Arts & Culture

Battle Of The Big Jewish Books: Joshua Cohen Vs. Adam Levin

Joshua Cohen reviewed Adam Levin’s “The Instructions” for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Nothing strange about that, except Cohen wrote a really big book about Jews and so did Levin. Did things get awkward? Read More

By / November 8, 2010

Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Patrick Ewing, Godzilla vs. King Kong, Joshua Cohen vs. Adam Levin?

Joshua Cohen, the author of Witz, was called upon by the New York Times to review The Instructions by Adam Levin [who is guest blogging for us at Jewcy].  The two writers will probably be forever mentioned in the same breath as “guys who wrote incredibly long books about Jews in 2010,” which isn’t a horrible legacy.  Cohen points this out in the first paragraph:

“Who better to review a 1,000-page Jewish book that comes out in the fall than the author of an 800-page Jewish book that came out in the spring? Adam Levin’s first novel, “The Instructions,” appears a summer after my own novel “Witz,” whose title translates to “joke,” though it’s no laughing matter: it’s about the Last Jew in the World.”

Once he tones down the self-aggrandizing, Cohen compares The Instructions to the Talmud (“there isn’t much plot, just water-fountain tattle, summaries, lists and, interspersed, charts and strange doodled maps that only distract.”), then goes on to say that David Foster Wallace is Levin’s “tutelary goy.” Finally, he gets around to more or less saying that he doesn’t like the book in what has to be the shortest word count I’ve seen from the Witz author.  What bothers me is the ethics question:  Cohen obviously has a stake in all this, so was it fair to let him review Levin’s book?  Wouldn’t another critic have been more appropriate to tackle The Instructions?  Maybe a critic shouldn’t be able to come out and try to essentially advertise his own book in one of the most respected forums around.  To put it in really simple terms, It’s almost like they let the author of Twilight review the Vampire Diaries.  Maybe big Jewish book writer on big Jewish book writer is a bad thing.

Still, the review itself isn’t at all bad. But the way Cohen starts the thing left a sour taste in the mouths of some book people on the internet.  Can you really fault Cohen for reviewing The Instructions this way?  He’s a critic, and one who has never been shy when it comes to being critical– especially of more contemporary titles.  Sure, we’ve seen Cohen court controversy with boisterous statements before, and maybe he felt his position as Big Jewish Book Guy was being threatened.  But at the very least, the prospect of a nice little literary feud isn’t so bad.  Even better, one between two fine writers such as Joshua Cohen and Adam Levin.  That’s a rivalry I can dig my teeth into.