The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature

Yale University Press. 2022. $35.

Yale UP / JStorAmazon / Bookshop.org

Prizes: 

Finalist, American Jewish Studies (Celebrate 350 Award), 72nd National Jewish Book Awards.

Features, excerpts, interviews: 

Oliver B. Pollack, “The Virtual New Book Tour,” San Diego Jewish World (December 13, 2022).

“Rona Jaffe: The Best of Everything,” Lost Ladies of Lit (November 1, 2022). 

Excerpt: “How a Novel Slyly Suggests the Truth about Women in Publishing: Revisiting The Best of Everything,” Lilith (Fall 2022), 36-38.

The Shmooze with Lisa Newman, Yiddish Book Center (October 24, 2022).

Interview, with Abigail PogrebinJBS (October 6, 2022).

Excerpt: “Twas Thrilling When Trilling Wrote a Blurb,” JStor Daily (October 5, 2022).

Rich Tenorio, “‘Literary Mafia’ Details Anti-Semitism in the Publishing Industry,” JewishBoston.com (September 1, 2022).

Amy Spiro, “Did a Jewish mafia once control the US publishing industry?” Times of Israel (August 12, 2022).

Tzach Yoched, “[Did Philip Roth Owe His Success to the Jewish Mafia that Ruled the Literary World?]” Haaretz [Hebrew] (August 10, 2022). In English: “Could a ‘Jewish literary mafia’ really control American publishing?” (August 15, 2022).

P. J. Grisar, “Why Truman Capote and Norman Mailer claimed there was a ‘Jewish Literary Mafia,'” the Forward (July 27, 2022).

Andrew Lapin, “What was the Jewish ‘literary mafia’?” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (July 26, 2022).

Recommended Reading: Jews in American Publishing,” the Jewish Book Council’s Paper Brigade Daily (July 25, 2022).

Reviews: 

“Book Picks,” WAMC (January 3, 2023) [at 14:10]. 

Amy Kaplan and Minna Siegel, “Great nonfiction for enjoyable winter reading,” Jewish Community Voice [New Jersey] (December 28, 2022).

Kathryn Ruth Bloom, On the Seawall (December 6, 2022): “… provides a worthwhile introduction to an often overlooked part of literary history.”

Alun David, “No conspiracy, we’re just connected,” The Jewish Chronicle (November 17, 2022): “… an unconventional perspective on what is often perceived as a golden age for Jews in American literature.”

Guilia Miller, “A Literary Mafia?,” Times Literary Supplement (October 28, 2022): “The meticulous inspection of how Jews in publishing interacted over a period of time is … of immense value to the specialist.”

Jesse Tisch, “People of the Book World,” Jewish Review of Books (Fall 2022): The “spirit … of scrutiny and retribution … quietly propels The Literary Mafia … Lambert has an eye for good characters, for stories with hidden resonances.” 

Mikhail Krutikov, “Was there a Jewish Mafia in American literature?” [Yiddish], Forverts (October 20, 2022): “[Jews have paved the way for minorities in mainstream culture, and after them other ethnic groups will come, African-Americans and Latinx people, and they will make their own contributions to American literature.]”

Paul Goldberg, “The Myth that Jews Control Publishing,” The Jerusalem Post (September 24, 2022): “Can anything be learned from the Jews’ rise to prominence in publishing? How can others win a place at the table? … in equal measure disturbing and entertaining … Lambert’s conclusion – that today’s culturally disenfranchised groups could glean novel strategies from the triumph of the Jews – is both timely and original in an industry embroiled in a permanent revolution over inclusiveness.”

Joseph Epstein, “People of the Book,” Wall Street Journal (July 29, 2022): “[Josh Lambert is] ever the friend of the cause of women [with a] penchant for political correctness [who] looks forward to the day when a broader … distribution of power prevails throughout the literary world. He wants the past injustices accorded women in publishing more widely known, sexual predators among editors in the past revealed, and more minorities hired.“

Stephen Whitfield, Jewish Book Council (July 26, 2022): “Lam­bert, who is extreme­ly savvy and well-read, exon­er­ates Jew­ish pub­lish­ers, edi­tors, and crit­ics from the charge of eth­nic favoritism … [and] pleads for enlarge­ment and inclu­sion, to sus­tain the momen­tum that began with women.”

Joel Neuberg, Library Journal (July 8, 2022): “VERDICT: Essential for readers interested in the history of 20th-century U.S. literature.”

Judy Bolton-Fasman, JewishBoston.com (July 5, 2022): “… yet another triumph for Josh Lambert, whose scholarship is as fascinating as it is accessible. … a unique entry in the history and sociology of the American Jewish role in shaping American classics. Book lovers are sure to find much to satisfy them in these pages.”

Kirkus Reviews (May 6, 2022): “A chronicle of the rise of Jewish editors to important positions in the literary establishment by the 1960s and how they shaped the book industry and the reading public. … A multilayered scholarly argument for the continued study of ‘the development of ethnic niches.'”

Publishers Weekly (April 8, 2022): “It’s a niche history, but Lambert covers it well. Readers with an interest in the industry will find plenty of insights.”

Blurbs:

“The Literary Mafia is a thorough, unflaggingly intelligent, and original study of Jewish presence in American literary institutions during the twentieth century and after. A pleasure to read.”—Evan Brier, author of A Novel Marketplace

“At every turn, The Literary Mafia looks forward by looking backward. Josh Lambert’s shrewd, astringent account of Jews as novelists, critics, editors, and publishers provokes us to envision tomorrow’s news:  the wholesale transformation of American letters with a fresh and diverse array of voices.”—Esther Schor, author of Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

“Catnip for anyone fascinated by the intricacies of the publishing world, this subtle and judicious book investigates an insufficiently examined aspect of American Jewish cultural history while posing important questions—about who decides which books get published, and why—that resonate strongly in the present.”—Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

“From the very first page, this book is funnier and more gripping than a book on publishing has any right to be. Anyone interested in America’s intellectual or Jewish history must read this, and anyone looking for an engrossing story should.”—Emily Tamkin, author of Bad Jews

Short description: 

An investigation into the transformation of publishing in the United States from a field in which Jews were systematically excluded to one in which they became ubiquitous.

Description: 

In the 1960s and 1970s, complaints about a “Jewish literary mafia” were everywhere. Although a conspiracy of Jews colluding to control publishing in the United States never actually existed, such accusations reflected a genuine transformation from an industry notorious for excluding Jews to one in which they are arguably the most influential figures.

Josh Lambert examines the dynamics between Jewish editors and Jewish writers; how Jewish women exposed the misogyny they faced from publishers; and how children of literary parents have struggled with and benefited from their inheritances. Drawing on interviews and tens of thousands of pages of letters and manuscripts, The Literary Mafia offers striking new discoveries about celebrated figures such as Lionel Trilling and Gordon Lish, and neglected fiction by writers like Ivan Gold, Ann Birstein, and Trudy Gertler.

In the end, we learn how the success of one minority group has lessons for all who would like to see American literature become more equitable.