Fic­tion

Who Wants to Be A Jew­ish Writer?: And Oth­er Essays

  • Review
By – July 29, 2019

The debate about how to clas­si­fy writ­ers and writ­ing, and whether to do so at all, has heat­ed up over recent years. Jen­nifer Wein­er famous­ly spear­head­ed a ral­ly­ing cry for more women to be con­sid­ered lit­er­ary writ­ers” along­side lumi­nar­ies like Jonathan Franzen. The debate over the ques­tion of the Jew­ish writer” is of course more lay­ered, par­tic­u­lar­ly because it has been so sound­ly reject­ed by heavy­weights like Philip Roth and Saul Bel­low. With the title of Adam Kirsch’s book phrased in the form of a ques­tion, the read­er is inclined to expect some form of answer. Call it Jeop­ardy in reverse. But, sur­prise, sur­prise, it’s not that simple.

Kirsch’s book is actu­al­ly a col­lec­tion of his essays, many of which orig­i­nal­ly appeared in pub­li­ca­tions such as The New York­er, The New Repub­lic and The Jew­ish Review of Books. A poet, crit­ic and author (his most recent work was the instant clas­sic The Peo­ple of the Books”), Adam Kirsch has estab­lished him­self as one of the most promi­nent and respect­ed voic­es in the world of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. His depth of knowl­edge and analy­sis are on full dis­play here as he dis­sects the rela­tion­ship between reli­gion, pol­i­tics and poet­ry. There are deep dives on how non-Jew­ish writ­ers, such as Irish Catholic poets Sea­mus Heaney and Chris­t­ian Wiman, inter­pret their own reli­gious back­ground and how it is (or isn’t) incor­po­rat­ed into their work.

Kirsch explores the moti­va­tions, inter­pre­ta­tions and out­comes of past Jew­ish authors like Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Ste­fan Zweig, and Isaac Deutsch­er. Con­tem­po­rary issues are also giv­en atten­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly the role of social media in deter­min­ing the course of an author’s rep­u­ta­tion and career arc. He draws on the exam­ple of Jew­ish author Kei­th Gessen, who received bru­tal online back­lash after the release of his first nov­el and how wor­thy” he was of his success.

But at the heart, Kirsch draws the par­al­lel of how the ques­tion of the Jew­ish writer mir­rors the cur­rent conun­drum of Amer­i­can Jews as a whole. As the nuts and bolts of reli­gious prac­tices slow­ly fade in impor­tance to many Amer­i­can Jews, how does this affect their rela­tion­ship to their Jew­ish­ness” and frame their perspectives?

While cri­tiquing the work of a crit­ic is an unusu­al­ly meta exer­cise, it’s easy to rec­om­mend div­ing into Kirsch. This is no casu­al sum­mer read, but the com­plex­i­ties reveal the unique exper­tise and bril­liance of the author.

Amy Oringel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Busi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

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