Jealous of the Jews
I was raised a fundamentalist Christian. A partial list of writers held up as “greats” during my coming of age would include Dr. James Dobson (author of Dare to Discipline), Frank Peretti (author of the demon paranoia novels This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness), George Barna (author of the church growth/pop sociology book Frog in the Kettle), Hal Lindsey (author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, which sold over 20 million copies and probably was an important link in the causal chain which eventually convinced George W. Bush that the Middle East is the god-ordained site of a future world-destroying apocalypse), and, later, the infamous and hackneyed Left Behind series, by Jerry Jenkins and the Rev. Tim LaHaye.
Imagine my jealousy, then, when I discovered the vast literature of the American Jews, which, like the mediocrities of my childhood reading, made great use of the Hebrew scriptures, but which, instead of offering some kind of prescriptive, didactic horror show, rendered the horrors of the world in thrilling, lucid, hyper-intelligent prose. By comparison, Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Ozick, Singer (the list could be much longer, but these are five of my nine or ten favorite 20th century writers) not only shamed Dobson, Peretti, Lindsay, and Barna, but they also shamed a generation of very good American writers by simply being better than almost everyone else on grounds of language, structure, fire, music, moral weight, and sheer storytelling prowess. All five occupy the top shelves nearest my writing desk, and their best books continue to earn their re-readings.
One of the primary pleasures of the Internet for me, these days, is the discovery of what in the past might have been an unavailable cohort of small-circulation periodicals with its locus somewhere in Brooklyn, but which is now a broadly available (and free) source of daily nourishment — web magazines (some derived from their print brothers) such as Tablet Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward, and Jewcy, where readers can regularly find new articles, reviews, essays, and video features on art, culture, history, and literature, by the likes of Etgar Keret, Adam Kirsch, Shalom Auslander, Joshua Cohen, Adam Levin, and Jason Diamond.
(To the people at the better evangelical Christian outlets such as Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and Relevant Magazine: Look at how smart these magazines can be, even though they serve a particularized audience. Look how they refuse to pander. Look at how they respect the intelligence of their audience. Look how their goal isn’t to be “redemptive” and therefore reductive. Look at the wide-angle lens with which they see the culture. Look at the diversity of competing voices they employ. It’s doable, and these Jewish magazines are doing it. So can you. You can do better.)
(Advice for aspiring novelists raised in evangelicalism, and therefore sorely lacking in role models that aspire to literature rather than dogma? Look to the Jews.)
Here’s a recent favorite feature, a conversation about humor and Russian literature with Ben Greenman and Elif Batuman at Jewcy: