“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…)
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
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…)
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…)
Here’s the moment that tells you everything you need to know about Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the feverishly anticipated, eight-episode comedy series debuting on Netflix on July 31. It’s when two of the counselors at Camp Firewood, in Maine, challenge each other to a “shofar dick sword fight.” (more…)
By 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…)
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…)
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…)
In a tidy coincidence, two separate videos went viral last week, demonstrating that American Jews’ love affair with obscenity is still going strong. Sarah Silverman talks about being visited by Jesus Christ, who asks her to spread a message about women’s reproductive rights (“We’ve got to legislate that shit,” the comedienne said, mocking conservatives who want to use the law to limit women’s health care options), while a a fan-produced supercut strung together three minutes of uninterrupted insults by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (more…)
In the first chapter of her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter—a book as unrelentingly winsome as its author—comedian Sarah Silverman recalls how as a 4-year-old she broke up a room by telling her grandmother, who had offered her some brownies, to “Shove ’em up your ass.” Remembering this incident, Silverman writes, makes her “nostalgic for the days when naked obscenity was enough for a laugh, and didn’t need any kind of crafted punch line to accompany it.” (more…)