On “Jewish” Writing: Reflections on Tablet Magazine’s New Fiction Series
As someone who spends a lot of time reading, writing about, and promoting Jewish literature—including, and perhaps especially, Jewish fiction—I’m mystified by the direction that Tablet magazine appears to be taking with its new fiction series.
Tablet, as you may know, bears the trademarked tag line, “a new read on Jewish life,” and describes itself as a “daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.” It’s a magazine that I admire and enjoy; I was delighted when it added original fiction to its mix this fall. But that delight has turned to puzzlement–and a degree of dismay.
Some perplexity may stem from the fact that the fiction series a) is still quite new and b) has not published editorial guidelines. Other venues—whether they declare a focus on Jewish themes (JewishFiction.net, Lilith, Midstream, etc.) or not—provide detailed submission guidelines for their potential fiction contributors. In Tablet’s case, only two sources can guide my assessment: the three stories published to date, and a recent post by Tablet’s arts and culture editor, Matthew Fishbane, titled “On ‘Jewish’ Writing: Starting a conversation about Jewish fiction.”
Let’s begin with the stories. The series launched in September, and it started strong, with a story by Aimee Bender titled “The Doctor and the Rabbi.” A subtitle/teaser crystallized the story’s focus: “When a man of science loves a woman of God, what lies between them?” As comments revealed, readers were not disappointed.
But something changed in October, when the second story, Justin Taylor’s “Gregory’s Year,” arrived. It was introduced only as “the latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series, by the author of The Gospel of Anarchy.” Four days later, Fishbane’s explanatory post summarized “Gregory’s Year” as largely about the protagonist’s “breakup with his girlfriend, and how he and his brother seek solace in family and food.”
Fishbane continued: “[‘Gregory’s Year’ is] 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….” Since I can’t locate any comments on Taylor’s story on Tablet, I can only suspect that some of those remarks overlap with my concerns, especially since Fishbane concluded that first paragraph with this line: “So why exactly is Taylor’s story in Tablet, the daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture?”
My question, exactly! The rest of Fishbane’s post seems aimed toward answering that question, which I asked myself again just before Thanksgiving, when the third story in the series, Emily Firetog’s “How to Be a Man,” introduced only as “the latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series” and similarly lacking in any “overtly Jewish” content, appeared.
According to Fishbane, “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 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.”
For me, this explanation raised more questions than it resolved: What is a “proto-Jewish” theme? Do Jews have a monopoly on cycles and seasonal rhythms? What about schoolchildren and teachers? What about those responsible for fiscal-year benchmarks and deadlines? What about (as we approach a slew of winter holidays) other religions and cultures? (As for the comparison to a “near-Talmudic commentary,” that argument stretches so far as to render me wordless.) And what of the suggestion that Taylor’s story can be seen—and presumably, appreciated—as “representative of a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic”? Even if I could accept the premise that this aesthetic is worth privileging in a venue as prominent as Tablet’s new fiction series, Fishbane’s post exacerbated my concerns.
That’s largely because the post also argued that Taylor’s status as a “prominent young writer who is Jewish” should be, to put it bluntly, dayenu. According to this viewpoint, “what[ever] 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.”
As a member of that audience, I disagree, especially since, as mentioned, the third story again left me searching for anything subtly (let alone overtly) Jewish in the work. Anything about Jewish history. Anything about Jewish ritual. Anything about the Hebrew language, or the state of Israel. (For background on the relevance and resonance of these topics—and Avraham Infeld’s influence on my thinking—please see my guest post on author Jessica Handler’s blog.)
Firetog’s story does include a character named Sarah, and one might label adultery as a “proto-Jewish” theme, if we go back to those canonical Ten Commandments. But with these last two stories, Tablet seemed to dig in its heels, privileging an “aesthetic” that is alarmingly disconnected from Judaism and unable to do anything more than signal an accident of the author’s birth—“a biographical fact,” as Fishbane quoted Taylor as saying—to classify the work itself as “Jewish.”
Even here, I might have deferred to Fishbane’s editorial judgment and simply (if reluctantly) adjusted my expectations for the series, especially since I’m quite aware that Fishbane isn’t alone in his views. I’ve attended many panels and lectures—some of them sponsored by self-described Jewish organizations and publications—where I have heard similar sentiments expressed. Again, I disagree, but everyone is entitled to an opinion.
But Fishbane’s post went further: “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.” I claim no expertise on those debates, but insofar as Tablet’s series of original fiction is concerned, I think it is essential to pause and separate two fundamental activities: writing and reading.
As a writer, I applaud the idea that I’m free to write about any subject. Indeed, I’ve published stories that feature characters and environments that go beyond “not-identifiably Jewish”—they are identifiably not-Jewish. (Not that I ever even considered submitting these stories to magazines that espoused a mission of delivering “Jewish news, ideas, and culture.” It would have seemed inappropriate, perhaps even disrespectful, as if I hadn’t bothered to read the publication and understand its focus before sending my work for possible inclusion.)
But as a reader, I’m drawn to publications (like Tablet) that claim to focus on “Jewish” ideas and subjects. They appeal to me precisely because I expect to find in their offerings content that I won’t necessarily find everywhere else. I suspect a similar proclivity prompts readers to subscribe to cooking magazines, say, or fly-fishing publications. In contrast, the stories by Taylor and Firetog not only read like stories typical of what one finds in writing workshops, drafted by writers of every possible background (breakups! adultery!), but they basically mirror stories that can be found nearly any time in at least a dozen (if not a hundred) non-specialized publications on my radar.
Now, Aimee Bender’s story might well have been chosen to appear in one of those non-specialized publications, too. Indeed, those of us who write fiction featuring “overtly” Jewish material have placed our work in many of the country’s most esteemed literary venues, whether through submissions to the “slush pile” or via solicited or commissioned work. Among the examples I’ve encountered just within the past few weeks: Helen Maryles Shankman’s “The Golem of Zukow,” in Kenyon Review Online; “What Animal Are You?” or “Healthy Start,” two Israel-set stories by Etgar Keret (both translated by Miriam Shlesinger) that appeared in Harper’s and Tin House, respectively—I looked them up after hearing Keret read them both during a recent appearance; and Lara Vapnyar’s “Fischer vs. Spassky,” in The New Yorker (complemented, incidentally, by an instructive Q&A with the author online).
In other words, Jewish fiction is in no danger of being, as Fishbane phrased it, “ghettoized.” But a magazine that describes itself as presenting Jewish content does, alas, fall within a “niche,” no matter how distasteful some may find that word. (Taylor, again quoted by Fishbane, commented: “‘Jewish writer’ sounds like ‘sci-fi writer’ or ‘Y.A. novelist’—like it’s a niche commercial genre.”)
When a magazine with a specific mission begins a new column or series, is it so wrong for readers to expect that this content, too, will deliver what the rest of the magazine provides? Does Tablet intend henceforth to feature essays, book reviews, or podcasts that bear no visible connection to matters Judaic, simply because the authors, critics, or speakers possess Jewish ancestry?
In sum, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed by the second and third stories to date. I’m disappointed by the arguments in Fishbane’s justificatory post. Most of all, I’m disappointed for all of my fellow readers and writers of “overtly” Jewish fiction (not all of whom are Jewish, by the way; Fishbane alluded to John Updike and the fictional Bech in his post, but we can also cite Peter Manseau’s Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter—winner of the National Jewish Book Award, the Sophie Brody Medal, and the Ribalow Prize, for starters).
Like me, these readers and writers may have greeted the announcement of this series with eagerness and happy anticipation. Like me, they may be wondering if the “aesthetic” epitomized by the second and third stories, and defended so vehemently in Fishbane’s post, suggests a pattern in the fiction that this magazine of “Jewish news, ideas, and culture” will promulgate. Like me, they may find this pattern troubling.
Of course, it’s still early. Perhaps, in the fourth and future installments of the series, the richness, vibrancy, and diversity of contemporary Jewish fiction will indeed be shared.