Friday, December 24, 2010

Deliberate omissions

The universal reaction to book lists is annoyance over what has been left out. Everyone remembers the uproar at this time last year when Publishers Weekly named the Top Ten Books of 2009, and not one by a woman. It was assumed that women had been intentionally excluded, even though the list’s compilers said their intention was to “ignore[] gender and genre and who had the buzz.” If someone has offended you, though, you are entitled to dismiss his explanations. “[W]hen PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ ” said the poet Erin Belieu, “that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ ”

Naturally, then, my roster of the year’s best Jewish books provoked two local variations of the universal reaction. One commentator, noting the absence of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (a novel that was originally published in 2008), assumed the only possible explanation is that I am an American Jew who doesn’t like Israeli books. Another commentator, noting the absence of “Jewish books that are marketed to the Orthodox Jewish community,” asked why the Orthodox are “always omitted by the non-Orthodox.”

Since I myself am an Orthodox Jew, that could hardly have been my intention. And in fact, my list contained at least two volumes by Orthodox Jews—Shaul Stampfer’s Families, Rabbis, and Education and Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. But neither of these belong to the special class of books that, as my commentator put it, are “marketed to the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Jeremy Stolow’s scholarly study Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution examines this market. Published in April by the University of California Press, Stolow’s book might easily have been included in my list of the year’s best Jewish books, except that I am suspicious of its subtle hostility to Orthodox publishing. (Here is a deliberate omission that correctly fingers my ideology!) But it is also true that I don’t exactly read the titles published by ArtScroll, the imprint of Mesorah Publications in Brooklyn.

All of my liturgical editions—my prayerbooks, my mahzorim, my Passover haggadot—are ArtScroll books. But novels like Yael Mermelstein’s Second Chances, published by the Shaar Press in November, about “an ‘older single’ who longs to be married yet can hardly remember the name of her latest shidduch date,” or memoirs like Abraham Twerski’s Gevurah: My Life, Our World, and the Adventure of Reaching 80, which is “[m]ore than an autobiography” and “offers Rabbi Dr. Twerski’s wide-ranging perspective on our own concerns,” frankly do not occur to me.

But then neither do Jewish mysteries nor Jewish science fiction. I couldn’t name two figures in those publishing markets. Now, I am ready to admit that these are blindspots, huge omissions in my literary education and experience. The reason for the omission, however, is not that I disdain niche markets, but that I am not particularly interested in them as markets. My only concern is literature, by which I mean good writing. The simple fact that a book is written by a women or an Israeli or an Orthodox Jew is insufficient reason to recommend it. Nor is it enough to demand books by women or Israelis or Orthodox Jews if none is any good.


ADDeRabbi said...

Yehuda Avner is an Orthodox Jew as well, and made the list.
I'm surprised at the inclusion of Joan Nathan's cookbook without mention of Gil Marks's; from the little I've seen, Marks's is much "thicker" on the Jewish parts, addressing halakhic elements as well as historical and geographic.
I'd hope that next year you give more consideration to books translated into English from other languages.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

As for Jewish fiction, there's an interesting group of writers in English (no lack in Hebrew, thank God) struggling to create a legitimate niche. By that I mean they are trying to write good literature from a particular perspective; but they aren't doing so for their 'market'. Much of what passes for Orthodox fiction is deplorably bad in every way.

Deborah Goldberg comes to mind as one of the little known writers who is trying to write good Jewish fiction. She's written some interesting fantasy. Long ago, there was Avram Davidson. And Rochelle Feuer is trying to do some interesting things. The whole idea of a school of Orthodox writers who truly want to write good literature is overdue, and finally coming.

Even in Hebrew, how many Agnons or Sabatos have we had? But, at least the situation is much better than in English.

Roberta Rood said...

I am wondering if you have read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. This is the story of the Ephrussi, a family that I feel I should have heard about, but have not. (Neither had my sister-in-law, a synagogue librarian.) The book moved me deeply. Here's my review of it:
Dr. Myers, I'd like to thank you for your wonderful blog. I learn so much from reading it.