This story does not stop here!

For the last week, I’ve been struggling with a major rewrite of a short story. Basically, the character was not so likeable, her journey was boring, and the ending was very, very lame.

The problems with my Lame-O story:

This was already the third or fourth draft of the story. I’d originally written it for a particular venue, who rejected it. Later, it was accepted for a different one, conditional on me completing a satisfactory rewrite.

The main structural changes the editors asked for were the removal of one subplot (and the scenes both where it was introduced and where it was resolved) and a new ending.

I cut out the subplot. No problem. I wasn’t entirely attached to it.

But still not done!

Now my story had a new problem Continue reading

New Jewish year, new books by Jewish authors!

The new Jewish year is marked this time around with several new book releases that have me very excited:

1) After being mesmerized by The World to Come and In the Image, I can’t wait to read Dara Horn’s newest, A Guide for the Perplexed, which was officially published today. An essay by the author appeared in The New York Times this week, reminding of the book’s release. The topic was the role of memory in literature — particularly in Jewish literature — which Horn tied to Rosh Hashanah. (The holiday falls later this week, and it’s also known as “The Day of Remembrance.”) Her new novel reportedly draws on this theme as it follows two contemporary characters obsessed with the work of the Rambam.

in the courtyard of the kabbalist

Ruchama King Feuerman’s latest, just out

2) Ruchama King Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist follows an assortment of characters in Jerusalem. I’m very blessed that the author has sent me an advance copy — a review here on the blog will be forthcoming. I was a big fan of her last book, Seven Blessings, as well as some of her more recent, shorter work. Feuerman has been called “a Jewish Jane Austen,” probably because her character portraits so marvelously balance positive and negative qualities. I’m already a few dozen pages in to the new book and really getting into it. For a recent review, see here.

3) Ofir Touche Gafla’s The World of the End will soon be published in English. Continue reading

From Michael Chabon to Dara Horn to Ruchama King: Literary Jewish writing for adults

In literary circles, there’s much talk of the “new Yiddishists” movement. This includes writers such as Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldeman, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, Lev Grossman, and Dara Horn. All of these writers bring somethings of their Jewish identity to the page: Jewish characters, the Yiddish and Hebrew languages, allusions to holidays, midrashim, shared history, and the like. These writers are quite gifted…I’d highly recommend Krauss’s The History of Love and Horn’s In the Image for those who want to see spiritual introspection balanced with imaginative storytelling. However, their books aren’t “Orthodox”.
Many if not most of the novels published by Orthodox publishers were written originally as serials in magazines or by those used to writing for magazines. This is not bad–in fact I enjoy many of these books–it’s just a very different style of storytelling. Writing a serial for the first time myself right now, I can see that as fun as they are to read and to write, they are different. You have deadlines and word counts hanging over your head. You have publishers and readers who will be furious if you don’t complete the project. Readers want to see a lot going on in each episode, yet be able to keep the plot in their head from week to week. There are mashgichim at both the religious magazines and religious publishing houses who must be satisfied. For them, the message is considered at least as important as the form, if not more.
In the secular world, a novelist has different requirements. You need space for character development. Time to ponder and reconsider and revise. You might want to capture a wider range of emotions and topics than necessarily acceptable to a mashgiach. You might want to venture into experimental structure. You might want an audience beyond the religious community. The artful novelist does not necessarily thrive under the conditions usually found in the frum publishing world.
There are exceptions. Here’s one: currently, HaModia has an amazing serial called This is America. I’ve been following it for a year and am praying that it will end up in a novel form at its conclusion because I want to recommend it to all my friends. It’s THAT good. Also, Sarah Shapiro’s writing–though not fiction–shows a flair and precision of language that is rare in even the secular world. It often reads like a novel even when it is non-fiction.
In the past few years, the climate for Orthodox literature has changed. Interestingly, it seems to be occurring when secular publishers put out Orthodox books, partly I think because of the success of the likes of Chabon, Horn, et al.
For a couple of decades, Rochelle Krich has been a trailblazer in this department. Her mysteries are particularly well-written and substantive. I’d describe the pacing and plotting of her early books as the stuff of bestsellers, not the “literary novel.” However, her more recent Molly Blume novels have become increasingly literary.
Krich’s successors are finding their works in the bookstores and libraries across America now. Risa Miller has put out two prize-winning books: Welcome to Heavenly Heights and My Before and After Life. (I particularly enjoyed the later.) Ruchama King Feuerman’s Seven Blessings has invited comparisons to Jane Austen. She autopsies the shidduch culture of BTs in Jerusalem, yet does so with humanity, not scorn. Though not a novelist, the award-winning poet Yehoshua November also demonstrates that it is possible to be sophisticated in form and substance and frum.
I was extremely hopeful when I saw the website for The Writer’s Cafe, an Orthodox literary magazine. Perhaps this would be a format for Jewish writers to print more material “outside the box.” However, it appears that the project is at least temporarily suspended. I was disappointed at the news and hope it comes back. The new Ami magazine (disclaimer, my new serial appears in their “tween” supplement) also aspires to a different style of writing.
I’m hoping that readers will buy into this new model, because I think the scarcity of reading material that is “kosher” in the market right now drives more avid readers to read secular material that contains inappropriate language and ideas. I also see that improving the style of Jewish literature and its accessibility brings with it the opportunity for Jews to be a light unto the nations. Books like Seven Blessings and My Before and After Life bring healthy hashkafa into the lives of non-Jews as well as Jews who might not pick up a more stereotypical “frum book”.