What do four Jewish American writers talk about when they sit down together to discuss their craft? If the program, "The Next Generation of Jewish American Writing," held at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this month is any indication, the answer is that they try as hard as they can to talk past their differences but don't quite manage to do so.
As soon as featured novelists Rebecca Goldstein ("Mazel"), Thane Rosenbaum ("The Golems of Gotham"), Gary Shteyngart ("The Russian Debutante's Handbook") and Dara Horn ("In the Image"), as well as the evening's moderator, David Ulin, himself a writer, took their seats onstage, the limitations of the forum -- presented by The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and The University of California Humanities Research Institute -- became clear. These writers have very little in common outside of their Jewishness, and even then they had diverging definitions of that identity, from cultural affiliation to history to the importance of ritual observance.
The question that hovered over the discussion that followed each author's short presentation was as simple as it is hard to answer: Is Jewishness enough to hold them together as a unit any more than linking them by some other part of their identities?
For starters, their themes and concerns could not be more different. In her six works of fiction, Goldstein has focused primarily on dramas of the mind, plumbing philosophy and theoretical mathematics and sometimes -- 5/9ths of the time in her calculation -- Jewish identity.
Rosenbaum, the child of survivors, has written a trilogy of post-Holocaust books, the most recent a fable, complete with the ghosts of writers past, set in 1990s Manhattan.
Shteyngart, who moved from Leningrad to New York as a child, has written a novel that tells an immigrant's story, updating a classic American narrative for the 21st century.
Finally, Horn, who consciously draws on the long and rich history of literature written in what she terms the "Jewish languages" of Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, weaves the biblical tale of Job into the structure of her debut work.
Even the Judaism that emerges in their works barely overlaps. While Goldstein has repeatedly wrestled with the intersection of traditional Jewish Orthodoxy on the one hand, and the rigors of rational philosophy on the other, Rosenbaum's fictive world has been shaped by that 20th-century Jewish preoccupation, the Shoah. Shteygart views himself, and his protagonist, as more immigrant than Jew (although he wisely understands the marketing strategy of labeling his novel "Jewish") and Horn's stated intention in writing her book was to produce a work of fiction that is not "about anti-Semitism" as so much Jewish American literature of the past century has been.
Then there's the problem of "generation." Shteyngart and Horn were both born in the 1970s. They were in grade school when Goldstein first began publishing her novels. Even she acknowledged that the "young" label (as in "young Jewish American writer") doesn't quite fit her any longer. But the difference goes beyond chronology. Goldstein's writing itself is of a different generation. Her cultural influences -- yes, philosophy, but also the attitudes toward gender equality, religious affiliation and other social questions -- were shaped at the same time as they took form in the larger American context. Her younger colleagues were born into a world that was already grappling with these and other knotty dilemmas.
But all that is almost beside the point, because when talking about Jewish American literature, any generation seems to be put into relation with those luminaries who defined Jewish American fiction after World War II: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick. They are held up as the founding generation, as if nothing was put down on paper before them, and no distinction is made among those who have followed.
This is a mistake. While programs such as the one at the Skirball are wonderful arenas in which to showcase current and up-and-coming talent, they often end up circling around the rather uncomfortable question of defining what a "Jewish writer" actually is.
Not surprisingly, that happened on Sunday, when Horn herself brought up what she called the "squirm factor." Why, she asked "do we feel more uncomfortable with the label 'Jewish writer' than any of the other labels that can equally be applied to us?"
My guess is that the answer lies precisely in the balancing act that these writers have to perform: Jews buy books. Jews read books. Jews are a good audience for books, so any claim to Jewishness helps an author sell books. The more books he or she sells, the more chances that writer will be able to publish the next one.
But any author is so much more than just Jewish. She is a woman, a philosopher, a mother, a sister, a convert from the closed world of Beis Yaacov to the equally cloistered universe of academia, and that's just Goldstein. We, the public, seem to insist that writers pigeonhole themselves for our benefit, and they -- no fools -- oblige us. We are, after all, their paths to literary immortality.