The literary mafia of postwar publishing – The Australian Jewish Information


Within the postwar years, there have been so many Jews within the American publishing trade that some writers started coining a phrase to explain them: “The literary mafia.”

This mafia, they believed, secretly ensured that Jewish books and authors would get printed by the key publishing homes, coated within the literary press, and supported on the main tutorial establishments — on the expense of different, non-Jewish writers, and even the “flawed” sorts of Jewish writers.

Such a perception, typically pushed by antisemitism and typically by a basic feeling of literary displacement and profession frustration, was shared by figures together with Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor to explain the feeling they felt watching their Jewish friends like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick. In writings of the time interval, they and different notable authors believed that highly effective trade Jews have been the trigger behind any of their careers being stalled.

The time period was additionally employed, self-consciously, by lots of the precise distinguished Jews who labored within the literary sphere, from publishing homes to literary magazines to academia. These Jews would typically make jokes about what number of different Jews they encountered on the prime of their industries, or specific frustration that they weren’t on the within circle of them.

Josh Lambert, director of the Jewish Research program at Wellesley School, explores the curious phenomenon of the “literary mafia” in his new e book, The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, And Postwar American Literature.

Drawing from the correspondences of distinguished Jewish authors, editors, publishers and lecturers from the time interval, together with Knopf editor Harold Strauss, Esquire editor Gordon Lish, Columbia College professor Lionel Trilling and writer Ann Birstein, the e book dispels the parable of the “literary mafia.”

However Lambert additionally argues that Jews in positions of energy could also be inclined to assist different Jews, as a result of their private {and professional} networks are made up of Jews.

Within the e book, Lambert unpacks the skilled and private relationships that knowledgeable this era of what he calls “Jewish literary enfranchisement” — and the methods through which such networks of affect persist into the trendy period.

Let’s begin with the broadest doable query: Was there a “Jewish literary mafia”? And if there was, what was it?

I believe the easiest way I can reply that query is, no, there wasn’t, nevertheless it’s not uninteresting to speak about it anyway. There wasn’t the Jewish literary mafia that Truman Capote thought there was the place he stated, “Oh, these persons are scheming and conspiring.” And there wasn’t even the Jewish literary mafia that Jewish author Meyer Levin thought there was, the place [he thought] folks received collectively at events and stated, “We’re by no means going to speak about his e book.” That didn’t occur.

The query that I believe is extra fascinating is: why did severe folks even speak about this? Why did this concept, this meme or trope, final for 20 or 30 years? And the reply is definitely very easy, I believe, for anybody who works in journalism, or the tradition trade. In case you’ve labored in any trade like that for 5 minutes, you’ll be able to say there are some individuals who had it simpler, who had a smoother path. They received helped out, they’d benefits, their pitches received accepted faster. Even other than that, you’ve gotten relationships with folks, and so they come to bear on who offers you an opportunity to do issues or who helps you out.

And it’s simple to think about why somebody who’s on the flawed facet of that, in some moments, feels prefer it’s not truthful, looks like one thing’s going flawed, looks like there’s an issue. So this trope of the “literary mafia,” it’s simply the place the place folks put their emotions in regards to the improper or unfair makes use of of energy — within the case of my e book, within the publishing trade.

Had been there instances the place folks used their energy inappropriately? For positive. I speak about them within the e book. But additionally, I believe we have to speak in a extra considerate means about, what’s that energy, that affect, that capacity to form what will get learn or printed? And who has it and the way do they use that energy?

You’re a scholar of Jewish tradition and Jewish literature speaking in regards to the affect of Jews within the publishing trade. There’s a component in your e book the place you’re simply itemizing the Jews who presently or used to work in publishing. Why draw consideration to this when this might encourage an antisemitic studying of the historical past that you just’re presenting?

I believe that if there’s like a consistency between this e book and my final e book [Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture], it’s exactly that. I don’t wish to hand the dialog to antisemites, irrespective of how robust they’re or how terrifying they’re. They shouldn’t be those who get to resolve how we speak about these sorts of points.

In my final e book about obscenity, antisemites used it in a horrible means, in an inappropriate means, in a pernicious means. [David Duke tweeted admiringly about Unclean Lips, and it was cited in some antisemitic publications as “evidence” that Jews are sexual predators.] I type of knew they have been going to try this. And so they may do it with this e book. And the factor is, I believe David Duke goes to do what he does, no matter what I do, so I’m not going to fret about that.

However I do suppose the viewers that I wish to speak to, which is Jews in America and non-Jews who care in regards to the literary system who should not antisemites — I believe the concept we couldn’t speak about Jewish success, Jewish affect, Jewish energy solely distorts and solely stops us from understanding necessary and actually significant issues.

So, that record: Making a listing of any type of Jew feels somewhat unusual. However on the similar time, denying it or pretending it’s not there actually feels uncomfortable.

You name the postwar interval in literature a time of “Jewish literary enfranchisement.” What prompted that, and what have been a few of the execs and cons of this sudden elevation of Jews to positions of energy in publishing, magazines and academia?

I used to be in search of a time period, and “enfranchisement” I appreciated as a result of it doesn’t inform you what an individual goes to do. It simply says that they’ve a brand new alternative and a brand new means to make use of it. And what brought on that precisely remains to be onerous to disentangle from different socioeconomic adjustments occurring for Jews. We all know within the postwar interval, Jews are doing higher economically. There’s extra help politically for Jews in several methods. And the success within the publishing trade is expounded to all that, but in addition simply associated to the expansion of those firms that Jews based within the 1910s and Twenties which are succeeding wildly, and which are simply not discriminating towards Jewish staff.

It’s really actually onerous to wrap your head round what the disenfranchisement seemed like, which didn’t imply that no single Jew ever received to publish something, or that no Jewish individual may ever do one thing, however actually meant that as a basic factor, Jews weren’t in decision-making positions. Whereas within the postwar interval it turns into utterly unremarkable, in a literal sense, that Jews had any jobs within the subject.

You suppose to your self: What adjustments when there hasn’t been an individual from this explicit minority group who [now] has a gatekeeping perform on this trade? For an editor at [Jewish-owned publishing house] Knopf, Harold Strauss, the reply is that, as soon as folks from that minority group are in that place, they’re projecting their very own concepts about what this group’s identification is, what it ought to be, onto their resolution making. An entire bunch of Jewish editors get the possibility to form a publishing program and say, these are the sorts of books that I believe folks will wish to learn. And I believe that it’s completely a blended bag.

[Knopf] did an exquisite job of publishing Yiddish in translation. Why was it ready to try this? As a result of they actually appreciated high-prestige European literature, and so they can current some Yiddish literature not as sweatshop poetry, however like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. On the similar time, a part of what Knopf was extra snug with than another publishers, as a result of it was a Jewish home, was stuff that I believe most of us would have a look at and say was antisemitic. Stuff like H. L. Mencken writing a pair passages about Jews because the worst group of individuals on the planet.

It was virtually like, as a result of they have been self-conscious of their identification as Jews, that they felt extra like they may publish a few of this antisemitic writing as a strategy to virtually keep off accusations that they have been a part of a literary mafia.

You may have chapters on ingrained misogyny and blatant situations of nepotism amongst Jews in publishing homes. What are the teachings for Jews to remove from these chronicles of the failings of literary leaders of the time?

I’ll converse to the nepotism piece as a result of I believe that’s a part of the place the place it’s clearest. Nepotism is that this huge drive in our society. If you consider your folks, folks you recognize, folks you’ve grown up with, it makes an infinite distinction in folks’s lives whether or not they have rich dad and mom and grandparents or not. That is usually true of Western tradition. The factor that’s completely different is that, three or 4 generations in the past, most American Jews couldn’t anticipate that type of inheritance. And within the final 20, 30, 40 years, that’s turn into way more widespread.

It’s not ubiquitous. It’s not everybody within the American Jewish neighborhood, nevertheless it actually does change the place Jews sit, vis-a-vis different folks in America, when it comes to their benefits. What do you wish to do with the benefits and privileges and energy that you just’re given? If we will agree that it’s quite a bit simpler for a younger Jewish one that occurs to be bookish to get a job in publishing, to achieve that profession, and we care about bigger social justice points, I believe that it pushes us to wish to ask questions like, what can we do?

As a dad or mum myself, I do know: I really like my youngsters. It’s not like I would like my youngsters to not succeed. However I do wish to create techniques that aren’t saying that the kids of essentially the most privileged folks will proceed to be essentially the most privileged folks in each occasion.

This yr’s Pulitzer winner for fiction, Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus, is a particularly particular rendering of American Jewish life and intra-Jewish politics. It’s not dissimilar to the scene that you just depict within the e book of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and all these different Jews successful main literary prizes within the ’50s. Is the thought of the “Jewish literary mafia” nonetheless with us?

There’s completely no query that Jews nonetheless are distinguished and profitable and thriving. And if you happen to gave me three faculty youngsters who’re eager to work in publishing and one was a Jewish child, my cash can be on them that they’d have one of the best probability of succeeding — as a result of they’ll have essentially the most connections, and so forth.

That Pulitzer resolution, when a prize like that occurs, it feels prefer it tells you one thing in regards to the cultural second. The Pulitzer board makes public the names of the judges on that panel that awarded the prize to Josh Cohen’s e book. What’s actually necessary is to not consider it because the Pulitzer, however as a dialog that occurred amongst these three or 4 folks. What can we find out about them and what their pursuits are? [The jury members for the 2022 Fiction Pulitzers were Whiting Foundation director Courtney Hodell, Kirkus Reviews Editor-in-Chief Tom Beer, Wall Street Journal fiction columnist Sam Sacks, Northwestern University professor Chris Abani and Deborah Heard, former director of the Hurston/Wright Foundation supporting Black writers.]

A prize isn’t an goal or pure illustration of a e book. It’s all the time only a story a few group of individuals and what they’re enthusiastic about in a specific second.

It is a meta query: You speak in regards to the relationships you have been ready to attract on your self, as a Jewish tutorial within the publishing house, with the intention to publish this e book, and one of many causes I’m interviewing you is that we all know one another via comparable areas: you have been a grad scholar teacher of mine, and I later participated in a Jewish writing fellowship you ran. How are you fascinated about these sorts of relationships as you’re navigating the world and your personal profession?

I actually respect the query as a result of I simply suppose, on some bigger degree, that’s what I would like the e book to be fascinated about. One, extra transparency about that’s good. It’s good that we should always say that we all know one another. I don’t suppose it makes the truth that you’re going to publish a bit about my e book impossibly corrupt, or an indication of one thing deeply flawed. But it surely’s truthful to say that I might do you a favor if I may, and I most likely have, and I’d respect it if you happen to would do me a favor.

I do really feel like as you pay extra consideration to that, it ought to affect the way you act and the way you deploy no matter energy you’ve amassed. One of many issues that Wellesley has is that this unimaginable alumni community, the place alums from the college are actually compelled by the thought of serving to out a recent scholar. And I say to them, it’s price fascinated about what’s comparable and completely different in that alumni community to the Harvard alumni community. As a result of if what your alumni community does is take people who find themselves privileged and have essentially the most entry to energy and provides them an additional increase of energy, you may wish to suppose that that’s not one of the best factor to help. However if you happen to’re fascinated about industries through which girls and nonbinary folks have been historically and regularly underrepresented and discriminated towards, and the Wellesley alumni community will help to push for extra justice and fairness in these fields, then it’s a tremendous factor.

To the diploma that I’ve a task as a mentor and supporter of scholars, I’m making an attempt to consider: Who’re the scholars who’re least prone to get assist? It may not even be as a lot my intuition to help them as a result of they may appear much less much like me or their targets may be much less aligned with me. However I can attempt to discover a means to make use of no matter benefits I’ve to assist them — bringing a type of conscientiousness to who I assist with letters of advice, who I attempt to arrange with alternatives, that kind of factor.

You argue that “we want extra literary mafias,” and also you define what that may seem like in 20, 30 years if there have been all of a sudden an abundance of Black folks in these positions of publishing energy, or different marginalized teams, and the way that may have an effect on Jews as effectively. Are you able to break that down?

If we will all acknowledge that Jews have performed this extremely outsized function and, nonetheless into the current, have performed that within the publishing trade, one of many issues you’ll be able to take away from that’s, it really is OK if a bunch has fairly disproportionate energy.

There’s an concept of range that it means your proportion on this trade ought to relate to your proportion within the inhabitants. And I simply don’t suppose industries work like that, and energy doesn’t work like that. What you’d wish to see will not be a tokenizing method to range that takes a few folks and places them in positions of energy, however an actual shift, the place there generally is a sense that there’s by no means too many.

And I believe it’s occurring in publishing proper now in a extremely highly effective and fascinating sense. For the reason that homicide of George Floyd, there’s a motion, an actual consideration to white supremacy in American tradition. The publishing trade has employed some African American editors in actually distinguished positions. And I believe that’s nice. And what I might actually hope for, what I hope the historical past of Jews suggests, is after they’ve employed these distinguished folks in these distinguished positions, they need to rent 400 extra.

The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, And Postwar American Literature is printed by Yale College Press.

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