This past weekend, I participated in a conference sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. I spoke to some writers and a guy who might want to become an agent, and I participated in a panel discussion with two other agents about the usual topics—how we really evaluate query letters, how much money can a first-time author really expect to make, and how quickly do we read. There was one fun question of “what two books would you love to have represented, and not Harry Potter?” (The Martian and Wolf Hall were the two that came to mind, and I might write a whole other column about that one.)
But the most unusual question, and the one most specific to this particular conference, came toward the end: What makes a book Jewish? Does it affect a book’s marketability if it is?
I thought this was a particularly good question because to my mind there are at least three different kinds of Jewish books (which, oddly, are different in feel from in particular specifically Christian (as a genre) novels, which often are considered Inspirational and somewhat proselytizing, and aren’t as often considered Mainstream. There are quite a large number of publishers and agents who put out or represent Christian books. Not so many who specialize in Jewish ones. (And let me be clear, I’m referring not to bibles or prayer books or commentaries on scripture. I mean novels.)
So as I thought about that questions, I came up with three different kinds of books. All in their own way Jewish, all different. So there’s nuance here, and a bit of knowing when we see it.
The first book is the most obvious—it’s when you have a book where the characters are Jews, where, their Jewishness is their reason for being in the story—The Chosen, as a famous example, The Counterlife by Philip Roth for another. If you aren’t interested in exploring what it means to be Jewish (whether because you know a ton about it, or nothing), it’s not going to be satisfying.
The second is much more cultural, and modern, and uses characters’ Jewishness perhaps as a spice, or a setup, to make a more general point. A good example of this is Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, which takes place at a Shiva—a week of mourning where Jews gather after someone dies. But the book is less about Jewishness than about being part of a family, and how people deal with each other. So it’s a framework, but it’s not the raison d’etre.
The third kind of book is, to my mind, exemplified by Paul Goldberg’s forthcoming The Yid, which takes place in 1`953 in Soviet Russia and is about four people who go off and try to kill Stalin. While the title itself would indicate that this is a Jewish book From Word One, there’s an argument to be made that its Jewishness is actually virtually subconscious—the eponymous Yid is an old Jewish actor who also is a fierce warrior. There’s a Jewish doctor too. But the other two protagonists are gentiles—an African-American Communist (Think Robeson) and an almost feral Russian girl. And while they speak Yiddish to each other at times, there is little talk of God and no prayer for this Yid. There is violence and danger and heartbreak and theater.
Yet the book is, at its core, utterly Jewish. That’s because it informs the author—a nonobservant Jew who himself fled Soviet Russia in the early 1970s—in his core. He writes a Jewish book because it would be impossible to do otherwise. His heritage, his experience, infuses his writing in every word. I suppose it’s closer to the way some of the African-American writers say that they have to write Black Fiction because they would feel incapable of writing anything else.
I felt pretty satisfied at the end of my answer to the question (although I felt like I might have gone on too long—but I just simply Got Going!).
And also by the way, I decided to talk about this not because I had a particular yen to talk about this because I’m myself Jewish or because I typically discuss religion. But rather because I feel like it is applicable to thinking about any genre, whether crime fiction (where a police procedural, a racetrack noir and a cat cozy are all under the same umbrella) or science fiction (similar differentiations) or romance. Sometimes a book is a kind of book because…it just is.