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March 15, 2004

"Pulling a Philip Roth" Sounds A Bit Dirty, Actually

by Ron Hogan

"Don't pull a Philip Roth," Margot Krebs chastised Nathan Englander the other night. We were all at the 92nd Street Y for a discussion on new Jewish fiction centered around the anthology Lost Tribe. Prof. Krebs had just asked what makes Jewish fiction Jewish, and he'd replied that it was a label that came entirely from the outside, not from the writer. He was echoing fellow panelist Myla Goldberg, who recalled surprise that Bee Season had been received as a Jewish novel, believing that she'd just written about an American family which happened to be Jewish. Neither answer seemed to be quite what the professor was looking for, and the conversation would circle around this theme for the rest of the evening, as she challenged the guests--who also included Dara Horn, author of In the Image, and Paul Zakrzewski, Lost Tribe editor--to admit their place in the pantheon of Jewish literature and they countered that, as Englander put it, "fiction had better be universal or it is not functioning." Or, as Goldberg said, that their identities were mosaics, with no single fragment holding precedence over any other.

Horn didn't say as much overall, but her personal story seemed interesting, as did her novel, for that matter. In the Image was, she said, inspired by her study of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, particularly the use of scriptural imagery in contemporary secular fiction, and it was that tradition that she saw herself responding to most directly, rather than an American Jewish canon. (Similarly, Goldberg would recall that when she wrote her novel, she'd never even read authors like Roth, Bellow, or Malamud.) She also pointed out how the biblical themes had made it somewhat easier to market the novel to non-Jewish audiences even though it dealt explicity with 20th-century Jewish history, and raised a few hackles when she suggested that she and the other authors had grown up "in a world where there was no anti-Semitism." Goldberg said that even though it hadn't defined who she was, she was aware of its presence growing up, while Englander explained that he was raised among Orthodox who essentially braced themselves for a second Holocaust at any moment.

The probing continued into the audience questioning, as one woman asked Goldberg if she thought a non-Jew could have written Bee Season. Her reply, I think, summed up the resistance to categorization each of the authors voiced throughout the evening: "I don't think anybody who isn't me could write this book."


Another interesting report from the Y!

Posted by: Daniel Green at March 15, 2004 05:38 PM
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