Everyone’s a Critic (of the Jews)

One of the biggest–and strangest–choices a writer has to make in the months preceding the publication a book is whether or not to read your reviews. If you’re not a writer, this probably sounds insane. Why wouldn’t you read the … Read More

By / April 22, 2009

One of the biggest–and strangest–choices a writer has to make in the months preceding the publication a book is whether or not to read your reviews. If you’re not a writer, this probably sounds insane. Why wouldn’t you read the reviews? And I’ll confess that before my own book was slated for release, I never gave the matter a moment’s thought, despite having written more than my share of criticism. Then came the day, in early November, when my editor called and said, nervously, "I have some advance reviews. I don’t know if you want to see them." Sweat immediately began to prick my underarms. "Are they good?" I asked. "Two are," she told me, hesitating. "The third, well, the person just didn’t get it. It’s snarky and mean." I was teased and bullied enough as a child to know that I couldn’t stomach snarky and mean. I probably couldn’t even stomach a misspelling of my admittedly complicated name. No, I told her, I didn’t want to see them. Neither the good ones nor the bad ones. "I think that’s wise," she said, and I smiled. I was wise! I was enlightened. I would maintain my faith in my own work-a novel on which I’d spent five years working, making ample sacrifices along the way-without a thought of the critics.

What I didn’t bargain for was the fact that these days, in the age of the Interweb, everyone is a critic. A week or two later, my editor called again, ecstatic. The novel had been chosen for one of Barnes and Noble’s book clubs, something called "First Look," in which readers receive galleys of new novels a few months before they come out, then discuss the books in an online message board. "This is really, really great," she told me. "Simon and Schuster, as a company, has only had one other book chosen for it." The catch: The author participates in the discussion for nearly a month, answering reader’s questions. In my case, I’d be logging on in January, when my as-yet-unborn baby would be about a month old. "That sounds really fun," I told her. And, in a way, it did. Sort of. January came quickly and found us ensconced in our studio, which had no phone line, which meant we had no DSL. Luckily, we were able to piggyback on a neighboring school with an incredibly powerful, inexplicably-not-password-protected wi fi signal. A week or two before I was due to start answering readers’ questions, Evan excitedly told me that readers were already posting. A few days later, he was a little less excited. "My advice for you," he said, "is to not take any of this personally. Some of these people are clearly cranks. And some just aren’t used to reading literary fiction." "But some are smart," I said. "Right?" "Yes," he admitted. "Some are smart."

And some were smart, I discovered when it came time for me to make my virtual entrance, which coincided with the sudden disappearance of our stolen wi fi, forcing me to take up residence in our local coffee shop (where the pack of ancient cronies that crowd the table by the bar became accustomed to the site of me nursing Pearl while typing with one hand). In fact, most were smart and lovely, and asked interesting questions about the writing process, about literature, about history and about life, in general. But then there were the cranks. The guy who wanted to know why my novel wasn’t more like Ken Follett. The guy who explained that he’d learned in writing class, to "show not tell," so why was I "telling" so much rather than showing? The guy who was furious that I’d included so much "insidery" information about New York (he was, of course, a resident of New Jersey). For some reason, most of the cranks were guys. But the biggest crank of all was, in fact, a woman, who told me, with barely concealed hostility, that she didn’t understand why I’d included so many "obscure Judaic references" in the novel. Why, she wanted to know, had I made all my characters Jewish? Was my novel intended solely for readers in New York and Los Angeles? Didn’t I care about readers in the "flyover states" who wouldn’t know anything about the Jews and, thus, wouldn’t be able to "relate" to my characters? And, moreover, didn’t I want non-Jews to read my book? Why, why, why had I not written a novel about Episcopalians, which would appeal to everyone? I knew from the first post that this gal was trouble. The bad grammar. The weird, Star Trek-ish screen name. The oddly pompous tone. And I resolved to answer her question as politely and seriously as possible. Hours, I spent thinking over how to respond, crafting replies and then discarding them. ("Listen here, bigot," would not do as a greeting, I decided.) I’m tempted to let the absurdity of this person’s argument stand on its own, for even if I had written a novel about a Satmar rabbi, isn’t that my prerogative? And is it really true that a Catholic in Wyoming can’t relate to a Jew in New York? No, of course not. But in the interest of logic, I feel I have to explain that while, yes, all my characters are indeed Jewish-a purposeful choice on my part and one I thought long and hard about-my novel isn’t particularly Jewish, in the strict sense of the term. It’s not, for instance, like Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, which hinges on spiritual experience and belief (and which does include obscure Jewish references, though that didn’t stop it from landing on the bestseller list; hmmmmm). Or Tova Mirvis’ The Ladies’ Auxiliary, which explores the limits and comforts of an Orthodox community. Nor it is like the ubiquitous Everything is Illuminated, which wrestles, albeit in a naïve way, with the legacy of the Holocaust in the Western world. My five protagonists are all secular Jews from culturally sophisticated-let’s say, secular humanist-backgrounds. One gets married in a synagogue, yes, and another eventually moves to Israel. But these events are parts of the rather complicated fabric of the story. There are, I can safely assure you, no obscure Jewish references. Certainly no more than in your average Woody Allen movie. That said, there is a way-a very strong way-in which I conceived of A Fortunate Age as a Jewish novel from the very start. You see, it’s loosely based on The Group, Mary McCarthy’s fantastic 1963 novel, about a clique of Vassar grads who move to New York during the Depression and try to find their way in demi-bohemian fields (publishing, theater, etc.), but end up quashed by their inner bourgeois. All of McCarthy’s characters are, of course, WASPs, primarily from blue blood-type families. When I first read the novel, in 2002, I was struck by the similarities between her characters experiences and those undergone by my friends in the late 1990s. It was as though, somehow, feminism had never happened. But I was also struck by the oddness that their universe was so circumscribed as to not include anyone Jewish-this was New York, in the 1930s-or even German or Irish or Italian or, I don’t know, Swedish, or anything even remotely dissimilar from their own backgrounds. The only Jewish character who appears in the novel is the wealthy husband of the titular group’s nemesis, a sad figure named Norine Schmittlapp, who is largely disdained by McCarthy’s protagonists, all the more so after she marries the curly-haired Freddy, even though he graces her with a massive diamond and an an Upper East Side townhouse, and even though his family turned Rosenberg into Rogers and converted to, yes, Episcopalian. "[I] f you wanted to give your child the best start in life, you would not marry a Jew," a character named Priss thinks while visiting Norine’s swank new digs. And Norine herself strangely fetishizes her husband. "Do you mind Jews?" she asks Norine. "I’m mad for them myself." In fact, she wishes he’d stayed a Rosenberg. "I was hell-bent to have him go back to the old Orthodox faith. With a prayer shawl and phylacteries." Yikes! And so it was partly a political move, of sorts, to make all my characters Jewish. Though it was also partly documentary: In writing about bohemian circles of a more recent era, how could I not write about Jews? But how to explain this to my online antagonist? A person who didn’t seem to realize that there were Jews in Wichita and Fargo and…everywhere and, more importantly, that the pleasures of reading fiction don’t necessarily derive from reading one’s own life played back at oneself from the page. I thought about how, after reading The Corrections, my friend Andrea and I both said, simultaneously, "My parents are Enid and Albert," even though, culturally speaking, our parents are as different from each other-mine, New York Jews; hers, Indiana farmers-as they are from Enid and Albert. And I thought about the novel I was reading just then, Aravind Adiga’s brilliant The White Tiger, written in English and published originally in the UK, though set, of course, in India. Would this person ask Adiga what he was thinking, writing a novel about India for a British audience? No, never. Would she ask Toni Morrison why all her characters are black? No, of course not. Why did she feel comfortable lambasting me for making my characters Jewish? And insisting that no one would "get" the novel because of it? I’m not quite sure I want to answer that question, but I’ll leave you to ponder it. And I’ll tell you that I did indeed try to restrain my darker thoughts in my dialogue with this person. I wrote an earnest, probably too earnest, response, explaining much of what I’ve explained above, in calm, neutral, respectful tones. Her response? That I was calling her an anti-Semite because she didn’t want to read a novel mostly populated with Jews. Well, I thought, you said it, not me. I wish I could say that none of this bothered me, that I laughed it all off and went about my business, but I’m afraid I’m not quite built that way (or so I’m discovering). By the final days of my B&N stint, I was almost afraid to go online. And while I know, certainly, that a guy who reads Ken Follett novels isn’t going to love a novel heavily influenced by John Galsworthy-or even a novel without gunplay and car chases (though there is, now that I think about it, an FBI agent and some illegal activity of a political nature)-I still hear, echoing in my head, some of the nastier comments. It’s odd how the comments of a few cranks can obliterate the interesting thoughts of the smart majority. Thus, when we got closer to the publication date-April 7, by the way-and my editor asked me again if I wanted to see reviews, I quickly said, "no, no, no," and tried to spread the word among friends, so no one would send them on or call, quoting them, or any of the things that friends do because they’re excited for you or protective of you or what have you. But here again, we’re in an age in which it’s difficult to turn off the million media outlets that bombard us with information day and night. I opened up the April issue of Vogue to find a mention of the novel, describing it as an "amber-hued" look at the late 1990s. "Amber-hued?" I ranted to Evan. "It’s satire. Not nostalgia." One morning, I turned on my phone and found an email from Facebook informing me that someone with whom I went to high school-not a friend, mind you, someone I’d spoken to perhaps once or twice, someone whose name I didn’t recognize when he friended me-had posted a link to a review in Entertainment Weekly on my wall. (Thank you, Ira Lieman, wherever you are!) The next day, I went to look something up for my editor, and accidentally found a blogger-a Jewish blogger, no less-slamming the book as pretty much the worst thing she’d ever read. "Yeah," a commenter wrote, in response to her post, "I’ve heard nothing but negative buzz about this book." My head began to buzz. So what if this blogger was clearly a fan of Shmuley Boteach and, thus, clearly not the audience for my novel? "Stop reading blogs," my friend Jenny commanded me. "Turn off your computer. Write longhand." I did, for the most part. But these little tastes of opinion had made me curious to see others, perhaps in the hopes that a rave would wash away the residue of the bad stuff. Particularly about the Times review. Wouldn’t you be? I’ve been reading the Times Book Review every week since high school. And I’m a book critic. How could I not be curious about, at least, to whom they’d assigned it? The Monday before it came out, my editor called-like everyone else in media and publishing, she had an advance copy of the following Sunday’s Book Review-and told me that it wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad. "Okay," I said, feeling sick to my stomach. Later that day, Evan read it, too. "She’s exaggerating," he said. "It’s good. The reviewer chastises you at one point, but she likes the book." "Okay," I said, through clenched teeth. And then, strangely, I forgot about it. Until Saturday, I picked up my phone and found many Facebook emails. People I’d known in college, at my hippie summer camp, in nursery school, people I’d not heard from or thought of in twenty, thirty years, their names were crowding my inbox. "Congratulations," they all said, "on the review." Had they actually read the review? I wondered. Would they be offering congratulations if it were bad? The next day, I arose before everyone else-no small feat with a four-month-old baby-and tried to straighten our apartment, which was (and is; more on this later) still largely filled with boxes and piles of books. As I shuffled the paper on the counter, I suddenly realized the obvious: The review did not just exist online. It was in there. I could, if I wanted to, open up the Book Review and read it. Furtively, glancing toward the bedroom door to make sure Evan wasn’t stirring, I opened it up and began to read. The beginning was largely plot summary, like so many Times reviews. I read on-first paragraph, second, third-until I got to the second column, where the reviewer notes that "all of the friends are Jewish." I quickly closed the paper. I knew nothing weird or scary would follow-this was Liesl Schillinger, after all!-but somehow the word "Jewish" served as a sort of reminder of the terrors that could befall a writer from reading even the most innocuous review: That those critical voices might resonate in one’s head for months, years, to come. And there is not, I’m afraid, space in my head for anything else. *** Okay, due to technical difficulties this post, scheduled for yesterday (that is, Tuesday, April 21st), isn’t making it up until today (you can read the date at the top.) On Monday, I promised that my next post would deliver a few things-Mets-themed bobble head dolls, two guys named Bruce, some serious (rather than Woody Allen-style) problems-and those, you can expect later today.

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