Jewish Journal

Books: Oren ‘Tempts’ Israeli readers and defies critics

by Avner Hofstein

Posted on Nov. 1, 2007 at 8:00 pm

When Ram Oren helped define a new generation of Israeli "airplane reads" in 1994 with his fast-paced best seller, "Temptation," he faced a challenge: to persuade the Israeli elite that his book did not signal the demise of literature and the erasure of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Agnon or Amos Oz.

"The critics received 'Temptation' very harshly," he said with an undertone of glee. "By then in the United States and Europe, authors of popular light-reading novels, like John Grisham and Tom Clancy, were flourishing. But in Israel there was an outcry. As if books are not allowed to have high ratings. It took a while for the hysteria to subside and for people to understand that easy reading does not place a threat on classic, high-quality literature, just as reality TV does not erase shows like 'The Sopranos,' and Rita's tunes do not threaten the eternalness of Verdi's operas."

More than a decade after the release of Oren's first book, he seems to have achieved a level of acceptance. Bookstands in Israel are filled with dozens of thrillers, many of them brisk reads published or written by Oren.

However, the man who has written 16 titles, sold more than 1 million copies in Israel and set up his own publishing house (Keshet) doesn't care to have his titles labeled "airplane books," a term used to describe a novel so fluffy it can be read entirely on a single flight.

"I don't understand what an 'airplane book' is supposed to mean," he said with a grunt. "It should be simply referred to as 'popular literature,' but I guess people have a need to label it in a demeaning way. It's OK, I'm not fighting it anymore."

While almost every book Oren writes becomes an instant best seller, others who try to ape his style remain obscure.

"This is proof that maybe it is not as easy to write popular literature as people think, just as it is not easy for Shlomo Arzi to invent a popular tune that will appeal to a broad audience," Oren said. "My books are easy to read, but not easy to write. You have to feel your reader, you have to research a lot of the incidents you discuss in the book, sometimes for a full year or two. And you have to acquire full proficiency in the art of light writing."

As a longtime Israeli journalist, Oren certainly understands his readers.

He started out in 1950 as a messenger boy for Yediot Aharonot, Israel's leading daily, before becoming its legal correspondent for three years until 1955. After writing for Bamahane, the Israel Defense Force's weekly newspaper, and studying law at Hebrew University, he rejoined Yediot Aharonot in 1964.

Oren served for years as the editor-in-chief of Seven Days magazine, the immensely popular Yediot Aharonot weekend supplement. Under Oren, Seven Days was a skilled barometer of the Israeli street -- a melange of feature stories that spread from political profiles to interviews with models, from riveting crime stories to sometimes yellowish celebrity accounts. He was 60 years old when he finally left journalism after his first books took off.

"I always wanted to write books," he said. "And I got to do what I really set out to do very late in my life. I always considered journalism as a time-out that lengthened and lengthened. But by the time I finally left it, I knew exactly what the readers want to read."

Judging by his two latest books, "HaRamatkal" and "The Oath," both released last year, his readers like stories based on factual events that feature lots of surprises and a somewhat flat, almost journalistic language with very few wisecracks and minimal metaphors.

"HaRamatkal," the title taken from the acronym for the IDF chief-of-staff, is an account of events largely drawn from the Second Lebanon War, with easily recognized characters (the prime minister is a lawyer, a member of a new Kadima-like party who inherited the job after the old prime minister was gravely injured; the defense minister was a union leader and knows nothing about managing the defense forces, etc.). "The Oath," based on a true story, recounts the unique bond between a Jewish boy and his Christian nanny as devastation and despair grow in Europe during World War II.

"I wasn't influenced by Grisham or Clancy, but rather by the Israeli realm," Oren said. "I think my style is mostly Israeli, and even when the story occurs overseas it reflects my Israeli agenda."

As for the reason why his version of the Lebanon War resolves better and with a brighter future then the real-life war, he attributes that to his journalistic past.

"I have a tendency to try and improve Israel in my books and to suggest a different path for the real Israel even in a fictional story. That's why I wrote a book about black medicine -- to expose to light many of the bad sides of the medical system; and that's why I wrote a novel about the judicial system -- to put a finger on the corruption related to the justice process. I want people to pay attention, but without preaching."

As for the critics, he said, he has long given up on them. "I don't read reviews anymore," he said, adding a cliche many pop-culture artists like to use. "I don't really care if they don't appreciate my writing. It is enough for me that I contributed to the success of pop literature."

Ram Oren will be a guest speaker in a four-part lecture series at the American Jewish University during the Celebration of Jewish Books. Oren's presentation on Nov. 7, 7 p.m., will be in Hebrew.

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