Friday, March 12, 2010

No Jews in Genre Fantasy?

Michael Weingrad of Portland State has an interesting article, "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia," speculating on why there are no major Jewish authors of genre fantasy (His definition of the genre is sufficiently restrictive to exclude Ellison and Singer). I rather like his limning of the politics and morality that most genre fantasy relies on, but am very tempted to wonder how he managed to baptize Le Guin* and perform foreskin restoration on Gaiman without either one's knowledge. I don't think that one can deny the existence of people who are Jewish and major and fantasy writers. With that premise in view, I'd say that what the article shows is not that there are no such animals, but that to be one, an author has to twist some of the fantasy genre's conventions (having to do with evil, with government, with authority) around in interesting ways.**

Anyone here have a favorite Jewish fantasy-world creator besides the two mentioned?

*Or am I mistaken about Le Guin's ethnic identification? I've heard contradictory reports. I don't want to characterize a patrilineal Jew as in any way Jewish if she disavows that label: Larbalestier would get mad at me.

Rosenbaum offers a generous and thoughtful interpretation of Weingrad's argument that alludes to such a point.


Cathy said...

I'm rather fond of Peter S. Beagle. While I wouldn't describe the world of The Last Unicorn as specifically Jewish (although I belong to the really reform branch myself and thus could have missed quite a bit), the wizard has a yiddish name. And his more recent short stories such as "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" and "The Rabbi's Hobby" are pretty clearly Jewish

Athena Andreadis said...

Restrictive genre definition aside, Weingard's comments were perceptive. But it should be a cause of jubilation that there are contributory streams to fantasy that do not derive from feudal dualistic models.

Josh said...

Athena, I think you hit the nail on the head. If fantasy authors, Jewish or just politically averse to the feudal norms, are doing something different, tant mieux. This is not a time in which we need more Tories.

Anonymous said...


Josh said...

You mean the Azazel stories, anonymous? There's really not a lot of genre fantasy in the Asimov canon; and I tend not to see his fantasy stories as major works (I'd list Asimov's "major" short fiction as comprising the stories in the Foundation trilogy, Nine Tomorrows, Nightfall and Other Stories, I, Robot, and The Bicentennial Man).

Athena Andreadis said...

Cathy, I liked the two stories you list. I'm surprised that nobody named Jane Yolen or Ellen Kushner yet... or did I miss it?

Josh, I agree. Fantasy leans to the conservative by virtue of its nostalgia alone, so it can use diversity in both form and content.

Weingard discusses the strong Jewish presence in SF, Anonymous, and Asimov is in his list of names. It's a major point in his article and one that he uses to highlight the difference in outlook that may result in the uneven representation.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Micole S., you might be interested to know, has some scathing commentary on some of the underlying assumptions in Weingrad's essay:

Athena Andreadis said...

I think that the fulminators are missing several points of Weingard's essay. The work does have blind spots, the most prominent one being his definition of fantasy; but he is Jewish, teaches Jewish studies and wrote the article for The Jewish Review. That is, he is neither ignorant nor unaware of the issues he's raising.

In some ways, these discussions (including Weingard's analysis) remind me of the ditty of the three blind people trying to define an elephant after each had touched a tiny part of its body. All the responses I read so far are clearly colored by the cultural details of their authors. I will let Abigail Nussbaum do the rest of the talking on this issue. I venture to assume we all agree that her Jewish credentials are unassailable:

Josh said...

Yeh, like Athena, I find a little more substance in the article than does Micole (although I don't think an author's Jewishness, as Micole kinda points out, is a shield against ignorance). Very glad to see her critique of the person who wrote "There is a Jewish fantasy tradition, but it's wholly American, urban, and secular." Whoa. Way to obliterate a dozen nationalities there. Somebody doesn't know much about Kafka or Keret, to name a couple of furriners who don't draw exclusively from "American" traditions.

Andrea Hairston said...

Help me out here. Weingard's definition of fantasy seems more than a blind spot--it's a first order principle, a core part of his argument. His notion and exploration of a "Jewish Narnia" seems steeped in essentialist thinking.
Of course everybody's response to his article is to quote Athena "clearly colored by [his or her] cultural details."
So from where I stand and given Weiingard's essentialist thinking, I'm missing the substance.

annie said...

The idea of 'proper Jewish credentials' is somewhat disturbing.... are you Black enough? Are you Asian or Arab enough to write that article? Only people with Celtic last names like O'Dwyer or Dhomhnaill get to pronounce on issues in fantasy since fantasy supposedly has its roots in Celtic mythology? Um... Super-essentialist thinking in my book. The kind of thinking that racism itself depends on.

And for Mr. Weingrad, a short list: Jane Yolen, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Sherri Tepper, Linda Goldstein... I could go ON. Or do they not count being female and all?

And, yes Narnia is Christian as can be - but in my book choosing that writer as one of the prime proofs for your theory is shaky. The author was a Christian missionary-type. Don't erase Isaac Bashevis Singer or Kafka either - and certainly not Andrea Hairston, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, or the Dark Matter Series (now out of print - can we talk about that shameful bit of insanity?) And what about animators like Miyazaki? All these artists clearly press the boundaries of Fantasy and should not be overlooked.

We see what we privilege.

Athena Andreadis said...

I didn't know Miyazaki was Jewish!

Seriously, though -- Weingard indeed erases entire categories of fantasy that contain famous names. I've read all the authors listed by participants in this discussion, including Kafka in the original. So trust me, I'm aware that Weingard is myopically reductive. Even so, there's still a kernel of truth in his observations.

Athena Andreadis said...

Incidentally, Annie, I mentioned Abigail Nussbaum (and credentials half-jocularly) because some who have discussed Weingard's essay have been asking if he's Jewish enough to judge who's Jewish enough -- so to speak! I believe that the speculative fiction field has been roiling with discussions of cultural authenticity and appropriation. I'm Greek-born and -raised; so issues like this appear to me in a slightly different light than they do to someone born in the US.

annie said...

Argh, somehow my raw blather version ended up on the blog instead of my carefully edited version… sorry bout that… I certainly did not want to accuse anybody of racism here ☺ I was responding to what seemed like rather essentialist thinking on the part of Weingrad, which did rather annoy me I admit. We all come from our own cultural background – but that is never all that we are.

The main point I wanted to make, though, which is not quite there in my unedited blathering version, was that he seemed to overlook so many influential authors, including Jews. There are many artists in fantasy who challenge western European values. (Thus my list which included a number of female Jewish authors and Miyazaki and a number of African and African American authors too.) By limiting his discussion to blockbusters and the ‘holy shelf’ (the canon) Weingrad omits the contributions of scads of women and people of color. To me it means the argument becomes part of the problem.

I think if a Muslim or Hindu or Jewish, (or African or African-American or Native American) author (or a female of any color,) did or has written that amazing trilogy that could rival The Lord of the Rings, (I am no Narnia fan,) there is a good chance that person might not even published or promoted widely. Or if she was I doubt she would be 'anointed.' Those authors exist, we have Le Guinn and Hairston, Hopkinson, Kushner. But publishing is really NOT diverse or bold, in my opinion. It was only recently that Octavia Butler could even get an African face on the cover of one of her books. If we advance an argument about what is seminal work, significant work, game-changing work, and we leave all those authors out of the equation because they are not ‘blockbusters,’ or because they have not been 'canonized,’ well… what the heck is Weingrad really saying?

That is why I said we see what we privilege. Too often we erase the rest.

Athena Andreadis said...

Annie, I agree with all your points, as my many articles on these topics will attest (I put a few links at the end of this comment, if you're interested).

There is a wrinkle in this, however. We do privilege what we see -- which brings up the point of culture that I touched upon earlier but did not enlarge. We're much more culturally hardwired than we like to think and this doesn't become readily obvious until we step outside this automatic embedding. Also, what we "see" is limited by the languages that we know well enough to read in, or by works that are translated into our own. For one, a language influences thought patterns; I state as a research biologist, not a cultural critic. Anyone who learns more than one language is aware of the sense of enriching dislocation and mindset shifting that each new language induces.

This is the real reason that I linked to Nussbaum's article: not because she's Jewish but because she's neither American nor British and is bilingual in Hebrew. The discussion prompted by Weingard's essay has unfolded in a US/UK context. The very few names that come from outside this stream are themselves in canon (Kafka) which makes them impossible to ignore. There are not even contemporary Israeli names in people's lists, with the lone exception of Lavie Tidhar mentioned way down in one of the threads.

Of course, we have to set some boundaries and assume some shared premises if we want to have a meaningful discussion. But if people think that Weingard's view is blinkered (and it is, no question about that), think how all this sounds to a person from another country whose canon is completely different -- and often largely or totally invisible to English speakers. To give you an example from my own back yard, one of the best magic realists in the world is Eugenia Fakinou. She's famous, popular, laden with awards. Does she ring a bell with anyone here?

Links, as promised (threatened?):

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade

And Ain’t I a Human?

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between a work of fantasy by a Jewish author, and a work of fantasy that is deeply and intelligently informed by Jewish tradition. There are plenty of the former, but almost none, if none at all, of the latter. There are a great many Jewish writers. I enjoy some of them. But from the perspective of a religious Jew who reads, I have yet to read a work of science fiction or fantasy by a Jewish writer that made meaningful, coherent thematic use of agaddah, midrash, or even rabbinic commentaries on sections of Tanakh that lend themselves to such writing. To create such a work you'd have to be seminary trained or a dedicated learner immersed in the texts. How many people like that write fantasy fiction to start with? ZERO. To date. We can always pray for a miracle.