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Jewish Writers Must Defy the Publishing Industry’s Narrow Genres

We should write to defy those who prefer seeing books where Jews are either victims or plotting their escape from religious Jewish practice.
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February 15, 2024
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In the film “American Fiction,” protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a Black English professor and author of literary but commercially unloved novels. Portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, Monk is fed up with his woke students and the college administrators who pander to them. The insults against him mount: Monk’s agent cannot sell his next book because it is not considered by publishers to be “Black enough.” He is appalled by the instant success of a debut novel by a glamorous Black author catering exclusively to “Blacksploitation” tropes. 

In a fit of pique, Monk writes a satirical novel filled with crack users, rappers, and other characters he imagines will do the job. With a smirk, he titles the work “My Pafology,” his disbelieving agent submits it under a pseudonym, and a publisher snaps it up for a fabulous sum. Monk disdains the white publishers who gush over his joke manuscript as “raw and real.”   

I hadn’t seen a film in a theater for a few years and it’s ironic that this was the first to get me back inside. As a Jewish writer in these times, I am drawn to Jewish issues more than any others. Additionally, I have long resented the rigid “diversity” mandates that have elevated preferred minority voices in the publishing world while ignoring Jewish voices. Jews are a tiny minority, but we’ve been pegged as an oppressor class and therefore not considered underrepresented as writers.  

I’ve watched as the red carpet has been rolled out by literary agents, magazines, organizers of writing contests and retreats, agents, and publishers for Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and other “underrepresented” voices, particularly “gender-non-conforming.” Librarians, booksellers, reviewers, and editors of literary journals and review sites aggressively promote books by BIPOC writers on the front shelves or on home pages. We are all but commanded to read these books to demonstrate our good citizenship and enlightened thinking.   

I felt a kinship with Monk, sharing his outrage that his work needed to fit into a limiting and stereotyped narrative. As one character in the film observed, “White people don’t want truth, they just want to be absolved.” I laughed out loud as overeager white publishers and a movie producer expected the author of “My Pafology” to talk like a ghetto gang member, while Monk, an educated man, forced himself to imitate the cadence and the lingo. I found the movie cathartic, often hilarious, and touching. 

While Jewish authors publish loads of books each year, I’ve noticed that most hew to genres “acceptable” to mainstream publishers. Holocaust novels still sell, yet few Jewish novels or memoirs grapple with what it means to be a practicing Jew in secular society today. 

While Jewish authors publish loads of books each year, I’ve noticed that most hew to genres “acceptable” to mainstream publishers. Holocaust novels still sell, yet few Jewish novels or memoirs grapple with what it means to be a practicing Jew in secular society today. Religious Jewish life had been expected to die along with the six million in the Holocaust, yet the opposite happened. Religious Jewish life has flourished in astounding ways, changing the face of modern Jewry. Outside of Orthodox book publishing, these important stories have gone wanting. 

Few Jewish characters in contemporary novels explore what life could mean with deeper religious engagement, or find satisfaction in choosing that path. Dara Horn is among the very few current Jewish writers whose novels treat strong Jewish values and faith with respect and complexity. Where is today’s version of “Marjorie Morningstar” (Herman Wouk), “My Name Is Asher Lev” or “The Chosen” (Chaim Potok)? 

To my ongoing frustration, many Jewish authors who write about Jewish Orthodoxy do so with a dismissive or careless attitude. Some are written by celebrated authors who left Orthodoxy, such as Naomi Ragen and Tova Mirvis. Anti-Orthodox memoirs have been published with fanfare while writers of memoirs revealing the beauty of a Torah life search far and wide before finding the one or two indie publishers who will take them. I speak from experience.

Holocaust-themed books, and those featuring Jewish characters who are apathetic about God and their religious identity, are comfortable but limiting genres. Jewish literature deserves novels and memoirs that reflect the larger, more complex, and more spiritually-based recent experience of Jews in the diaspora. This would involve stories that explore a growing commitment to religious tradition, as well as the painful impact of generations of assimilation. Ignoring these stories reflects a subtle anti-religious bias in the publishing world, just as the publishers in “American Fiction” rushed forward another book that reinforced comfortable, bigoted views of the Black American landscape. 

However, beyond this soft bigotry, Jewish writers — regardless of religious or Zionist affiliation — have also increasingly faced overt antisemitism. Since Oct. 7, this antisemitism has erupted in fierce, brazen, and ugly ways. Some Jewish writers have had new books review-bombed on Goodreads or NetGalley. Jewish authors pegged as “Zio” on social media are targets for cancellation. Literary conferences and festivals have featured explicitly antisemitic speakers, and authors have called for rejecting Israeli support of conferences. Sheeplike and ignorant, some in the literary community have described the barbarism of Oct. 7, including rape, murder, and hostage-taking, as “resistance.” They called for boycotting these so-called “Zionist literary institutions,” which included PEN America, Best American Poetry, and Harper’s Bazaar, among others. Editors of other respected literary review journals, librarians, and many indie bookstore owners have piled on.     

Jewish writers are fighting back. In Fall 2022, Adrienne Ross Scanlan helped draft an Open Letter which described the rise of worldwide antisemitism, the connection between antisemitism and anti-Israel prejudice, and how antisemitism was increasingly being manifested in the literary community. The letter has garnered nearly 200 signatures from writers, editors, literary agents, and readers, though some writers won’t sign out of fear of retribution or being ostracized.  

Scanlan co-presented a panel discussion about antisemitism in the literary world at the 2023 Jewish Writers Conference, sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. During the panel, she said, “We need to turn this crisis into an opportunity – an opportunity to talk with each other, to create our own networks, to be ready so that the next time something horrible happens – and it will – we know what we want to say, who we want to say it with, and how we want to get it out into the literary and larger world.” She also wants to see “Jewish writers and our allies forming our own networks and organizations to make our voices known, and to make sure that all perspectives are being heard about what constitutes antisemitism in literary and other circles.”

After Oct. 7, journalist and book editor Howard Lovy decided to write a book called “From Outrage to Action: A Practical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism.” A longtime observer of the Jewish book world, he said, “I have seen the unfortunate ease with which the literary world has accepted and propagated antisemitic narratives. Writers are supposed to see beyond the surface and get at truth. In that way, they have failed, having a blind spot when it comes to Israel and Jewish issues. It’s been a growing problem, something I saw in 2021 when Irish author Sally Rooney refused to allow her books to be translated into Hebrew in solidarity with the anti-Israel BDS movement.” 

Frustratingly for antisemites, Jewish endurance and optimism upset the premise of identity politics that has driven this open hatred. This ideology relies on the fiction that a history of oppression inexorably leads to a failure to thrive. Jewish achievement and refusal to wallow in victimhood inconveniently refute this. 

Jewish writers should write proudly and prodigiously about their Jewish identities, the complexities, joys, sorrows, challenges, and blessings. We should write to defy those who prefer seeing books where Jews are either victims or plotting their escape from religious Jewish practice. We should write to give strength and inspiration to Jews holding fast to faith — and discovering faith — in a time of remarkable hostility, knowing we will prevail. We should write to leave a legacy for those who will follow.


Judy Gruen’s latest book is “Bylines and Blessings: Overcoming Obstacles, Striving for Excellence, and Redefining Success.” 

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