart had merely played victim and had lied about his frum-ness. Marx had asked Grossbart to bring back some gefilte fish from the seder—but Grossbart hands him an egg roll from a Chinese restaurant instead, showing that Grossbart lied about his motive for leaving camp (although I’d like to imagine that Grossbart was just celebrating Christmas a few months early). Not only had Grossbart lied, but he had invoked their shared Jewishness to exploit Marx, making the betrayal all the more egregious. Roth wrote in his autobiography that criticisms of his story would have been muted had he published it in Commentary—but alas, it was published in The New Yorker to the prying eyes of a predominantly non-Jewish audience.

After the symposium panelists finished their opening statements, the moderator and the audience immediately trained their ire at Roth on his “conflict of loyalties,” calling him a self-hating Jew and asking if he’d write stories with negative portrayals of Jews had he been living in Nazi Germany. Roth wrote in his autobiography that the criticism hit him so hard that “an undertow of bodily fatigue took hold and began sweeping me away from that auditorium even as I tried to reply coherently to one denunciation after another,” until Ralph Ellison stepped in to Roth’s decision to write the character of Grossbart—the Black novelist having had received similar allegations of self-hatred for writing Invisible Man.

The criticism was so vicious that Roth vowed later that night to never write fiction about Jews again—a vow that he thankfully reneged on. Roth’s risqué and brutally honest writing influenced me and many other minority writers in rejecting the victim narrative and showing our communities not as perpetual victims but as full-fledged humans, flaws and all.

It’s not a coincidence that years later, in Tablet, contributor Alex Perez wrote that the book that changed his life was Roth’s story collection Goodbye, Columbus—where “Defender of the Faith” was collected. Roth showed generations of writers that groups are not one-dimensional labels to be slotted into simplistic categories like “victim” or “oppressor.” Indeed, non-Jews like me are able to see the full richness of Jewish experiences precisely due to gadflies like Roth rejecting such one-dimensional portraits, an example that even allows writers like myself to write about Jewish issues for Jewish publications.

Playing the victim narrative up for the woke meritocracy is dangerous—not only because it tokenizes minority communities, but also because it makes one dependent on the whims of liberal elites who are quick to adopt new pets, and demote those groups that become too assertive. As the American left, especially among younger generations, makes anti-Zionism a defining issue, Jews who don’t adhere to the new victim hierarchy—in which denouncing Zionism is mandatory—are now framed as one-dimensional “oppressors,” regardless of their own long history of oppression. A Harvard/Harris poll found that 67% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 believe that “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors.” Oppression, as it turns out, is not a historically rooted category but a fungible status that can be awarded or evoked at will, depending on elite convenience; if elites begin to see a group not as one-dimensional “victims” but as potential rivals, their victim status is quickly and easily revoked.

One look at college campuses over the past few months show the consequences of this oppressor-oppressed view. Leonard Saxe found that antisemitism is far more prevalent than ever and that his survey respondents expressed far greater concern about antisemitism from the left rather than from the right. At elite college campuses such as Columbia, students proudly express their desires for another intifada and declare their desire not for a two-state solution but to eliminate Israel completely. A new task force at Columbia set up to combat antisemitism cannot even decide if chants of “intifada” and “death to the Zionist state” count as hate speech. A Columbia professor and his wife wrote that they were always “leftist, liberal Zionists,” but for their colleagues operating in the new victim system, “our refusal to apologize for Israel’s existence simply deemed us intolerable … They wanted us to be silent and weak and apologetic—the perfect Jewish victim.” One wonders what Zora Neale Hurston, the first Black student ever enrolled at Barnard College and who famously rejected the one-dimensional victim narrative, would have to say about her old stomping grounds now engulfed in a viscous sea of victimhood, where individuals are judged on oppressor-oppressed identities and where Jews are vilified unless they disavow Zionism.

A similar example of the tenuous nature of the new politics of victimhood involved an essay published last month in the prestigious literary magazine Guernica titled “From the Edges of a Broken World”. The author Joanna Chen, a translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry and prose, had written about her experiences volunteering to drive Palestinian children to receive care at Israeli hospitals, and how she even continued her work even after a fellow volunteer was murdered in Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack. Such a piece exemplified the ability to see the situation from all sides and find humanity everywhere—but the woke vanguard didn’t think so.

Shortly after publication, multiple staffers resigned and Guernica retracted the essay from its website. The reason? Because Guernica broke the rules of the woke meritocracy. A co-publisher that resigned called it “a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism.”

Chen’s piece had humanized both sides of the conflict—but under the new rules, those who are declared to be oppressors are manifestly no longer human. Hence why chants of “intifada” and calls for the destruction of Israel are shouted so proudly by leftists today—because they don’t see “Israeli settlers” as humans but more like bugs to be exterminated. Chen acknowledged in her piece that “It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides,” yet manages to do so even after her friend was murdered by Hamas. One cannot say the same for the pampered Ivy League students and literary journal staffers who are unable to acknowledge the potential humanity of an Israeli Jew.

No matter how hard former liberals and academic defenders work to deny any conceivable connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, it is clear from the torrent of Jew-hate on elite college campuses and the visceral, impassioned opposition to stories that dare to humanize Jews that many young people today naturally and happily conflate the two. This is where Philip Roth’s refusal to portray Jews as one-dimensional victims or victimizers, but rather as multifaceted human beings, is instructive for the moment. As with the recent works challenging the victim narrative, one hopes that society can break free of simple-minded binary group narratives of oppressors and oppressed and see each other as we are, both individually and collectively: as flawed human beings in a broken world.

Sheluyang Peng is a writer living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His writing can be found at