Por­trait of Alfred Knopf and Blanche Knopf, 1932, Library of Congress

Over the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Jews in the Unit­ed States went from being almost total­ly exclud­ed from posi­tions of influ­ence in the book pub­lish­ing indus­try to being so influ­en­tial with­in it that some Amer­i­can authors began to com­plain about a Jew­ish lit­er­ary mafia.” As I explain in my new book, The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, there nev­er real­ly was a lit­er­ary mafia, but Jews did ben­e­fit in a vari­ety of ways from their increas­ing enfran­chise­ment in the pub­lish­ing industry.

I found many of the most strik­ing anec­dotes and details of this his­to­ry in archives; I combed through tens of thou­sands of pages of let­ters, oral his­to­ries, edi­to­r­i­al reports, and con­tracts found in pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny records. Read­ers who are fas­ci­nat­ed by the mak­ing of books can also learn a lot from the many biogra­phies, mem­oirs, and nov­els that have been pub­lished by and about Jew­ish edi­tors and pub­lish­ers. Here’s a list of sev­en of my favorites:

1. Lau­ra Clar­idge, The Lady with the Bor­zoi: Blanche Knopf, Lit­er­ary Tastemak­er Extra­or­di­naire (2017): Found­ed in 1915, Knopf remains among the most pres­ti­gious pub­lish­ing hous­es in the world. Knopf was also one of a few major Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers where a woman held an exec­u­tive edi­to­r­i­al posi­tion before World War II.

As com­plex and com­pet­i­tive as her rela­tion­ship was with her hus­band and father-in-law — co-founders of the com­pa­ny — Blanche Knopf deserves a place of pride in any his­to­ry of Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing, espe­cial­ly for her role in sup­port­ing Latin Amer­i­can and Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion in the US, and for help­ing to cre­ate a vogue for hard-boiled Amer­i­can detec­tive fic­tion. Clar­idge tells Blanche’s sto­ry respect­ful­ly but with plen­ty of juicy details.

2. Saul Bel­low, The Vic­tim (1947): When peo­ple talk about the Nobel Prize laureate’s sec­ond nov­el, which he him­self dis­missed as part of his appren­tice­ship, they sen­si­bly enough think about it in the con­text of dis­cus­sions of anti­semitism in the 1940s. But they don’t tend to notice that all of the major char­ac­ters are edi­tors at a range of large and small mag­a­zines, and that they spend a lot of time talk­ing about the con­nec­tions” that are nec­es­sary to get jobs in the pub­lish­ing business.

3. Boris Kach­ka, Hot­house: The Art of Sur­vival and the Sur­vival of Art at America’s Most Cel­e­brat­ed Pub­lish­ing House, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux (2014). A page-turn­ing his­to­ry of anoth­er dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing house, Kachka’s book focus­es its atten­tion large­ly on Roger Straus, Jr., a dandy­ish mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish aris­toc­ra­cy who devot­ed his life to pub­lish­ing qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture and seems to have had a remark­able gift for quips.

4. Rona Jaffe, The Best of Every­thing (1958): A best­seller in its time but some­what neglect­ed since, Jaffe’s first nov­el draws on the author’s expe­ri­ences work­ing for Fawcett’s Gold Medal Books after grad­u­at­ing from Rad­cliffe Col­lege; it also shares the pro­fes­sion­al sto­ries she heard from friends, like her col­lege room­mate Phyl­lis Levy, who worked at Simon & Schuster.

The nov­el is non­com­mit­tal about whether or not its pro­tag­o­nist, Car­o­line Ben­der, is Jew­ish, but the book offers a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow into what it was like to work for a pub­lish­ing house in the 1950s, includ­ing unspar­ing details of lech­er­ous, pompous old­er men and their abu­sive behavior.

5. Ann Birstein, Dickie’s List (1973): A pre­co­cious nov­el­ist and the daugh­ter of a celebri­ty rab­bi, Birstein found her­self uncom­fort­ably thrust into the midst of the New York intel­lec­tu­als after she mar­ried Alfred Kazin in the ear­ly 1950s. This nov­el — a roman à clef about the edi­tors and writ­ers she knew — reflects both the appeal of this demi­monde and how alien­at­ing it could be. Birstein’s courage as a writer is aston­ish­ing: though she changes all the names to pro­tect her­self from libel charges, any­one who knows what to look for will find in the book por­traits etched in acid of Susan Son­tag, Han­nah Arendt, Philip Rahv, and many others.

6. Robert Got­tlieb, Avid Read­er (2016): Many great edi­tors write ter­rif­ic mem­oirs, filled with gos­sip about the authors they’ve known, but Gottlieb’s might be the best. After ris­ing up the ranks at Simon & Schus­ter in the post­war decades, he served as edi­tor-in-chief of Knopf and the New York­er, and had his hand in many of the most daz­zling books of the peri­od — from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to the nov­els of Toni Mor­ri­son and Robert Caro’s histories.

(If you enjoy this mem­oir, oth­ers you might like include Nor­man Podhoretz’s Mak­ing It, Michael Korda’s Anoth­er Life, Ted Solatorff’s First Loves, and William Targ’s Inde­cent Plea­sures.)

7. T. Gertler, Elbow­ing the Seduc­er (1984): In a recent reap­praisal, Dwight Gar­ner called this the tang­i­est lit­er­ary-world roman à clef to emerge from the 80s,” and almost cer­tain­ly the best of the past four decades.” It tells the sto­ry of a young Jew­ish woman with intense lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions and what she has to put up with to get published.

The edi­tor at the novel’s cen­ter, Howard Ritchie, toss­es around Yid­dish phras­es and prefer[s] lit­er­ate sex” and for decades has tied review­ers up in knots by very obvi­ous­ly resem­bling a noto­ri­ous real-life fig­ure whom no one has want­ed to name for fear of being sued or worse (but you’ll have to read my book if you want to hear more of what I have to say about all that).

Josh Lam­bert (web/twit­ter) is the Sophia Moses Robi­son Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Eng­lish, and Direc­tor of the Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram, at Welles­ley Col­lege. His books include Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2014), and The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (2022).