The Jewishness of the Contemporary Gentile Writer: Zadie Smith's the Autograph Man

Article excerpt

What is a Jewish book? I invariably begin my undergraduate class on Jewish American Literature by broaching this conundrum. Does any book written by a Jew qualify? No way. Even my most glassy-eyed sophomores reject this hopelessly baggy definition. Herman Wouk, after all, is a Jew (an Orthodox Jew to boot) but, other than a few exceptions, his sweeping historical novels hardly engage Jewish characters or concerns. The flip-side of the question, however, has proven far more vexing, both for my students and for me. That is, what to do about a novel written by a non-Jew that does forcefully engage Jewish characters and concerns?

Invariably, half of my students will claim that it shouldn't make a difference whether the writer is Jewish or not, only whether the work is Jewish. The other half wriggle uncomfortably in their seats while their peers articulate this argument. These are usually Jewish students--those who feel their identities somehow encroached upon by such literary ecumenicism. One's Jewishness, to their mind, should count for something, shouldn't it? Isn't there such a thing as the Jewish imagination? If a non-Jew can access this voice and vision, then, well, what's the point? This is usually when I, in effect, punt and move on to less problematic issues (paper due dates, my attendance policy, etc.). "Well," I'll say, "we're obviously not going to answer this question today. The important thing is that we recognize the controversy and revisit it."

We never do.

I have managed, thus, to project an air of professorial evenhandedness, to remain, at least ostensibly, above the fray. My syllabus tells a different story. While it has undergone extensive revisions over the past ten years--the inclusion of additional works of poetry, a decreasing emphasis on the celebrated immigrant and post-immigrant generation of fiction writers, and more class hours devoted to contemporary writers such as Thane Rosenbaum, Dara Horn, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein et. al.--nary a writer on my many syllabi would have much of a problem meeting the criteria of Israel's Law of Return. I've never taught, say, John Updike or William Styron or Gish Jen, gentile writers who have written some of these arguably "Jewish" books. Which is simply to say that through my syllabi--those most politicized and polemical documents of any literature course--I have clearly sided with the defenders of the faith, that second cohort of students uncomfortable with the idea of considering non-Jews as legitimate creators of Jewish books.

If I have been guilty of an intellectually untenable anxiety of encroachment, I am in good company. In one of her early essays, "Bech, Passing," Cynthia Ozick delivers a blistering attack on Bech, A Book (1970), John Updike's first novelistic foray onto Jewish territory. "[I]t is already well-known that John Updike is a crypto-Christian, a reverse Marrano celebrating the Body of Jesus while hidden inside a bathing suit," Ozick notes early in her essay, outing Updike in a sense, fairly stripping him of his credentials (115). In the essay, Ozick painstakingly exposes Updike's Jewish protagonist as the "failure of invention" that she takes him to be (115). In creating Bech, Ozick argues, Updike had derivatively duplicated the commercially viable yet, to her mind, already shopworn formula for the ethnic Jewish novel. Perhaps most compellingly, she constructs a reductive outline of Bech: A Book, replete with the predictable categories of Vocabulary, Family, Historical References, Nose, Hair, and Sex to emulate the reductiveness of the novel itself. "Being a Jew," Ozick declares toward the end of the essay, "is something more than being an alienated marginal sensibility with kinky hair" (123).

What, exactly, we might ask, is it to be a Jew? What is a Jewish text, and why is it important to establish a working definition in the first place? What accounts for Ozick's apparent anxiety? …

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