The New Dias­po­ra: The Chang­ing Land­scape of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fiction

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

The chal­lenge in putting togeth­er any anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can-Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture is to define each of those three terms — Amer­i­can, Jew­ish, and lit­er­a­ture — in a clear and thought­ful way. Is some­thing Amer­i­can” if, as in the case of Isaac Bashe­vis Singer’s work, it is writ­ten in a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish? Is some­thing Jew­ish” only if it is writ­ten by a Jew­ish author, or does it need to be on a Jew­ish sub­ject whether writ­ten by a Jew or not? And what con­sti­tutes lit­er­a­ture”?

In The New Dias­po­ra, Vic­to­ria Aarons, Avi­noam Patt, and Mark Shech­n­er have sought to define those foun­da­tion­al terms in an orig­i­nal but some­what nar­row­er fash­ion than their title — and in par­tic­u­lar their sub­ti­tle, The Chang­ing Land­scape of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion—implies. That is, they have decid­ed to trace their sub­ject as it looks from their per­spec­tive as judges for the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award, eas­i­ly one of the most pres­ti­gious awards in Jew­ish Amer­i­can fiction.

As a con­se­quence, the area of over­lap in their def­i­n­i­tions is small and focused even if the result is broad-rang­ing and inclu­sive. The writ­ers in the anthol­o­gy are Jew­ish, and their sub­jects are almost always explic­it­ly Jew­ish,” engag­ing with Jew­ish his­to­ry or even the­ol­o­gy as it is lived. And the fic­tion in ques­tion is all linked to the edi­tors’ expe­ri­ence of judg­ing the Wal­lant Award: the first half fea­tures recent work by for­mer win­ners of the prize, and the sec­ond pro­vides selec­tions from work by authors the edi­tors have admired in the course of their judg­ing process.

The nar­row­ness of the project makes for an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive — pro­vid­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty, as the edi­tors acknowl­edge in their thought­ful intro­duc­tion, to peer over the shoul­ders of the judges, to get a sense of both the chal­lenge of deter­min­ing what lit­er­a­ture should rep­re­sent an ongo­ing lit­er­ary tra­di­tion and of the won­der over the many dif­fer­ent direc­tions that tra­di­tion might take going forward.

At the same time, that approach has its lim­its. There are many ter­rif­ic writ­ers includ­ed — some like Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Gold­berg, and Joseph Epstein with best­sellers to their names, and oth­ers who have labored in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty, such as Steve Stern, Edith Pearl­man, and Joshua Henkin. Still, in stay­ing open to the idea that the Amer­i­can Jew­ish lit­er­ary tra­di­tion could go in any num­ber of direc­tions, the edi­tors of The New Dias­po­ra sus­tain a diverse pro­file in this anthol­o­gy. The book does not claim to present any­thing along the lines of an essen­tial” sweep of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jew­ish fic­tion. In fact, by rep­re­sent­ing the for­mer win­ners of the Wal­lant Award with new­er mate­r­i­al, the authors sug­gest the oppo­site: that there are so many intrigu­ing authors writ­ing in the tra­di­tion over the last quar­ter-cen­tu­ry that there is no way to con­tain them with­in a sin­gle volume.

Such an approach is gen­er­ous to the writ­ers rep­re­sent­ed, and, in pro­vid­ing such gen­er­al­ly excel­lent sto­ries through­out, it also proves a reward to the read­ers. Still, the mod­esty of the edi­tors’ claim that they are pre­sent­ing some of the excel­lent fic­tion they have come across — or even that they are pre­sent­ing fic­tion by some of the excel­lent fic­tion writ­ers they have come to admire — keeps them from doing with the usu­al implic­it direc­tive of an anthol­o­gy to deliv­er a sam­pling of the best” mate­r­i­al available.

Pick up The New Dias­po­ra not for a look at a cur­rent best of,” but rather for the unusu­al and reward­ing expe­ri­ence of see­ing a look- how- much- good- stuff- is- out- there” sur­vey. As such, The New Dias­po­ra works as a cel­e­bra­tion of the Wal­lant Awards, which have now sur­vived fifty years of chang­ing tastes and altered gen­er­a­tional per­spec­tives, and as an idio­syn­crat­ic glimpse at some of the excel­lence the tra­di­tion has deliv­ered in the last sev­er­al years.

Relat­ed Content:

Joseph E. Kraus, Ph.D., is pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish & The­atre at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Scran­ton where he directs the hon­ors pro­gram and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing and Amer­i­can literature.

Discussion Questions