'The Literary Mafia': The myth that Jews control publishing - review

Did the Jews act mafia-style to promote their own, perhaps swinging the votes of those National Book Award juries? According to author Josh Lambert: No.

 ACTOR PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival for his portrayal of American writer Truman Capote. The book says Capote ignited accusations of antisemitism with claims that Jews controlled the literary scene. (photo credit: Mike Cassese/Reuters)
ACTOR PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival for his portrayal of American writer Truman Capote. The book says Capote ignited accusations of antisemitism with claims that Jews controlled the literary scene.
(photo credit: Mike Cassese/Reuters)

In 1950, the English departments of American universities were so close to Judenfrei that the few Jewish professors who broke through kept that part of their identity secret, fearing that such revelations would upset students.

Meanwhile, publishers steered away from works about the American Jewish experience. Arguably the saddest comment stemming from this period of literary disenfranchisement and quoted in Josh Lambert’s The Literary Mafia; Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature is by Arthur Miller:

“I gave up the Jews as literary material because I was afraid that even an innocent allusion to the individual wrong-doing of an individual Jew would be inflamed by the atmosphere, ignited by the hatred I suddenly was aware of, and my love would be twisted into a weapon of persecution against Jews.”

“I gave up the Jews as literary material because I was afraid that even an innocent allusion to the individual wrong-doing of an individual Jew would be inflamed by the atmosphere, ignited by the hatred I suddenly was aware of, and my love would be twisted into a weapon of persecution against Jews.”

Arthur Miller

Fast-forward to the 1960s, and the American Jewish experience is in vogue. One metric of the turnaround is the National Book Award for Fiction, which went to Jewish authors writing on Jewish subjects eight times between 1954 and 1974. At the same time, a growing prevalence of Jewish writers, editors, critics and academics touched off a chorus of allegations of their disproportional influence.

This ascent from disenfranchisement to accusations of exercising an iron grip over the publishing enterprise and America’s culture is especially relevant today, as a multitude of constituencies vie for greater visibility. Can anything be learned from the Jews’ rise to prominence in publishing? How can others win a place at the table?

 Bookshelf (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Bookshelf (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The myth of the Jewish "literary mafia"

Reviving disputation voiced at cocktail parties and in publications of 50 years ago, Lambert, a professor of Jewish studies and English at Wellesley College, shows how critics of the Jewish “literary mob” drew on the leitmotifs of classical antisemitism, perhaps substituting the word “mafia” for “the Elders of Zion.”

This aspect of The Literary Mafia is in equal measure disturbing and entertaining:

We encounter Jack Kerouac ranting about “the Jewish literary mafia” placing a “moratorium on publication of his work.” Mario Puzo, an expert on Mafia proper, reports that two mob factions – the Jews and the southerners – control “those juicy Guggenheim and Ford grants,” keeping them out of reach of “independent, working writers.”

Truman Capote ignites accusations of antisemitism (his) by saying that “a clique of New York-oriented writers and critics... control much of the literary scene through the influence of the quarterlies and intellectual magazines. All these publications are Jewish-dominated and this particular coterie employs them to make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention.”

Katherine Anne Porter, whose novel Ship of Fools deals with the onset of German fascism, gets in some unforgettable zingers, lamenting the fate of writers to whom English is the “mother tongue” being crowded out by “a stylish sort of mob” that speaks “a curious kind of argot, more or less originating in New York, a deadly mixture of academic, guttersnipe, gangster, fake-Yiddish and dull, old, worn-out dirty words.”

Addressing these complaints with diligence befitting a scholar, Lambert shows that the Jews triumphed over literary disenfranchisement without the benefit of a conspiratorial prospective plan. Barriers fell because professors mentored students, editors opened doors for writers they liked, publishers recognized shifts in the market – and everyone seemed to know each other.

Also, lest we forget, there were some kick-ass American Jewish writers.

Did the Jews act mafia-style to promote their own, perhaps swinging the votes of those National Book Award juries? Actually, no, Lambert writes. The judges during the years of the Jewish sweep were mostly non-Jews, and most were from outside of New York’s literary circles.

The 1953 jury was an exception. That year, three of the five judges – Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe  – were Jewish, and the finalists included Ernest Hemingway, Jean Stafford, John Steinbeck and William Carlos Williams. There was also a Jewish-themed novel, The Landsmen, by Peter Martin.

Bellow, Kazin and Howe could have scored for the Jews. Instead, the award went to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a pathbreaking novel by a black writer.

The ability to separate “homophily,” a preference for one’s own kind, from its opposite, which in this context is “objectivity,” is central to Lambert’s argument. His analysis of motivations hinges on one’s definition of the role of an editor. Is an editor an automaton applying objective metrics and spitting out a determination of merit? Or is an editor a product of cultural experience, which shapes one’s aesthetic choices?

It’s always the latter, Lambert argues. If you let the gatekeepers be true to themselves, flowers will bloom.

As he traverses a terrain that could justify entertaining detours, Lambert constructs his argument with elegance, unwavering focus and perhaps too much economy, in the end leaving this reader still hungry for more exegesis – and prompting a dive into the book’s 65 pages of endnotes.

Lambert’s conclusion – that today’s culturally disenfranchised groups could glean novel strategies from the triumph of the Jews – is both timely and original in an industry embroiled in a permanent revolution over inclusiveness.

“Understanding Jews as having constituted a successful ethnic niche within US publishing suggests one way, a new way, for the publishing industry to achieve the diversity that it apparently seeks but has not been able to realize. Rather than hiring and promoting relatively small numbers of people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), hoping to increase the percentage of such publishing employees over years and decades, the publishing industry could commit to seeding ethnic niches. This would mean hiring many more such people, hiring them in positions of greater authority, and investing in BIPOC-led new ventures.”

Josh Lambert

Writes Lambert: 

“Understanding Jews as having constituted a successful ethnic niche within US publishing suggests one way, a new way, for the publishing industry to achieve the diversity that it apparently seeks but has not been able to realize. Rather than hiring and promoting relatively small numbers of people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), hoping to increase the percentage of such publishing employees over years and decades, the publishing industry could commit to seeding ethnic niches. This would mean hiring many more such people, hiring them in positions of greater authority, and investing in BIPOC-led new ventures.”

This is, of course, a bold suggestion from a scholar who has just demonstrated that the Jewish niche in publishing was formed without the benefit of a plan and despite formidable obstacles that included accusations of mafia-style conspiratorial conduct. 

The writer’s novel The Dissident is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux next spring. 

The Literary Mafia Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American LiteratureBy Josh LambertYale University Press273 pages, $35