Latest Posts

From ‘Soup Nazi’ to Today Sponge: How ‘Seinfeld’ Became a Cultural Phenomenon

August 10, 2016 | , ,

“Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $26

 

“Seinfeld” aired its finale a little over 18 years ago, but the show hasn’t exactly gone away. Every day, reruns continue to air on stations all over the world, and last year, Hulu coughed up a reported $160 million for the right to stream all 180 episodes digitally. There may be a few television watchers out there who couldn’t pick Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer out of a lineup, but not many. And an enormous number of people, if prompted, can still summarize a dozen episodes’ intricate plots or spool out a series of the show’s catchphrases: “yada yada yada,” “close talker,” “master of his domain.”

What’s left to say about a show that was so celebrated during its nine-year run, and remains so familiar almost two decades later? Quite a bit, it turns out, as evidenced by Jennifer Keishen Armstrong’s “Seinfeldia,” a quirky, readable chronicle of the so-called “show about nothing” created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. (more…)

The History of Prestige: Blanche Knopf and Literary Culture

Prestige is often what we’re talking about when we talk about literature.

Literature, after all, was for a long time understood as that subspecies of writing, per Raymond Williams, “‘substantial’ and ‘important’” enough to merit the name. Determining and debating what counts has always been one of the central activities of literary critics and scholars. Some of the most influential works of literary history published in the last decade, like James English’sThe Economy of Prestige and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, have focused their attention squarely on the creation and use of prestige within the literary field.

English and Casanova do not simply accept some vague sense that a work of literature is prestigious, or argue that it should or shouldn’t be, but rather examine how prestige has been conferred or accrued, and what it can accomplish. This approach marks them as part of a species of literary history that can be traced back through the canon wars, histories like Richard Brodhead’s Cultures of Letters, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essays on literature and art, where the investment of an object with “symbolic capital” is never assumed to be inevitable, but is understood as the effect produced by actions taken by players and various forces at work in the “cultural field.” One needn’t subscribe to anything like orthodox Bourdieuianism to acknowledge that institutionalized hierarchies of value, acknowledged or not, continue to play out in virtually every journal article and book review and proposal and pitch.

With this in mind, it would be hard to overstate the importance of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (more…)

The Soviet Mod Squad

May 30, 2016 |

The Yid
Paul Goldberg
Picador
2016, pp. 320, $26

Paul Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, may remind many of its readers of the movies of director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, and especially his 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds [sic], in which a French-Jewish cinema proprietor and a Jewish-American military squad work together to assassinate Hitler and others. Like that film, Goldberg’s novel begins with a shocking, comic scene of aestheticized violence, and then it proceeds to tell the story of a cadre that assembles with the aim of assassinating Stalin in early 1953. 

Sensible as the comparison might be, The Yid isn’t just Tarantinoism applied to late-Stalinist Russia, though. It’s more like what you might get if you crossed the iconic filmmaker with the novelist Dara Horn, author of The World to Come (2006), among other books.  Horn’s novels, which regularly win Jewish book prizes, delight audiences with how much history they manage to pack in. That makes sense if you know that Horn’s initial ambition, when she set out to become a writer, was magazine journalism. Maybe this helps to explain why Goldberg, who has been a working journalist for 35 years, produced something similar upon turning to fiction: an easy-to-read patchwork of scenes and flashbacks that advance a narrative but also make it possible for him to fold in a few dozen historical tidbits and personalities. (more…)

How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel

March 9, 2016 | , , ,

Young Lions:
How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel
By Leah Garrett
Northwestern University Press, 275 pages, $34.95

Which works of Jewish literature do we remember, and which do we forget?

The story we like to tell about American Jewish literature in the mid-20th century is that in the 1950s, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth leapt to prominence with books that pulled off the trick of making Jews’ experiences relevant to everybody. Those writers remained prominent for half a century, and Roth, the only one still alive today (though allegedly retired), can still make the Internet take notice by griping about Wikipedia orhaving a birthday party. Over many productive decades, these three writers picked up every major prize open to Americans, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel.

Even before this “breakthrough,” though, Jewish writers were already doing just fine, thank you. (more…)

Pfefferman Family Matters

December 7, 2015 | , ,

There was an unanswered question at the heart of the first season of Transparent, the TV-show-not-for-TVs, produced by an Internet retail behemoth, that earned so much love last year. It was a question apparent from the show’s title sequence, but no one, despite a vast ocean of thinkpieces and increasingly rapturous reviews, seemed to ask it directly. And yet it’s the question that Jill Soloway, the show’s creator and director, has devoted the show’s second season to answering.

Want to know what it is? Watch the title sequence again with me—or, better yet, watch it with Slate’s Stephen Vider. As he points out, the clips you’ll see are “culled mostly from video clips of bar and bat mitzvah videos from the 1960s to the ’90s,” but there are also a few shots from Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a “rarely seen and ground-breaking documentary of the 1967 New York Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant” and “one of the earliest screen portrayals of the lives of ‘female impersonators.’” Vider expertly explains how important that documentary footage is, rooting the show’s representation of a transgender woman’s journey in the history of transgender activism and its capture on film.

But there’s another question one could ask: Why all the bar and bat mitzvahs to begin with? Why should this groundbreaking, frankly activist show about a transgender woman’s journey be so deeply Jewish? (more…)

The Next Philip Roth

September 10, 2014 | , , ,

10:04
B
y Ben Lerner
Faber & Faber, 256 pages, $25

Call it the “Zuckerman effect,” after Philip Roth’s most famous fictional alter-ego: A young writer breaks out with a smart, entertaining novel that allows or even encourages his readers to confuse its fictional protagonist with its author. Then comes a follow-up, which plays even more forcefully with the line between fact and fiction, both because it is natural for the writer to examine his newfound condition using the tactics that made the first book a hit, and also because the literary market is prepared to pay him handsomely in the hopes that his celebrity, such as it is, represents potential sales.

In other words, what happened to Roth after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and to many other writers both before and since, is now happening, writ relatively small, to Ben Lerner. (more…)

It All Begins with the Jewish Nose

August 15, 2014 | ,

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95

Jess Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” has an inevitable quality to it. Can it really have taken this long for a writer to connect the increasingly widespread conversation about the construction of gender that’s raised by trans-rights activism — which recently reached another watershed when Laverne Cox, a trans actress, made the cover of Time magazine — to that most primal of American subjects, race? (more…)

Comedy Isn’t Kosher, But It Can Be Funny

May 20, 2014 | , , ,

A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?

The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. (more…)