Joan­na Rakoff, author of A For­tu­nate Age and for­mer edi­tor of Next​book​.org, is guest-blog­ging for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil.

Copy of jewish-authors-blog2Some years ago, when I was a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, my more con­ser­v­a­tive-mind­ed peers some­times made fun of the crit­ics who prac­ticed a more the­o­ry-based form of analy­sis — the fol­low­ers of Jacques Der­ri­da, Julia Kris­te­va, and, in this case, the move­ment known as New His­tori­cism” — by say­ing, with a sar­cas­tic roll of the eye, some­thing to the effect of, Right, and in not com­ment­ing on the French Rev­o­lu­tion, Jane Austen is real­ly com­ment­ing on the French Rev­o­lu­tion.” Tit­ters would ensue.

They were refer­ring, of course, to the famous lack of his­tor­i­cal con­text in Austen’s much-loved nov­els, and to the crit­ic War­ren Roberts’ then-famous (or, in some cir­cles, infa­mous) book on the sub­ject, Jane Austen and the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Roberts set out to prove that Austen was not just a frip­pery writer of pro­to-chick-lit nov­els about shab­by gen­teel young ladies in search of hus­bands, but a polit­i­cal­ly- and cul­tur­al­ly-engaged chron­i­cler of the major events of her day, who very much had the French and Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tions on her mind while writ­ing Mans­field Park.

As a schol­ar, I was on the old-fash­ioned side and, thus, hap­py to sim­ply read Austen’s nov­els for plea­sure, rather than scru­ti­niz­ing dia­logue for cod­ed ideas about the Napoleon­ic Wars — which may well be why I dropped out of said doc­tor­al pro­gram and began writ­ing my own mar­riage plots. But, though I laughed along with my class­mates when­ev­er that French Rev­o­lu­tion com­ment was uttered, I was secret­ly attract­ed to the idea that a writer’s silence on a sub­ject might say as much as her explic­it explo­ration of a subject.

A.Fortunate.AgeAnd so it was that years lat­er, when I took a job as books edi­tor of the Jew­ish cul­ture mag­a­zineNext­book (now Tablet), that I found myself drawn to fic­tion that was less than straight­for­ward in its approach to Jew­ish ideas or, more often, iden­ti­ty. It was easy to dis­cuss the Jew­ish con­tent of, say, The Coun­ter­life or Bee Sea­son. What inter­est­ed me more — and still inter­ests me — were the ways in which, for instance, a character’s Jew­ish­ness comes into play in a nov­el (or sto­ry) that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly cen­ter on things Jewish.

Thus, over the next three days, I’ll be look­ing at a few favorite char­ac­ters from such fic­tion, char­ac­ters who, to my mind, say as much about the state of Anglo-Amer­i­can Judaism (in the cul­tur­al, if not the reli­gious sense) as those in more explic­it­ly and obvi­ous­ly Jew­ish fic­tion, char­ac­ters from a few nov­els of recent decades: Lau­rie Colwin’s Fam­i­ly Hap­pi­ness, Mar­garet Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor, and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admis­sion.

Joan­na Rakoff’s new book, A For­tu­nate Age, is avail­able now. She’ll be blog­ging all week for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil.

Joan­na Rakoff’s nov­el A For­tu­nate Age won the Gold­berg Prize for Jew­ish Fic­tion by Emerg­ing Writ­ers and the Elle Read­ers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Edi­tors’ Choice and a San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle best sell­er. She has writ­ten for The New York Times, the Los Ange­les Times, Vogue, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her most recent book is the mem­oir My Salinger Year. She lives in Cam­bridge, Massachusetts.