Arts & Culture

From the Particular to the Universal: The Pitfalls of Being a British Jewish Writer

I never intended to become a Jewish writer. That’s an absurd thing to say, of course: I am and always shall be Jewish, and have known I was a writer from the age of seven. What I mean is that … Read More

By / October 30, 2009

I never intended to become a Jewish writer. That’s an absurd thing to say, of course: I am and always shall be Jewish, and have known I was a writer from the age of seven. What I mean is that I never anticipated being a writer on overtly Jewish subjects who would therefore be pigeonholed by publishers and readers alike.

I wrote numerous works of fiction throughout my teens and twenties, none of which included any Jewish element, but when I came to produce what would be my first published novel it seemed completely natural to me to draw on my own family history, which contained so much drama I could hardly resist fictionalising it into a narrative of my own (you can read the true story here). In doing so, I also found myself exploring themes of loss, family, identity and belonging which were deeply personal to me and deeply Jewish, but also, to my mind, universally human. I adopted the approach of portraying the universal experience through the very particular.

How naïve I was in hoping my acutely Jewish story would touch a general nerve, I have only gradually come to realise. First of all, I was completely unable to find a publisher in the UK even after the subsequent success of The Genizah at the House of Shepher in winning or being shortlisted for several prizes (Jewish prizes). Whatever the shortcomings of the novel itself, the narrowness of its perceived market undoubtedly stood in its way, as one or two editors were bold enough to tell me. To be a Jew in Britain is to be a minority among minorities, and so far as bookselling is concerned, the numbers do not add up. The idea that the book might have an appeal beyond the Jewish readership was never entertained.

America has been more welcoming to my work: it is here that I have been published, won prizes and found readers. New York, it seemed, took me to its heart, as I, indeed, have taken it to mine. Yet here too, so far as I can tell, my sphere remains almost entirely Jewish; though I believe I also have some readers among religious Christians. In addition, some of my readers seem to have assumed that I am American.

Of course, I do now see that, to the average reader, the titles of my books have something intimidating about them, not to mention my own name, which, apart from relegating me to the bottom right-hand corner of the bookshop shelves, is never likely to signal a novel of English manners. But my credo of the-universal-in-the-particular, to which I still hold, does prove dubious, it seems, when it comes to being a British Jewish writer. A British Jewish writer with Israeli roots, writing about Yorkshire, the lost tribes and Jerusalem. Now that’s just too particular.

So where to now? I am no longer writing on Jewish subjects; my latest, as yet unpublished novel is about a village in northern England and the draft novel I have just completed is about women who have chosen not to have children. I have stopped writing on overtly Jewish themes not merely because I aspire to reach as wide a readership as possible but because, for the time being, I feel I have said all I have to say fictionally on those subjects. (Well, maybe not entirely. My Jewish sensibility will always influence my work and my village novel is still about natives and incomers, belonging and not belonging.) This is not to say that I won’t return to Jewish territory. I still have at least one Jewish novel in me, and I hope to write it one day.

 

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This being my final entry I just want to add a note about blogging. I’ve always resisted having a blog so far because I felt it would take up too much of my working time. Writing a daily blog this week has proven to me what I suspected already: that I feel the choosing of words as such a heavy responsibility that regular blogging would consume an inordinate amount of headspace. I have always kept a private handwritten diary in which, since it is intended for my eyes alone and not for instant worldwide publication, I can write freely, easily and cathartically. Is the blog killing off the private journal? I hope not. But I thank Jewcy for giving me the opportunity to write here and express some of my thoughts in the presence of their readership.