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On “Jewish” Writing

Starting a conversation about Jewish fiction

Matthew Fishbane
October 23, 2012
Justin Taylor( Brooklyn Based)
Justin Taylor( Brooklyn Based)

With Justin Taylor’s story “Gregory’s Year,” Tablet published its second in a monthly series of original fiction. Loosely, the short story is about a year in the life of a slacker Augie March ping-ponging between New York and Montreal, and about his breakup with his girlfriend, and how he and his brother seek solace in family and food. It’s moving and beautifully written and we’re proud to publish it. But, as some have noted, there’s little in the story that’s overtly Jewish—certainly a far cry from the first piece in the series, Aimee Bender’s “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” a parable-like modern folk tale that no one questioned belonged in Tablet’s wheelhouse. So why exactly is Taylor’s story in Tablet, the daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture?

The first answer is to point to the critical argument that in “Gregory’s Year” Taylor in fact takes on proto-Jewish themes. The year-long cycle and seasonal rhythm of the story echo the flow of frequent Jewish holidays, a near-Talmudic commentary on the passing of days. The protagonist may or may not be Jewish—nothing in the text explicitly says either way, one assumes with intent—but the story may still seem representative of a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic.

The second, more problematic answer is that Taylor is a prominent young writer who is Jewish. What a Jewish writer produces is of interest to our audience, whether that writer chooses to immerse him or herself in subjects that are, willy-nilly, still seen as traditionally or even stereotypically Jewish: with overtly Jewish characters, I.B. Singer-isms, Auslander-gnashing, Rothian libido, Bellowian romps, or any of the legacies, ticks, styles, and subjects of Jewish writers of the past. All of this is part of the burden an openly Jewish writer chooses to embrace, confront, appropriate, reject, embody, or spin. There is no avoiding it. “ ‘Jewish writer’ sounds like ‘sci-fi writer’ or ‘Y.A. novelist’—like it’s a niche commercial genre,” Taylor recently wrote in an email to me. “ ‘Writer who is Jewish’ sounds right—and has the virtue of being true, a biographical fact.”

“My feeling,” Taylor continued, “is that Jewish culture need not be entirely inward-looking or self-referential in order to maintain its vibrancy or relevance. To the contrary—since American Judaism is by definition a subcategory of American culture, an open border between the part and the whole seems to me to be an advantage to both, and obviates the need to declare allegiance to either side.”

Naturally, American Judaism is not alone in engaging with this conflict. Does fiction allow for whatever ventriloquism the writer wishes to pursue? Is it minstrelsy? Anti-minstrelsy? Can male writers produce convincing female protagonists, and vice versa? What happens when John Updike, the quintessential WASP, invents a Jewish alter ego in Henry Bech? (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing a generally positive review in 1970 in the New York Times: “One picked up Bech: A Book, or ‘Bech: A Buch,’ or ‘Bekabook,’ or however it’s pronounced—and one groaned.”) What happens when Philip Roth, the quintessential Jew, invents Lucy, the Midwestern protagonist of When She Was Good? (Wilfred Sheed, 1967, again in the Times: “To a point, what Philip Roth has done is simply to superimpose his own sense of social textures onto his Lutheran characters, making them just like Jews only duller (a sociological insight which might just stand up).”) From white rappers to Middlemarch, there are fair questions to be asked. Some of us think that any attempt to ghettoize Jewish fiction writers by demanding that their subjects be of a certain nature would take us back to essentially the Jewish equivalent of the debates of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s the great, unsettled, American conversation about identity.

Join the debate in the comments.

Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.