With that in mind, Josh Lambert has written American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, published by Philadelphia's Jewish Publication Society. Lambert's work distills American Jewish literature down to 125 entries — books published between 1867 and 2007. All the heavy-hitters are here, including Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, as well as many lesser-known scribes.
But don't go thinking that this is the definitive disquisition on the subject, said its compiler.
"As a lover of this literature, I hate the idea that anyone can think that there are 10 books I need to read in this field, or 30 books, or even 125 books. You want to flip through these entries and figure out what these books mean to you," said Lambert.
The entries are listed chronologically, and each title receives a plot summary and short review, along with a note for further reading. This sense of open-endedness was fully intentional.
"I hope it doesn't give anyone an idea that this is finished," said Lambert. "I hope that if this book goes into a second edition that the number [of entries] will move up to 175 or 200, or whatever, depending on how much time I have and how many pages are available."
As for the selection process, Lambert — a Harvard graduate and currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan — worked with his academic advisers, as well as other scholars in the field, to pare down a list of nearly 600 books to a more manageable 125.
Lambert had already imposed some loose guidelines for the project, which meant leaving out all autobiographical content (thus, no Maus); untranslated Hebrew and Yiddish literature; and books written by U.S. Jews that don't touch on American Jewish content (so long, The Red Tent).
Oh, and the books had to actually be available to read.
"One of the great things about doing this book now is that, with used-book Web sites and better library catalogues, it's easier to find books than it once was … . I felt like it would be a bit cruel to recommend a book that couldn't be found. That'd be a bit of a tease, so I had to leave out some that might be worth talking about, but can't really be discussed until there's a reprint or some sort of greater availability."
Rather than providing a ranking, Lambert said that he tried to craft a list that included a little something for everyone.
"One of my perspectives on this literature is to think about the different ways different readers are served by different books," said Lambert. "You can't leave out [Leon Uris'] Exodus in a discussion of American Jewish literature; it'd be criminal to leave it out. At the same time, you have to be aware that Uris wasn't the most elegant, graceful or skilled prose stylist. He may have written a compelling story with respectable research, but a fan of elegant literature might find that book less than compelling. But some of the more modern, esoteric writings might not be what every Jewish reader is looking for either."
A New Golden Age?
Lambert is quick to point out that his new work is by no means comprehensive, and that a companion Web site (www.AmericanJewishFiction.com) is being put together to allow readers a forum to respond.
"Whenever you make a literary list, the first thing that happens is [someone] reads it says, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you left out this or that,' " said Lambert. "I hope people who have that response will come to the Web site. I'm hoping we can build some of those conversations into a forum where people can talk about their reactions to these books, and what these books mean to them as readers of general fiction and as American Jews."
While Lambert's research led him to read hundreds of books, he's optimistic that the future of American Jewish fiction will be just as bright as the past.
In particular, he cited people like Dara Horn, whose writing, he said, shows a clear connection to Yiddish and Hebrew traditions, as well as post-Soviet writers like Gary Shteyngart and Anya Ulinich, who "bring the closeness to the great Russian literary traditions."
Said Lambert: "As much as it's a tough time to be writing and publishing books, there's still a strength of audience, that people are fascinated by writing about American Jews, and there's every reason to be optimistic about the future of the field."