Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I Generally Don't Read Jewish Books

If you've been following my blog, you may have noticed that although I reviewed two Jewish books way back when I started blogging, I haven't reviewed any since. The reason is quite simple: When I read those, it was because it was Pesach/Passover, and my sister had gotten some new books, so I read them. Now, over Succos, my sister bought some more new Jewish books, so I've been reading those! In between, I don't really read Jewish books.

Here's why: Jewish books are not really of the same caliber as non-Jewish, mainstream fiction. There's the "Yair Weinstock" books - crazy, unrealistic spy novels, following multiple characters across many countries and possibly time periods, where people with no spy experience end up saving the world.  There's the tearful, emotional dramas about people's problems, ranging from emotional and mental disorders to "shidduch-crisis" type or emunah (faith) problems. There's historical fiction, usually inspired by a single event, and the rest of the book doesn't make much sense for that time period. And usually the style of writing is either formulaic or all over the place - many books translated from Hebrew sound stilted or floppy (I know, two extremes, but it's true!).

That's not to say there aren't good Jewish writers. OK, I don't like thrillers, but I suppose there are some good Jewish ones. And the tearful dramas can be good - take Chava Rosenberg, whose many books are translated from Hebrew. She manages to inject a large amount of truth and reality in her stories so you feel like you're reading someone's diary. An emotional someone, but still! Sara Wiederblank's Just Between Friends is a real, believable account of four normal girls (although she does talk about the shidduch crisis!). And there's M. Bassara's Sun Inside Rain (when is she writing another novel please please please!), which is thoroughly researched historical fiction, with an emotionally charged story about a heroine with emunah issues. That's a book I read so many times and plan on re-reading again over the second days of Succos! I heard that M. Bassara is actually a pseudonym, and "Bassara" means "bas Sara," daughter of Sara, meaning that she is a giyoress (convert to Judaism). (unconfirmed fact!)

Which brings me to my point - I think that the main problem with Jewish literature is that the people reading and writing it have not generally read anything besides Jewish literature. I used to think that there was a dearth of writers in the Jewish world, and in order to keep up with demand for new books, publishers just printed whatever came across their desks. After corresponding with M. Bassara, though, I learned that some Jewish writers are actually rejected. In most published Jewish books, I see "potential" - a word my friends and I decided, back in eighth grade, is actually derogatory and not a compliment. Because a published book should be polished - its potential should be realized and actualized. But since Jewish writers - and I guess editors as well - don't have a wide reading base of "bestsellers" with which to compare manuscripts, books that sound like first drafts are published.

Older books, like Family for a While, A Light for Greytowers, The Exiles of Crocodile Island, Dovid Meyer, etc., seem to me to be of a much higher caliber than most of today's novels. That totally fits with my idea, because back then, Jewish people did tend to read more widely (secular books were generally a lot cleaner then and thus more accepted in the Jewish community). So authors in that time did have successful books to compare their own writing to, and they wrote to that standard.

But here's the thing - there is so much writing talent in the Jewish community! It bothers me so much when a half-baked novel is published - more than it bothers me when a ridiculous novel is published - because it means that with just a little more work and maybe some research, the novel could have been great rather than mediocre!

(P.S. There was this one book I had taken out of the public library, not a Jewish book, but I hadn't realized that it was a faith-based book - This Side of Heaven by Karen Kingsbury. When I started reading it, I started with the acknowledgments - call me crazy, but I read every part of a book - and I didn't get past that. I was gagging on the language and style in the dedications to her children! Anyway, my mother picked it up off my shelf yesterday and read it. She told me now that she was laughing all the way through - because it reminded her of Jewish faith-based books! The same gooey, mushy, seeing the light after "going off" and causing everyone heartache, the same style as the "tearful dramas" about emunah problems... And this is published by Center Street of Hachette Book Group! Who knows, maybe it's just a symptom of the genre...)

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