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…)
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…)
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…)
Is there any lower form of comedy than song parody? Dirty limericks and knock-knock jokes may be worthless, but at least they have the decency to be brief. A parody song almost always lasts a chorus or two longer than necessary, and that’s just the beginning of the trouble.
Which makes the best work of Allan Sherman all the more astonishing. Fiddling with the lyrics of recognizable songs—transforming “Frère Jacques” into “Sarah Jackman” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into “The Ballad of Harry Lewis”—the heavyset, bespectacled comic turned himself into a star, sold millions of albums, won a Grammy, and headlined concerts from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. (JFK was a fan.) He also managed to say something about the place of Jews in 1960s America. (more…)
Moshe Kasher introduces one bit on his 2009 debut comedy CD, Everyone You Know Is Going to Die, And Then You Are, by saying the words, “I went to college.” Which, given that Kasher is a 32-year-old American Jew, would seem a little like his saying that he breathes oxygen. (more…)
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…)
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…)
Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon
Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse
Edited by Justin Daniel Cammy, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint and Rachel Rubinstein
Harvard University Press, 750 pages, $75.
In September 1976, Commentary printed the letters of three novelists who had taken umbrage at appraisals of their work, in a previous issue, by a relatively unknown Yiddish professor named Ruth Wisse. Cynthia Ozick, the most fervent of the respondents, judged Wisse guilty of a “fundamental (and, for a good reader, unforgivable) critical error”: confusing literature with sociology.
This old contretemps bears recalling less for its substance — authors and critics have bickered about the relationship between fiction and life for centuries — than for what it reveals about Wisse’s personality. (more…)
On June 1, 1955, Sam Astrachan graduated from Columbia. On June 2, he moved into a room at Yaddo, the famed artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs. He was 21, one of the youngest writers ever to be so honored, and he had been invited thanks to his professor, Lionel Trilling, at that time the country’s foremost literary scholar. (more…)
In the fall of 1924, Ludwig Lewisohn had all sorts of worries: He’d left his wife in New York and run off to Europe with a younger woman, and, on a recent jaunt to Poland, all the “filthy, starved, oppressed” Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto had depressed him. Clearly, he needed a therapist. Since he happened to be in central Europe, and since he never did anything by half measures, he had a friend lend him a room on Wahringerstrasse in Vienna, and went straight to Sigmund Freud. Though Freud, who lived a couple of blocks away, was happy to psychoanalyze him, Lewisohn ended his treatment after a few sessions. According to his biographer, Ralph Melnick, he feared “the loss of his anxieties” would be “the destruction of what had driven him as a writer.” (more…)