Young editors take a fresh look at an old box

A new wave of editors share their views on the changing direction of Israeli publishing.

By ADAM PINES
February 23, 2006 11:18

Complementing a brisk shift in the Israeli literary world, a fresh generation of editors has entered top publishing houses and begun asserting themselves alongside the veterans. With the surging drive to "find the next star," these bestseller-soothsayers are giving Israeli writers a new sense of direction and development. At 32, Rana Werbin, the new literary editor at Yediot Literature, finds it difficult to operate within the limits of a particular genre, and labels her editorial taste pluralistic. "There is no such thing as successful type of novel these days," she says. "There is a reader for everything." Werbin asserts that the publishing world must work against the high-brow elitist attitude it exudes if it hopes to win over the readers that would sustain it - a problem reflected by the fact that an Israeli novel is considered a bestseller with sales of anything over 10,000 copies. However, as new genres surface and marginal voices are given an opportunity to be heard, a previously untapped audience seems to be emerging, allowing more and more titles to reach this bestseller mark. In recent years, the local book industry discovered a whole new level of potential publishing success when the Harry Potter series sold over 180,000 copies. "No one knew there were so many potential readers," Werbin notes, "we learned that it is possible to reach that kind of number if we market books correctly." Shay Hausman, chairman of the Israeli Book Publisher's Association, says in the past 10 years, the local literary scene has undergone dramatic changes, mostly due to the arrival of numerous young writers, and young editors feel they have been brought in to represent these new voices. They believe they are aptly suited to serve a growing market of readers that demand a wider selection of books which explore the Hebrew language. "There is a new kind of street language - vernacular, which we see emerging in younger writers," he says. "It's similar to 'jive' in American literature. The language is continuing to develop and expand." Werbin claims Israeli readers are rearing their heads in response to the variety of works now available. Popular fiction, like the novels written by Ram Oren, seem to have had phenomenal success because they remind a large portion of the public that reading can be fun. "Suddenly, everyone in Israel began writing... they have no shame," Hausman says. Noa Mannheim, literary editor at Kineret Zmora-Bitan - another leading publishing house - echoes this notion, saying that "in the past, if someone wrote something it went straight to the drawer. Now no one has drawers anymore; it's all out the window." This plethora of voices enables her, as an editor, to be especially selective in picking a wide variety of material with which to turn on new readers. Both Werbin and Mannheim arrived at their posts after serving as literary critics for the local press. Mannheim says while she is eager to release as much varied material as she can, she looks forward to filling a literary gap by producing more Israeli science-fiction and fantasy stories. And while certain genres continue to dominate the market, Mannheim also notes the increasing availability of "chic lit," historical novels, horror stories and detective novels. She finds particular satisfaction in the fact that two leading mystery novelists are women - Shulamit Lapid and Batya Gur - but says there are still improvements to be made in every genre. THERE ALSO seems to be an increasing number of writers from abroad who are exploring their identities while working with Israeli themes and characters. Not only are more writers questioning the notion of Israeli nationality, Israel's relation to Judaism and the connections between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora, but voices are emerging from communities that had previously been silent. This search for identity has led writers to explore religious themes, explains Mannheim. Many young writers today feel a nostalgia which they intertwine with religious exploration. While in the past, stories dealing with ascetic religious communities stemmed only from writers who had abandoned their Orthodox lifestyle, now an overwhelming number of Orthodox authors offer stories which draw on daily events and culture. Werbin says writers from marginalized communities are suddenly darting into the mainstream, and igniting great interest from different publishers. "There is a huge religious community whose members do not have books they can read," she adds. "There is no reason why we as editors should snub them." Werbin reveals that she recently selected a book by a new Orthodox Jewish writer, which is set in the religious world but does not identify its characters as Orthodox. Though their actions subscribe to strict religious codes (male and female characters do not touch each other, for example), the secular reader is led to question his own perceptions of "religious" or "non-religious" characteristics. On the other hand, the Orthodox sector identifies the characters as religious and relates positively to the book, as it reflects their cultural codes. Other emerging authors seem to forgo any attempt to make a literary statement, and focus simply on telling stories. Werbin notes the increased number of books that are more about telling a story than crafting the language. She claims historical memoirs are achieving significant success as people decide to rediscover their roots. "In many of the manuscripts we receive, the idea of the past is being questioned," Mannheim says. While Zionism glossed over the personal histories which preceded it and doled out a common base from which Israelis were told to ascribe their history, today's writers are searching for their personal pasts. Werbin says she identifies with such exploration; as a third-generation Israeli, she feels a missing link in her past. These days Werbin says she is preparing for the release of two distinct works which deal with questions of origin: One follows a dialogue between a modern woman and a Jewish woman from 1730 Amsterdam belonging to the mystical messianic cult of Shabbetai Tzvi. Another deals with non-biological adoption and a love affair between a Parisian Jew and his Greek mistress. Werbin says that today, "different voices are what is important" to the Israeli looking to celebrate his individuality.


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