Friday, August 08, 2008

"Jewish writing is over."

That's the assessment of critic Vivian Gornick in an interview in the Boston Review:

Roth and Bellow are titanic figures, they’re beyond criticism. But really, what I am saying in this piece is that Jewish writing is over. That is the point of contention.

Jewish-Americans did something in American literature that no other culture has done— they created world-class literature out of the immigrant experience. And that’s the only thing that mattered in Jewish-American writing. Had Roth and Bellow not been major talents, you wouldn’t have Jewish-American writing. It wouldn’t mean anything. It would just be parochial, local.

But we cannot have major talent writing this stuff anymore because there’s nothing to write about. What made them major was their gripe, the chip on their shoulders. The rage that they felt at the world for keeping them out. That experience became a great metaphor. There is no hyphenated Jewish experience anymore. I have two nieces who are both Ivy League babies and they’re in the ruling class. There’s nothing they can’t do. Nothing.

So there’s nothing to talk about. There’s really nothing to write about. Yet you have young people who keep on doing it. All I’m saying is, it doesn’t count. Take Michael Chabon, or Jonathan Safran Foer. They’re cashing in on a world that’s long gone and they’re writing with open nostalgia. They’re making things out of it that belong to their grandfathers. It’s a habit to go on assuming that this is legitimate writing. But I truly feel it is not.

Interesting perspective -- and it makes me think of why Philip Roth's early works haven't dated: they still have the freshness of a writer expressing something for the first time. The stories in Goodbye, Columbus and the great stand-up routine known as Portnoy's Complaint both tackle Jewish self-consciousness, the dual sense of separateness and the desire to fit in, and in Roth's hands the subject still feels like unchartered territory.

No longer is that the case. Now it's old news, which is why Roth has generally turned to other subjects.

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