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…)

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…)

Our Naked Desire for ‘Truth’

May 2, 2014 | , ,

For the past decade or more, American literary critics have been either celebrating a “memoir boom” or wringing their hands about it. Some said the boom was just a marketing campaign, and others wrote it off years ago. But surely the genre’s moment can’t be totally over if the most zeitgeisty character of our day, Hannah Horvath of HBO’s “Girls,” aspires to publish not novels or film scripts, but personal essays.

Life-writing is, of course, nothing new for Jews. (more…)

Yiddish Icons, Portrayed in Cartoons

Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land
Edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle
Abrams ComicArts, 240 pages, $29.95

People don’t admire paintings they haven’t seen, or dance to music they haven’t heard, but they do all sorts of crazy things with languages they don’t speak. This is what Rutgers University scholar Jeffrey Shandler described in his 2005 book, “Adventures in Yiddishland” (University of California Press), as “postvernacular culture”: Just because people don’t know a language doesn’t mean they won’t hold intense beliefs about it, long for it or revile it, and, in ways both brilliant and bizarre, put it to use.

“Yiddishkeit,” an anthology co-edited by comics great Harvey Pekar, who passed away last year, and leftist scholar and non-Jewish Yiddish-speaker Paul Buhle, does not attempt to teach its reader a selection of Yiddish words, unlike Michael Wex’s and Leo Rosten’s best-sellers. And it is not a history or an analysis of Yiddish culture, nor a collection of Yiddish literature translated into English. It’s weirder, more puzzling and more difficult to describe: We might call it a postvernacular tour de force. (more…)

What Is Jewish Literature? Dan Miron’s Authoritative Answer

November 29, 2010 | , , ,

From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking
By Dan Miron
Stanford University Press, 560 pages, $65

Dan Miron’s “From Continuity to Contiguity” is a work of Jewish literary theory — an exceedingly erudite one, and in some ways the most important to appear in recent decades — that reads a little like a mystery novel. The book begins with the idea that “continuity” is dead as a model for studying Jewish literature, and Miron, the Leonard Kaye Chair of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, even tells us who killed it: “the so-called Tel Aviv structuralist school of poetics.” (more…)

Cultural Materialism

July 7, 2010 | ,

Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America
By Ken Koltun-Fromm
Indiana University Press, 358 pages, $70

Being an Americanist in a Jewish studies department can be, from time to time, a humbling experience: When your colleague down the hall is educating her students about the Akkadian and Sumerian sources of the Torah or helping them piece together Judeo-Arabic fragments from the Cairo Genizah, it can seem a little silly that your own students are busy writing analyses, per your assignment, of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (more…)

Review: ‘Backing Into Forward’ by Jules Feiffer

Backing Into Forward: A Memoir
By Jules Feiffer
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 450 pp., $30

Whether newspapers live or die, the prognosis for the comic strip doesn’t look promising. The extinction of the form not much more than a century after its birth would represent only a very minor tragedy too, given the rise of the graphic novel — who would shed a tear for “Hägar the Horrible” in the age of “Fun Home” and “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”? — except it would also mean we no longer live in a world with a berth reserved for the likes of Jules Feiffer. (more…)