For roughly two decades in the middle of the 20th century, Jews were among America’s leading writers of fiction—think Philip Roth, I.B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick, and Saul Bellow—and among its leading literary critics. At the same time, numerous Jews played prominent, and not-so-prominent, roles in the world of publishing and journalism. Such distinguished Gentile authors as Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, Mario Puzo, and Truman Capote at various points even complained of a Jewish literary mafia. That is the title of a new book by Josh Lambert, a professor of English and Jewish studies at Wellesley, in which he wonders if Kerouac et al. were on to something. Jesse Tisch writes in his review:
Lambert is concerned with the not-so-innocent side of success: how Jews wielded power. To Lambert, power is suspect, a tool of exclusion, and his chapters brim with instances of cronyism and nepotism. Many seem benign—Jewish editors helping Jewish writers. . . . This might seem generous, even selfless, but Lambert suggests something darker—an “ethically dubious” pattern of favoritism.
The Literary Mafia can seem haphazard, but what gradually becomes clear is how the various parts cohere. What connects them, loosely, is Lambert’s sense of mission. In early 2018, Lambert cheered the “long overdue scrutiny” of powerful males “judged and sometimes punished for their sins.” That same spirit—of scrutiny and retribution—quietly propels The Literary Mafia. Indeed, Lambert’s book runs on two tracks, one scholarly, one political. It sometimes reads like a book started during the Obama years, then updated for the #MeToo era.
Lambert has an eye for good characters, for stories with hidden resonances. Power doesn’t always corrupt; sometimes it reveals.
[The book also] raises a final fraught question, namely, “How do we judge what’s good?” To Lambert, there’s no objective standard or even good taste, period. That might sound strange, but Lambert is adamant, dismissing the New Yorker’s fiction editor (with sublime condescension) for claiming to value excellence. Lambert approvingly cites the poet Kazim Ali: “claiming to judge work solely based on literary merit is inherently and inescapably racist.” This seems to be where dogma has led us.