Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Am I Writing Jewish Books?

Keith here. Bear with me while I ramble toward an answer to the title question.

There’s nothing I love more than getting an angry email from a reader that says something like, “Curse you. I had an important meeting at the office this morning and I was wreck. Why? Because I started reading your book at 10 last night and couldn’t put it down. I was up till 3.”

I should feel bad, I know. But I don’t. I wish I got more emails like that. Heck, I’m selfish enough that I’d be willing to see the GNP suffer (just a little blip would be enough) due to the reduced productivity of the millions of American workers reading my books. Well, like Willy Loman, a man “is got to dream,” doesn’t he?

So what am I saying? That my primary motivation in writing is to entertain. When I picture someone reading Dot Dead or Smasher, I see her or him on a beach chair or in an airplane seat. But I do have a more subtle, secondary motivation. Do you remember the big brouhaha a couple of years ago about Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook, Deceptively Delicious? In it she explains how to slip vegetables into kids’ meals without them noticing. You know, some puréed cauliflower in the mac-and-cheese or sweet potatoes in the pancakes. Well, I try to sneak some good-for-you “vegetables” in what I write, too. Critics picked up on this. Joe Hartlaub of, for example, wrote: “Dot Dead also deals, quietly but effectively, with spiritual and ethical concerns, infusing them into the narrative without overwhelming it.”

Why am I bringing this all up now? Because J, the Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California, didn’t review Smasher. Why not? Apparently because it wasn't viewed as a Jewish book.

I’m an American, a creature of Silicon Valley. That background infuses my writing. So does my Judaism. When Dot Dead starts, the hero is obsessed by making tens of millions from stock options he's been granted by the start-up where he works. In the course of the narrative, I try to “slip in” the notion that pursuing justice, belonging to a community, and establishing a loving relationship just might also be goals worth striving for. I am contrasting the schizophrenic values I myself have lived with; Ian Michaels first obsession reflects the ethos of Silicon Valley, the second set of goals reflects Jewish values.

This learning process goes on in my second book beginning right with the epigraph drawn from the Talmud: “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.” Through this book, too, Ian continues to learn the way to a rich life is not through single-minded pursuit of money.

Now Ian is a skeptic with a natural distrust of pat answers. When his wife hovers near death, he doubts the value of the prayers his mother-in-law seems to rely on. When Ian asks what good it would do to seek justice for a long-dead great aunt, a rabbi tells him, “The Torah says, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.’ It doesn’t say to just pursue justice for the living. Perhaps obtaining justice for the dead makes a better world for the living.” (Elsewhere in the book, Ian even learns that Judaism is pro-sex.)

The choices Ian makes, especially at the end of Smasher, shows the transformation Ian goes through. Like Moses, Ian is a reluctant hero. Even though Ian doesn’t necessarily believe in God, he does the right thing in the end. According to the Jewish Sages it’s far more important what you do than what you believe. He becomes a mensch.

I may write Jewish books then or at least books with Jewish themes, but they are certainly not intended only for Jewish readers. With Jews constituting only 2% of the population of the United States and ¼% of the world population that would restrict readership a little too much. I’ve had evangelical Christians, nuns, Moslems, Buddhists, and Hindus tell me how much they enjoyed what I’ve written. They like learning a little bit about Judaism and, of course, there’s a universality to the journey Ian is on. I doubt any religion would say a single-minded quest for money was more important than justice, community, or family.

So are my books Jewish books? I think so, just as they are American books and Silicon Valley books. But they aren’t meant to be only for Americans, engineers, or Jews. Most of all, I try to write books that will entertain readers of any nationality, religion, or profession.


Alan Orloff said...

Terrific post, Keith. This is a question I've asked myself too, and I always come back to where you are--my intent is to write an entertaining book for people of any background to read. The fact that most of the characters in DIAMONDS are Jewish is almost secondary--it's what the story called for. I didn't set out to write a "Jewish" book. I set out to write a good mystery.

In contrast, I don't even mention any religion in KILLER ROUTINE.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Keith. BTW, this semi-heathen/Armenian Orthodox/former fundamental Bible College student is loving Smasher.

I've had similar problems with the Armenian community. Even though I'm Armenian, I can't get reviewed in any Armenian newspaper or periodical. I've was even chastised at one signing because I didn't have anything Armenian in my book. I actually did have an Armenian cop in one manuscript, but after that public chastising I changed him to Persian. It was a very passive-aggressive "bite me" on my part.

Cricket McRae said...

Evocative post. "’s far more important what you do than what you believe." That wonderfully reflects the idea that God is a verb.

Learning about different religions is not only fascinating, but promotes tolerance. Flavoring your storytelling with Judaism adds another layer of complexity, but you're right -- basic ethical behavior and values are elements of all religions (despite some crazy misinterpretations by actual, you know, PEOPLE supposedly practicing those religions).

Keith Raffel said...

Alan, did I convince you I didn't write a Jewish book? By the end of the post, I'd convinced myself I had. Sue Ann, that semi-heathen side of you I've never seen. Looking forward to it. Cricket, thanks for the comment on another level of complexity.

Julia Buckley said...

I wonder if it's even the Jewish-ness or non Jewishness of your book that made it not get reviewed--I've found a reluctance on the part of some publications simply to review mysteries if those publications mostly focus on what they think of as "serious" books--often nonfiction.

In my high school alumni mag, (and the high school I attended is Catholic), I was asked if anything in my book could be perceived as anti-Catholic before they would do a feature on it. And all the other books they featured seemed to be dry things like medical tomes and autobiographical journeys.

Alan Orloff said...

I read both your (excellent) books, and I'd say they weren't "Jewish" books per se, although they did explore some Jewish themes. To me, a "Jewish" book is targeted primarily toward Jews.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I think your final conclusion is spot-on: all we can do is try to write the best story we can, for anyone to enjoy.

Darrell James said...

Keith- This former Prebyterian, former Baptist deacon, and sometimes theological indifferent digs your work, man... go figure!?!?!!!

G.M. Malliet said...

Thought-provoking post, Keith. The crime novel is so much about justice and truth - whether a particular religion gets mentioned or not it all seems to be about whatever we can agree on is moral behavior.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Keith! The same can be said about setting and the sex of the protagonist. I write books set in Colorado, but I hope people everywhere enjoy reading them, and there's nothing I hate more than being labeled a "regional" author. Same goes for my protagonists. Though they are women, I hope that men enjoy reading them.

Keith Raffel said...

Julia, Maybe those mags would have sold more copies if they'd embraced your work more enthusiastically. Alan, I guess you're saying that Roth, Bellow, and Malamud didn't write Jewish books. Okay. Yeah, Kathleen and Beth, that's the problem isn't it -- writing good books that appeal to a wide audience? Darrell, of course, cannot wait to read your opus. Yes, Gin, even an atheist protagonist like Harry Bosc has an ethical code.

Keith Raffel said...

Here's a comment from my friend Ann over on Facebook: "I think a book by a Jewish author is a Jewish book. The author can't help see the world through Jewish eyes, I don't care who the characters are or what the story is about. It may also fall under other catagories: male, mystery, Californian, etc, but it's also a Jewish book. I don't know anything about marketing, so I'll leave that to others, but from my point of the view, the answer is yes."

Deborah Sharp said...

Man, we're definitely into some deep-thought territory today. You should have asked that editor of J why your book doesn't qualify as a ''Jewish book'' (like Julia says, maybe because they don't consider less-serious forms, like mysteries, for their publication?)
I'm a native Floridian, my books are set in Florida ... I'm proud to say I write Florida books ... but I don't think the museum gift shops here would sell them on the same shelf as weighty tomes on Florida history.
Good post!