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? Continue reading

Prejudices, or how we pick what we want to read now, next or never

My sister attended Conservative rabbinical school here in L.A. back when I was a California greenhorn, still getting confused because the ocean was to the west instead of east, that people called flip-flops slippers and jimmies, sprinkles. At the time, I was exploring Orthodoxy, but shared many of my sister’s friends from the UJ (now American Jewish University) and her Conservative synagogue. Despite my move to Orthodoxy, I remain friendly with many of her friends and colleagues.

Recently, one of my sister’s classmates came out with a book. Naturally, I was excited, so I checked read the synopsis on Amazon.

Within 30 seconds, I decided that I couldn’t and wouldn’t read the book. Continue reading

Considering my last year of literary pursuit

Since there are just two weeks left of the Jewish year of 5773, I’ve been looking back at the last year and evaluating my life on every level: spiritual, physical, and even professional. And one goal still stands out at unfulfilled:


This issue depressed me a couple weeks ago, as I sat in front of my journal on Rosh Chodesh Elul (exactly one month before Rosh Hashanah), scribbling about the past year. I’d submitted a few picture books and two novels to multiple publishers and had zilch to show for it.

But then I counted how many times I appeared in print in the last year for pay: over two dozen times (bli ayin hara).

And then, I counted how many words I’d written. Essentially, it was the length of a novel. Wow.

I realized at that point how many more readers — potentially thousands more people — read my work in magazines this year than in my entire previous professional life.

That’s when I felt blessed.

Okay, I still have a major unfulfilled goal. It will be top of my professional goals again for this 5774. But if success is measured in progress, I made a lot of progress last year. And I could only do it with G-d’s help, which makes the year feel very sweet indeed.

How are you feeling about your last year, professionally? What is your top goal for 5774?

Tragedy! My lonely old maid of a story has been rejected once again.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about rejection numerous times at this point, but since I continue to collect rejection letters, why not continue blogging about them?

boy with letter

Mom! I think you just got another rejection letter!

Over the summer, I wrote a story that my husband adored. He likes almost all my stories, but this one he really, really liked. He particularly enjoyed the nasty anti-hero at the center of the story and the unhappy ending.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the way I’d originally executed my idea, so I set it aside for a couple months. Eventually, I brushed it off and polished it up a bit before sharing it with my writing group. They provided extensive feedback, and I acted on it, hoping that the new, much improved story would dazzle the editors. 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”.