Page 16 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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ALVIN H. ROSENFELD
American Jewish Literature:
Between Writer and Critic
A
m e r i c a n
JEWISH LITERATURE
is an u p s ta r t li te ra tu re , and the
fact is we d o n ’t know exactly what to make o f it. By “we” I d o n ’t
re fe r to au tho rs bu t to expositors and critics — “we” academ ic
m idd lemen , who in one way o r ano th e r m ed iate between the c re ­
ators and the consum ers o f the books. In ca rry ing ou t such a
function we stand in an odd re la tionsh ip o f sh ifting au tho rity to
the lite ra tu re and those who b ring it fo r th . Earlier writers, long
since gone, fall now a ltoge ther to the mercy o f critics, who can
play them up , play them down, o r simply igno re them ou trigh t.
T h e connection to living writers is d iffe ren t — m o re nearly
equal, more wary, more exploitative. They a re likely to look to us,
if at all, fo r puffs — critical celebrations o f the ir labors — bu t o th ­
erwise would p re fe r to be left alone. Most d o n ’t like to be co r­
ne red as “Jew ish” writers, a label they fea r th a t will undu ly n a r ­
row the ir repu ta tions and unnecessarily restric t the ir chances o f
en te r ing the w ider world. They would p re fe r to be th o u g h t o f
simply as writers, o r as writers who “h ap p en to be” Jewish, bu t
with only few exceptions most do no t favor the ep ith e t “Am er i­
can Jewish w rite r” o r campaign very h a rd to g a rn e r it fo r th em ­
selves.
Most reade rs o f the ir books, on the o th e r h and , a re no t ju s t
readers-in-the-abstract bu t m ore emphatically “Jew ish” reade rs ,
o r people try ing to get a fix on what it may m ean to be Jew ish. I f
such reade rs a re themselves in fact Jews (and it is likely th a t most
are), then the will to a g re a te r “Jew ishness” is a large p a r t o f what
motivates them in the first place to keep company with a Bellow
and no t a Barth , a Potok and no t a Pynchon, an Ozick an d no t an
Upd ike (a fact no t lost on Updike, who as a consequence feels the
need from time to time to do Jew ish im itations in fiction). I ’m no t
a ltoge ther su re what it is th a t brings sizable num be rs o f non-