August 9, 2007
God gets a rewrite:
In the latest literary trend, authors fictionalize Jewish heroes
"I started fumbling with the layer of my wedding robes, though my hands were trembling and I had a difficult time of it. Heber's amused expression quickly turned to exasperation, and he grabbed me, untied my embroidered hagora -- the sash that held my beautiful red wool kuttonet in place.... And with no more care than a stallion takes a mare, and with just as much roughness, he took me." -- "Women of the Bible: Jael's Story," by Ann Burton (2006)
Samson is a blowhard; Sarah a rebellious, headstrong daughter who makes herself barren. Moses' wife is a freedom fighter, Nathan is a prophet beset by doubt and fear and Rashi's son-in-law battles his evil inclination to love men.
Sounds like the Jewish heroes and heroines of the Bible and the Talmud?
That's because these are the new heroes of a burgeoning genre of modern literature: Jewish pulp fiction. These historical novels -- and they are novels, despite their various levels of accuracy to the ancient time period in which they are set -- star protagonists of old: from Genesis' Cain, Noah, Abraham and Sarah (they have their own books), to Exodus' Moses, Miriam and Tzipporah (separate and together), as well as characters from the prophets, like David, Nathan and Samson, and even from the Megillot, such as Queen Esther and Ruth (who already have books named after them).
Jewish pulp fiction, ranging in quality from a Regency Romance to commercial literary fiction, feature stories of love, adventure, sex, war, betrayal, politics, mystery, suspense, anguish, murder and death.
Where else can one find such stories but in the Bible?
When King Solomon (who is not yet the protagonist of one of these books) wrote in his own holy book, "Song of Songs," "There is nothing new under the sun," he hadn't read the latest in Jewish pulp fiction.
"This is the story of my life, and it's not a happy one," said the character Samson in "The Book of Samson," by David Maine. "My life has an abundance of frustration and pain, plus a fair bit of sex and lots of killing and broken bones, but it's got precious little hope and joy, comfort and inspiration.... You may think you know the story, but believe me there's more."
There's a lot more when it comes to Jewish pulp fiction. In the last five to 10 years, authors are churning out books exploring even the most minor characters of the Bible and the Talmud.
What is the point of all these books? Who reads them? Why do authors write historical fiction about real people from Jewish history? And, the most important question when it comes to mixing pop culture with religion: is it good for the Jews? Is it beneficial to take our ancestors, rabbis, prophets, kings and queens -- whom many revere and consider holy -- and fictionalize their lives?
Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council in New York, and one of the most influential people promoting Jewish books, sees many of this type of manuscript come across her desk. She called this genre of religious historical fiction a form of "midrash," like the body of commentary on primary Jewish text. Recently she saw one that was a take on Rebecca's untold story. "Everything is cyclical," Hessel said about book trends. "This whole genre may have started in current times with Anita Diamant's 'The Red Tent,'" a fictional account of Jacob's daughter Dinah, which made the best-seller list when it was published in 1998. "I give her credit because she knew her readers, she knew who to write for.... Nobody has been able to do what she did," Hessel said.
What does Hessel see as the appeal in these books?
"The Torah is familiar to all of us. When you're reading about Rebecca or Sarah you are reading about familiar characters that most of us know from childhood. A new approach is welcome and inspiring," she said.
Cherise Davis, editor in chief of Plume, an imprint of Penguin, agreed: "I think religious fiction in general is a really ripe opportunity -- our foundation stories come from the religious texts, and then, being historically accurate and fleshing them out as full characters is really irresistible to a lot of readers." Plume recently won a bidding war over "Rashi's Daughters," Maggie Anton's fiction series about the daughters of Rashi, the foremost Torah and Talmud commentator. Never mentioned by name in historical documents, Rashi's daughters were reputed to be learned women, and Anton is writing three books, one for each daughter. Plume last weekend re-released "Book I: Joheved," along with the new "Book II: Miriam." Anton is working on "Book III: Rachel." Plume is hoping "Rashi's Daughters" -- the first edition of which was originally self-published and sold more than 20,000 copies -- will cross over into the mainstream historical fiction market. (Plume also published "Girl With a Pearl Earring.")
"There's an interest in a couple of different markets," said Anton's agent, Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary Management. "In the Jewish market people are interested in learning about Jewish women and history," she said. "In the secular market people love historical fiction."
Einstein said that while there has always been historical fiction, "I think there's definitely been a resurgence in the last five years," from imagined characters in a particular period, like Philippa Gregory's novels set in the Tudor period, to the portrayal or real characters such as Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth and the last empress of China.
"The most popular historical fiction seems to be from a particular point of history but told from a women's point of view. There are not that many history stories told through women, so it's a chance to connect to history in that way," Einstein said.
The woman's voice is equally -- if not more -- popular in biblical historical fiction. Women dominate in Marek Halter's Cannan Trilogy about Sarah, Tzipporah and Lilah; Eva Etziony's books about Hannah and Ruth; Rebbeca Kohn's books about Esther ("The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther") and Miriam and Tzipporah ("Seven Days to the Sea: An Epic Novel of The Exodus"); Ann Burton's Women of the Bible series about Abigail, Deborah, Rahab and Jael; and Orson Scott Card's Women of Genesis Series ("Sarah," "Rachel and Leah" and "Rebekah").