January 16, 2015

From the Archives: Do Jews Choose Not To Write Fantasy?

From the Archives: Do Jews Choose Not To Write Fantasy?

One of the great joys of being a writer is when readers engage you about your work. In a discussion about the Jewish elements of Firebird Alex, an article written in 2010 positing that Jews don’t write fantasy was raised. In fact, on my other blog I had written a counter-essay. I am proud of that essay, and it’s not readily accessible anymore, so I thought I’d repost my nearly five-year-old essay on my current blog. It’s a little longer and more academic than my posts these days, so be warned, but if the subject matter interests you, enjoy!

There is an article that has made quite some waves in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community.  Why There Is No Jewish Narnia, by Michael Winegrad and published online in the Jewish Review of Books, as you might imagine, has as it’s thesis that there is no equivalent to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s middle earth, and extrapolates from there that Jews don’t write fantasy.  The article goes on to give many reasons why Jews don’t write fantasy, instead writing science fiction.

As I mentioned, this has created some waves.  Not just Jews feeling defensive because they write/enjoy fantasy, but non-Jews who don’t want to feel that the fantasy genre (or more specifically, “high fantasy” or fantasy that takes place entirely or nearly entirely in another world) is somehow excluding Jews from the party.  There have been many very well done articles disputing the thesis of the article, such as The Idea That Jews Don’t Write Fantasy Is A Fantasy posted on io9.

As a Jewish author shopping my first urban fantasy novel, I can attest that Jews do, in fact, write fantasy.  But I’m willing to accept the initial observation he makes—that there aren’t as many successful Jewish fantasy authors as there are non-Jewish fantasy authors.  But I don’t think that has to do with Judaism.  Rather than argue with his thesis like others have done, I want to mention a few of his arguments disagree with.

One argument I just find overly broad is his supposition that because Jews had it bad in medieval Europe, Jews did not and do not want to write fantasy (specifically, medieval fantasy in this case).  Winegrad states:

…Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past.

As any reader of fantasy—of which the author himself is—understands, the Northern European mythological creatures populating fantasy writing are not meant to invoke a realistic European feudal past, but the moral certainty and non-ambiguity of the myth/fantasy.  The European knight may have been a cruel landowner and double-dealing politician, but the fantasy knight is the heroic rescuer of maidens and slayer of dragons.  I can’t imagine too many Jews would choose not to write about a heroic wizard vanquishing demons because of a tragic family history in medieval German ghettos.  Moreover, most Jews today live in America or Israel, and the trappings of the sufferings of medieval European Jewry are not part of their experience.  So I don’t think it’s fair to say that ambiguity over historical persecution is keeping Jews out of fantasy writing.

And along the lines of the above, I think it’s probably safe to say that more Europeans in general write medieval fantasy fiction than Americans.  Why?  Because the history is outside their door, far more than anything due to ethnicity.  I would use this same counter-argument to another of Winegarb’s points, that:

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion.

Again, I don’t accept that Jews gravitate to science fiction out of some kind of cultural aversion to knights and dragons, but simply because science-fiction has more American authors, and more Jewish authors are American.  When we look at the great pioneers of modern science fiction—let’s say Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, Ellison—yes, half of those people are of Jewish heritage.  But I would stress, all of them are American.  Europeans write great science fiction, just as Americans write great medieval fantasy, but just not in the same numbers.  In fact, lets take as an example one of the most successful fantasy writers of Jewish heritage, who has sold millions of books: Neil Gaiman.  Is Gaiman bucking a tradition of Jews who shun fantasy?  I would say no; he is English, and Gaiman is a member of a European tradition of being inspired by that which is all around them, regardless of ethnic heritage.

And finally, I’d like to discuss one of his arguments that really gets under my skin:

…a further historical reason why 20th-century Jews have not written much fantasy literature…is, inevitably, the Holocaust. Its still agonizing historical weight must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical. It is not that fantasy writers must be innocent naifs. Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced in their portrayals of evil by what they knew of 20th-century political barbarity. As Shippey notes, Tolkien especially grapples in his novels more seriously than many supposedly more sophisticated modern literary works with the evils of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, for Jewish writers working after the Holocaust, classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy.

This argument distresses me on many levels.  First of all, I direct all Jews who want to continue to use the Holocaust as an excuse for modern behavior to former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg’s book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes. Put simply, the Holocaust was a horrific tragedy that must always be remembered, and clearly informed history.  But it is not a cloak we can wrap around ourselves to explain away everything that Jews do, have done, or will do.

Specifically to Winegarb’s argument, I think it is demeaning to the Jewish spirit to suggest that because of the Holocaust, Jews cannot enjoy the escape of redemptive fantasy literature.  My grandfather survived Sacshenhausen.  And it wasn’t simply his body that survived, but his soul—he had a warm sense of humor, a mischievous glint in his eye, and yes, took me to see all the fantasy movies and buy all the fantasy games and books my little heart desired.  Yes, his body and mind suffered scars unimaginable, and the diabetes and nightmares tore at him for the rest of his life.  But that life was a joyous, productive one.  I can’t imagine him ever rejecting The Lord of The Rings as tripe because he had been in a death camp.  And certainly, he never imparted that to me, but rather his love of myth and stories of all stripes.  If anything, escape and fantasy became even more valuable to him, not less.

They say that in the camps, people either found God and clung to Him to survive, or abandoned God as they felt abandoned.  Certainly, some would have felt the way Winegarb suggests, but certainly not everyone, and without hesitation, I’d say not the children of those who would go on to write fantasy.  Also, the geographic issue comes up here too—a significant number of potential Jewish novelists had families already living in America during the 1940s, so this rejection of fantasy due to the Holocaust would not have been as likely anyway.

Winegarb may have noticed a phenomenon—that today, the majority of the most successful fantasy authors are not Jews—but I reject that there are reasons in our collective ethnic or religious experience for this.  Yes, our religious tradition is different from the medieval Christian tradition.  Certainly, that will influence some Jews.  But I think the difference more geographical than anything else, and not based on either the distant or recent Jewish experience of persecution.