Mormon and Orthodox Jewish writers: Does optimism hold back fine writing?

Mark Oppenheimer, in last Friday’s New York Times, posited that the optimistic attitude embraced by Mormons has prevented them from creating literary fiction. Sure, they have succeeded in Sci-fi (Orson Scott Card), fantasy (Stephanie Meyer), and books for teens and children (Shannon Hale, James Dashner, J. Lloyd Morgan).  But how many Mormon writer’s have won Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Bookers, or Nobels?

Oppenheimer interviewed a number of Mormon writers for his article, and includes some interesting insights:

“It is a fair thing to point out,” said Shannon Hale, a Mormon who writes young adult fiction, “that there have been very prominent Jewish writers that have received a lot of accolades, and worldwide the number of Mormons are comparable to the number of Jews, so why hasn’t that happened?”

Ms. Hale’s theory is that literary fiction tends to exalt the tragic, or the gloomy, while Mormon culture prefers the sunny and optimistic.

And also:

“I’ll tell you why they write young adult,” said Ms. Nunes. “Because they don’t have to write the pages and pages of sex. They don’t want to spend a lot of time in the bedroom.”

Another author pointed out that since Mormon theology strongly identifies with the idea of a Messianic redemption, Mormon writers gravitate towards the “savior motif.”

This all got me thinking. Even though Ms. Hale correctly identified Jews as successful authors of literary fiction, Orthodox writers are not foremost among them (despite examples of some who are, like Ruchama King Feuerman and Risa Miller and even, I’d argue, Bracha Rosman and Henye Meyers). And guess what? Many journalists have commented that the reasons are largely the same as those identified with Mormons in Oppenheimer’s article.

Orthodox Judaism is forward thinking: how can we be better, improve our character, spread kindness throughout the world? The Torah mindset includes a belief in a Messiah and a time of perfect peace to follow him where humankind will receive the positive (and negative) consequences of their actions. And Orthodox Jews strongly identify with modesty.

What’s really funny, is that in my Orthodox-genre-writing shoes, the problem isn’t that Jews and Mormons don’t want to write dreary books, describe elaborate sex scenes, or focus too much on happy endings. The problem is that literary fiction is too dreary, too foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed, and is peopled by a lot of negative characters.

Not all literary fiction, to be sure. And I aspire to acquire the skill set many literary novelists have. But do I want to write the books they do? No.

And the reasons why are two causes that Oppenheimer did not identify, but apply to both Mormons and Orthodox Jews:

1) Current literary fiction tends to identify with a morality that rubs Mormons and Orthodox Jews the wrong way. (I have no desire to read or write about people who cheat on their spouses, for example, even if there is no graphic sex scene involved. And every time I read a book with the f-word on the first page, I think, “You call yourself a writer? Couldn’t you have found a better word to use than that?”)

2) Mormons and Orthodox Jews tend to identify their professional pursuits as spiritual endeavors. They are on mission. Personally, I want to write things that bring goodness into the world, cause people to feel empathy and hope. I don’t want to write books like Faulkner or Hardy that make you want to fling yourself off a balcony when you finish reading them. I’m pretty sure that most Mormon and Orthodox Jewish authors would feel the same way.

Lastly, I think that Orthodox Jewish authors (and this clearly applies only to them) make more money writing for magazines than writing books.  Why slave over a novel, and really perfect it, for a small Jewish publisher who will sell just a few copies? You will not be able to pay bills. Instead, we write to a large magazine audience for more money, faster. We are forced to juggle quality with deadlines as a result. Sometimes quality loses. Not all the time. (Most of the novels that do come out  for the Chareidi market were previously serialized, so the same rules apply.)

Any thoughts? Please share in the comments below.

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7 thoughts on “Mormon and Orthodox Jewish writers: Does optimism hold back fine writing?

  1. Interesting idea. I’m neither Mormon nor Jew, but I do see how my own writing tends to be to ‘happy-normal’ for many agents and publishers, even in the picture book realm. It’s definitely something to think about. signed, Pollyanna

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    • I remember being very impressed by serious books that were dark and depressing as a teenager. You know, at that stage where you wear too much black and listen to the Cure? Somehow, I equated “tragic” with “interesting.” But I grew out of it.

      Sometimes, I think literary agents and publishers never grew out of that stage.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      The other Pollyanna

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  2. “I have no desire to read or write about people who cheat on their spouses, for example, even if there is no graphic sex scene involved. And every time I read a book with the f-word on the first page, I think, ‘You call yourself a writer? Couldn’t you have found a better word to use than that?'”

    Thank you, Mrs. Klempner, for having the courage to say so. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    While I definitely understand, respect and condone the practice of publishing fiction in Jewish magazines for improved profitability, there’s also a virtue in writing novels for a mass audience. Inserting virtuous fiction into a market sadly saturated with filth carries the possibility of elevating the literary marketplace. Maybe I’m just dreaming. Every book that’s not imbrued by foul language and salacious scenes reminds readers that such works were once the norm, and can still be produced.

    By the way, I found “Ender’s Game” rather dark.

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    • Ender’s Game is very cynical and dark…until you get to the very end. Which is why I read the follow-up, Speaker for the Dead, which shows how Ender Wiggin redeems his genocide by becoming a rodeif shalom. It is excellent.

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  3. I thought that Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times article was interesting, but that the question of why there aren’t any Mormon winners of the Pulitzer/Nobel/Booker/et al Prize was a bit skewed. Literary fiction is a genre, with its own set of rules. The awards mentioned are for works that can be included in the genre of literary fiction. Just as a writer of literary fiction is probably not going to win an Edgar Award (a top award for mystery writers), a mystery writer is not going to win one of the top literary fiction awards.

    And so what? As you mentioned, Rebecca, most of us who are Orthodox Jewish authors don’t aspire to write what is today called literary fiction, because it doesn’t reflect our values. What many of us do try to do is write the best fiction we can in our respective genres, which is, in my humble opinion, also an honorable endeavor.

    Therefore, I’m not holding my breath, waiting for the letter from the Pulitzer Prize committee to arrive. I don’t expect my Ezra Melamed Mystery Series to win an Edgar either, since the series doesn’t have the requisite violence.

    On the other hand, I was happy that the first book in the series won a Sydney Taylor Notable Book Award and that the third book, Tempest in the Tea Room, was called “challenging, sophisticated, and literary” by the Jewish Book Council. So we can, and do, get recognition in the broader marketplace — at least the Jewish one.

    Where I disagree with you about why there’s not higher quality contemporary Jewish fiction written by Orthodox Jewish authors is your assumption that there’s a larger, more profitable market for literary fiction authors. It’s my understanding that unless a novel in the literary fiction genre does win a big prize, it usually won’t sell more than a few thousand copies; it could, of course, sell less. That’s comparable to sales in the frum market. Therefore literary fiction authors usually need a day job to pay the bills, whether it’s teaching or something else, and so the writing of the novel is a labor of love.

    What I would suggest is that the whole idea of Orthodox Jews writing novels is still so new that many of us are still finding our way, trying to find a satisfying balance between our creative interests, our responsibility to our community, and paying the bills. Therefore, how our own literature develops is still very much a story waiting to be told.

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    • You’re totally correct that the idea of Orthodox Jewish novels is very new…If my memory serves correctly, the phenomenon of English language Jewish books of any kind is much less than a hundred years old. And fiction…less than fifty years. So it will be a while before we can see where the Jewish novel goes over time.

      One point you brought up, I should clarify:
      “Where I disagree with you about why there’s not higher quality contemporary Jewish fiction written by Orthodox Jewish authors is your assumption that there’s a larger, more profitable market for literary fiction authors.”

      I must have not been clear in my post. The prestige is with the literary novel, not the money. (And the prestige also carries some influence on the national/English-language culture.)

      Where the money seems to be for most Orthodox writers is in magazines. But, as I mentioned there, then you need to write at a speed and in a volume that often (not always) undermines the quality of the writing.

      I also think that genre writing — which the Oppenheimer article seems to look down on — is much more open for Orthodox Jews. And sales are often better: mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy series can win loyal fans who want to pick up each subsequent book of the series. Your own work falls into this category, and I hope you have continued and increased success with it.

      There is one thing in literary fiction that I’d like to see frum writers embrace more: the complex characterization and portrayal of the grey areas in life. I think that in its initial stages, the Orthodox Jewish novel was so focused on being moral that characters and issues were often portrayed in a very flat, black and white matter.

      Life isn’t like that, and I think that over the last — Gosh, just couple years! — I’ve seen a lot more of the story with the “imperfect” ending/villains who aren’t just evil to the core/and so on in Chareidi magazines. On the other hand, I think a lot of the book publishers tend to focus on the most conservative (little “c”, not big) elements of the English-language Jewish world out of fears they’ll offend readers.

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