Confessions of a National Jewish Book Award Judge

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Confessions of a National Jewish Book Award Judge

Andrew Furman

Andrew Furman, a contributing editor of TIKKUN, is the author of Israel Through the Jewish American Imagination and the forthcoming Contemporary Jewish American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma (Syracuse University Press).

It seemed like quite an honor at the time. Out of the blue, I was asked to judge a rather prestigious literary award. An award prestigious enough, at any rate, that publishers of the winning books usually take the trouble of announcing the fact on the paperback editions. "You come strongly recommended," the book award representative assured me somewhat cryptically over the phone. "Plus," he continued, "the other person we contacted had to bow out because his own book is a nominee. So, how about it?" My enthusiasm unabated, I accepted the honorable post.

Then, of course, the books began to arrive. Thick books. Thin books. Books from large commercial presses, books from various university presses, and books from mysterious, miscellaneous presses of which I had never heard. Beautifully bound books and tastelessly bound books. Nearly forty of them in all, stuffed rather indignantly into three heavy cardboard boxes. I didn't exactly have to harness any of my nonexistent mathematical acumen to figure out that, noble intentions notwithstanding, I would never be able to read every word of every book. My two fellow judges and I were given just over a month to select our finalists, and just a bit longer than that to select a winner from this group. Even if I quit my day job, ignored our rather strict city ordinances regarding lawn length, sent our nanny in my place to afternoon Gymboree with our son, and locked myself in my study, I would never be able to read roughly a novel a day for some thirty-odd straight days.

Setting my sights markedly lower, I can claim now to have read no less than one-third of each of the legitimate entries. (A slim volume of Jewish haikus, in my view, represented the most intriguing "illegitimate" entry. Even if one were to bend the definition of fiction to allow for such an entry, can one think of a less suitable artistic medium for our loquacious people?) As I write these lines, the finalists have yet to be notified, the winner yet to be announced. But, corresponding over email and conference call, my eminent colleagues and I have done our duty and arrived at our decisions. I have emerged from my cave bleary-eyed, to be sure, but with certain clear impressions. One year of literary productivity, of course, can hardly tell us everything about the state of Jewish letters, but it certainly can tell us something. This guiding principle in mind, I am prepared to offer the following observations about the state of Jewish fiction writing to any and all who may be interested:

1. Jews, the world over, continue to write fiction at a fierce clip. The book award representative presiding over our committee informed us that our pool of entries in the fiction category was the deepest in recent memory. A heady development for at least two reasons. First, a bear market in fiction discourages many of those who would pursue the endeavor. Second, Jewish writers have yet to tap successfully into the popular and academic demand for multicultural voices. As Mark Shechner recently suggested in the pages of this magazine, Jewish writers increasingly find themselves ghettoed off by themselves, away from the multicultural mix that now defines the American literary scene. Caught between the Scylla of a dwindling fiction market and the Charybdis of a narrowly (and unfortunately) conceived multiculturalism, it is heartening that Jewish writers continue doggedly to hammer out their stories and novels.

2. Jewish women writers, in particular, are busy as never before retrieving lost generations of their female forebears. This is not to say that Jewish imaginative writing has ever been completely off-limits to female voices who have created female protagonists. …