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Speaking Volumes: Will the Next Philip Roth Please Stand Up?

August 4, 2005 By:
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I blame it all on Nathan Englander. As you may recall, this precocious writer published a collection of short stories six years ago called For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. I wrote then that I didn't think I'd ever heard more hoopla, from both a publisher (in this case Alfred A. Knopf) and the media, for a first book of stories than what greeted the appearance of this work. The promotional fervor was intense, the first printing considerable, and there was even talk of a six-figure advance - somewhere in the range of $350,000! For a book of short stories!

The only writer I could come up with who'd been greeted in a similar fashion was Ann Beattie, back in the 1970s, and before she published in book form, she'd been a darling of The New Yorker. But she never got those kind of bucks for her first collection of stories.

But it did seem of significance six years ago that Beattie had provided a blurb for the Englander collection.

"The best story collection I've read in ages," Beattie opined. "Every so often there's a new voice that entirely revitalizes the short story. It happened with Richard Ford, and with Denis Johnson, and with Thom Jones. It's happening again with Englander, whose precise, funny, heart-breaking, well-controlled but never contrived stories open a window on a fascinating landscape we might never have known was there."

This seemed an anointing by an elder of a new, highly talented acolyte.

I, however, was totally confused by the response and all the others that greeted the stories. Call me a spoilsport, but Englander's work seemed totally contrived, in the manner of a talented creative-writing student who can mimic all sorts of styles and manners of execution. (It was not surprising to discover that he was a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.) All of the stories seemed to have more to do with literature than life - everything more imagined than felt - whether it was in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," where the WASPy main character suddenly realizes that he has a Jewish neshama, or in the title story, in which a sexually frustrated husband is told by his rabbi to seek the skills of a prostitute.

Englander, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox household, told the Forward at the time of publication that he'd been doing everything in his power to escape the fold. His stories, which seem to provide an insider's view of Orthodox Judaism, work on the premise of turning the tables on their pious characters. I noted that this attitude may tickle left-liberal reviewers and Manhattan book editors to no end, but I found it lifeless on the page, and still consider it extremely offensive.

But the greater problem, at least for the world of American fiction, was that Englander's debut - or more specifically, the critical and media response to it - set a terrible precedent. I like to call it "the next great thing" syndrome. Englander was christened, on the evidence of a slim book of stories, as fiction's "great white hope." But as I recall, it used to take years for the great writers of even the recent past to get the kind of press Englander had gotten on his first time at bat. You could cite Faulkner or Hemingway. Their first few books - all of which were far more substantial than Englander's - met with a smattering of attention, but often only silence.

It took them years of work and discipline to earn their reputations.

On the Lookout
And so, après Englander's excessive press, "the next great thing" syndrome became a feature of the reviewing landscape. Everybody was on the lookout for the newest short story superstar, and nothing would stop these critics from smoking them out - especially not lack of quality.

Two recent examples of the phenomenon have been Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis. Both of their first books - There Are Jews in My House and Natasha and Other Stories - have now been reissued in paperback, reminding us that these works are, in a physical sense as well as a literary one, even slimmer than Englander's debut collection. But the response has been just as deafening.

Vapnyar's book, made up of six very slight stories, contains this blurb from Gary Shteyngart, author of the highly acclaimed novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook: "A remarkable collection … Eerie in its simplicity, stunning in its scope. Through her tender, insightful writing, Vapnyar's characters, battered by history and each other, emerge from the long Soviet night oddly radiant and whole."

Bezmozgis, also Russian and Jewish, was praised by the novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle in this way: "Exquisitely crafted stories … A first collection that reads like the work of a past master." For the record, Natasha contains seven mostly brief stories.

Again, I'm the spoilsport in all this. In both of these collection, I found perhaps one substantial story, with the rest of the pieces qualifying as thinly disguised autobiography. In both cases, the writers (or their editors) realized what the best story in the mix was because they featured it in the titles. In "There Are Jews in My House" and "Natasha," both writers actually work at being writers, trying to create imagined worlds, rather than just acting like nostalgic memoirists recounting bits of their past without any sort of creative overlay.

But if you listened to their jacket promotions and the reviewers that followed, you'd think we had come upon the new Chekhov and the new Gogol.

On this and lots more corroborating evidence, it's clear that publishing is now nothing more than another branch of the entertainment business, where writers are treated like actors or directors, and praised extravagantly because that's the way you sell the most tickets. And if these writers happen to be good-looking specimens as well, the public-relations machinery really kicks into high gear and works to give them the status of movie stars.

The newest Jewish hot shot on the block is Shalom Auslander, whose book of stories, Beware of God, was recently published by Simon and Schuster. This one contains 14 stories, but don't let that fool you. The book's format is a lot smaller than those of his recent Jewish predecessors, and his stories are even briefer.

Let's consider the evidence. Take the title, for example. It doesn't refer to a story in the collection but was applied to sum up the book's effect - and is very much to the point. Beware of God is a pun, referring to those warning signs outside of houses that tell you to "Beware of Dog." Get it? Well, if you do, then you also get the level of the humor that pervades this debut offering.

The bio that accompanies the rather intense, scowling photo of the author tells us that Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Spring Valley, N.Y., and that he was nominated for the Koret Award for writers under 35. His work has appeared in Esquire, and he's had stories aired on NPR's This American Life.

That should tell you everything you need to know, and that Auslander shares with Englander a dismissive attitude toward Orthodoxy that probably acted as his cachet into the literary world. But these stories are not stories at all; rather they read like the routines of a stand-up comic, and their only saving grace is an occasional amusing punchline.

But listen to star writer A.M. Homes, who provided a blurb: "The stories in Beware of God mark the debut of the freshest voice in Jewish literature since Philip Roth arrived on the scene."

Hyperbole has clearly become the common coin in literary circles these days. But if I were Philip Roth, I'd sue for slander.

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