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The myth of the Jewish "literary mafia" of post-war America

In the postwar years, there were so many Jews in the American publishing industry that some writers began coining a phrase to describe them: “The literary mafia.” This mafia, they believed, secretly ensured that Jewish books and authors would get published by the major publishing houses, covered in the literary press and supported at the major academic institutions — at the expense of other, non-Jewish writers, or even the “wrong” kinds of Jewish writers. 

Such a belief, sometimes driven by antisemitism and sometimes by a general feeling of literary displacement and career frustration, was shared by figures including Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor to describe the sensation they felt watching their Jewish peers like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick. In writings of the time period, they and other notable authors believed that powerful industry Jews were the cause behind any of their careers being stalled.

The term was also employed, self-consciously, by many of the actual prominent Jews who worked in the literary sphere, from publishing houses to literary magazines to academia. These Jews would would sometimes make jokes about how many other Jews they encountered at the top of their industries, or express frustration that they weren’t on the inside circle of them.

Josh Lambert, director of the Jewish Studies program at Wellesley College, explores the curious phenomenon of the “literary mafia” in his new book: “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, And Postwar American Literature,” released this week by Yale University Press. Drawing from the correspondences of prominent Jewish authors, editors, publishers and academics from the time period, including Knopf editor Harold Strauss, Esquire editor Gordon Lish, Columbia University professor Lionel Trilling and author Ann Birstein, the book dispels the myth of the “literary mafia.” But Lambert also argues that Jews in positions of power may be inclined to help other Jews, because their personal and professional networks are made up of Jews.

In the book, Lambert unpacks the professional and personal relationships that informed this period of what he calls “Jewish literary enfranchisement” — and the ways in which such networks of influence persist into the modern era.

JTA: Let’s start with the broadest possible question: Was there a “Jewish literary mafia”? And if there was, what was it?

Lambert: I think the best way I can answer that question is, no, there wasn’t, but it’s not uninteresting to talk about it anyway. There wasn’t the Jewish literary mafia that Truman Capote thought there was where he said, “Oh, these people are scheming and conspiring.” And there wasn’t even the Jewish literary mafia that Jewish writer Meyer Levin thought there was, where [he thought] people got together at parties and said, “We’re never going to talk about his book.” That didn’t happen.

The question that I think is more interesting is: why did serious people even talk about this? Why did this idea, this meme or trope, last for 20 or 30 years? And the answer is actually really easy, I think, for anyone who works in journalism, or the culture industry. If you’ve worked in any industry like that for five minutes, you can say there are some people who had it easier, who had a smoother path. They got helped out, they had advantages, their pitches got accepted quicker. Even aside from that, you have relationships with people, and they come to bear on who gives you a chance to do things or who helps you out. 

And it’s easy to imagine why someone who’s on the wrong side of that, in some moments, feels like it’s not fair, feels like something’s going wrong, feels like there’s a problem. So this trope of the “literary mafia,” it’s just the place where people put their feelings about the improper or unfair uses of power — in the case of my book, in the publishing industry.

Were there cases where people used their power inappropriately? For sure. I talk about them in the book. But also, I think we need to talk in a more thoughtful way about, what is that power, that influence, that ability to shape what gets read or published? And who has it and how do they use that power?

You are a scholar of Jewish culture and Jewish literature talking about the influence of Jews in the publishing industry. There’s a part in your book where you’re just listing the Jews who currently or used to work in publishing. Why draw attention to this when this could encourage an antisemitic reading of the history that you’re presenting?

I think that if there’s like a consistency between this book and my last book [“Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture”], it’s precisely that. I don’t want to hand the conversation to antisemites, no matter how strong they are or how terrifying they are. They shouldn’t be the ones who get to decide how we talk about these kinds of issues. 

In my last book about obscenity, antisemites used it in a horrible way, in an inappropriate way, in a pernicious way. [David Duke tweeted admiringly about “Unclean Lips,” and it was cited in some antisemitic publications as “evidence” that Jews are sexual predators.] I kind of knew they were going to do that. And they might do it with this book. And the thing is, I think David Duke is going to do what he does, irrespective of what I do, so I’m not going to worry about that. 

But I do think the audience that I want to talk to, which is Jews in America and non-Jews who care about the literary system who are not antisemites — I think the idea that we couldn’t talk about Jewish success, Jewish influence, Jewish power only distorts and only stops us from understanding important and really meaningful things.

So, that list: Making a list of any kind of Jew feels a little strange. But at the same time, denying it or pretending it’s not there really feels uncomfortable. 

You call the postwar period in literature a time of “Jewish literary enfranchisement.” What prompted that, and what were some of the pros and cons of this sudden elevation of Jews to positions of power in publishing, magazines and academia?

I was looking for a term, and “enfranchisement” I liked because it doesn’t tell you what a person is going to do. It just says that they have a new opportunity and a new way to use it. And what caused that exactly is still hard to disentangle from other socioeconomic changes happening for Jews. We know in the postwar period, Jews are doing better economically. There’s more support politically for Jews in different ways. And the the success in the publishing industry is related to all that, but also just related to the growth of these companies that Jews founded in the 1910s and 1920s that are succeeding wildly, and that are just not discriminating against Jewish employees.

It’s actually really hard to wrap your head around what the disenfranchisement looked like, which didn’t mean that no single Jew ever got to publish anything, or that no Jewish person could ever do something, but really meant that as a general thing, Jews weren’t in decision-making positions. Whereas in the postwar period it becomes completely unremarkable, in a literal sense, that Jews had any jobs in the field.

You think to yourself: What changes when there hasn’t been a person from this particular minority group who [now] has a gatekeeping function in this industry? For an editor at [Jewish-owned publishing house] Knopf, Harold Strauss, the answer is that, once people from that minority group are in that position, they’re projecting their own ideas about what this group’s identity is, what it should be, onto their decision making. A whole bunch of Jewish editors get the chance to shape a publishing program and say, these are the kinds of books that I think people will want to read. And I think that it’s absolutely a mixed bag. 

[Knopf] did a wonderful job of publishing Yiddish in translation. Why was it able to do that? Because they really liked high-prestige European literature, and they can present some Yiddish literature not as sweatshop poetry, but like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. At the same time, part of what Knopf was more comfortable with than some other publishers, because it was a Jewish house, was stuff that I think most of us would look at and say was antisemitic. Stuff like H. L. Mencken writing a couple passages about Jews as the worst group of people on the planet.

It was almost like, because they were self-conscious of their identity as Jews, that they felt more like they could publish some of this antisemitic writing as a way to almost ward off accusations that they were part of a literary mafia.

You have chapters on ingrained misogyny and blatant instances of nepotism among Jews in publishing houses. What are the lessons for Jews to take away from these chronicles of the failings of literary leaders of the time?

I’ll speak to the nepotism piece because I think that’s part of the place where it’s clearest. Nepotism is this enormous force in our society. If you think about your friends, people you know, people you’ve grown up with, it makes an enormous difference in people’s lives whether they have wealthy parents and grandparents or not. This is generally true of Western culture. The thing that’s different is that, three or four generations ago, most American Jews couldn’t expect that kind of inheritance. And in the last 20, 30, 40 years, that’s become much more common. 

It’s not ubiquitous. It’s not everyone in the American Jewish community, but it really does change where Jews sit, vis-a-vis other people in America, in terms of their advantages. What do you want to do with the advantages and privileges and power that you’re given? If we can agree that it’s a lot easier for a young Jewish person who happens to be bookish to get a job in publishing, to succeed in that career, and we care about larger social justice issues, I think that it pushes us to want to ask questions like, what can we do? 

As a parent myself, I know: I love my kids. It’s not like I want my kids not to succeed. But I do want to create systems that aren’t saying that the children of the most privileged people will continue to be the most privileged people in every instance.

This year’s Pulitzer winner for fiction, Joshua Cohen’s “The Netanyahus,” is an extremely specific rendering of American Jewish life and intra-Jewish politics. It’s not dissimilar to the scene that you depict in the book of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and all these other Jews winning major literary prizes in the ’50s. Is the idea of the “Jewish literary mafia” still with us?

There’s absolutely no question that Jews still are prominent and successful and thriving. And if you gave me three college kids who are wanting to work in publishing and one was a Jewish kid, my money would be on them that they’d have the best chance of succeeding — because they’ll have the most connections, etc.

That Pulitzer decision, when a prize like that happens, it feels like it tells you something about the cultural moment. The Pulitzer board makes public the names of the judges on that panel that awarded the prize to Josh Cohen’s book. What’s really important is to not think of it as the Pulitzer, but as a conversation that happened among those three or four people. What do we know about them and what their interests are? [The jury members for the 2022 Fiction Pulitzers were Whiting Foundation director Courtney Hodell, Kirkus Reviews Editor-in-Chief Tom Beer, Wall Street Journal fiction columnist Sam Sacks, Northwestern University professor Chris Abani and Deborah Heard, former director of the Hurston/Wright Foundation supporting Black writers.]

A prize is never an objective or pure representation of a book. It’s always just a story about a group of people and what they’re excited about in a particular moment.

This is a meta question: You talk about the relationships you were able to draw on yourself, as a Jewish academic in the publishing space, in order to publish this book, and one of the reasons I’m interviewing you is that we know each other through similar spaces: you were a grad student instructor of mine, and I later participated in a Jewish writing fellowship you ran. How are you thinking about these kinds of relationships as you’re navigating the world and your own career?

I really appreciate the question because I just think, on some larger level, that’s what I want the book to be thinking about. One, more transparency about that is good. It’s good that we should say that we know each other. I don’t think it makes the fact that you’re going to publish a piece about my book impossibly corrupt, or a sign of something deeply wrong. But it’s fair to say that I would do you a favor if I could, and I probably have, and I’d appreciate it if you would do me a favor. 

I do feel like as you pay more attention to that, it should have an effect on how you act and how you deploy whatever power you’ve amassed. One of the things that Wellesley has is this incredible alumni network, where alums from the school are really compelled by the idea of helping out a contemporary student. And I say to them, it’s worth thinking about what’s similar and different in that alumni network to the Harvard alumni network. Because if what your alumni network does is take people who are privileged and have the most access to power and give them an extra boost of power, you might want to think that that’s not the best thing to support. But if you’re thinking about industries in which women and nonbinary people have been traditionally and continually underrepresented and discriminated against, and the Wellesley alumni network can help to push for more justice and equity in those fields, then it’s an amazing thing.

To the degree that I have a role as a mentor and supporter of students, I’m trying to think about: Who are the students who are least likely to get help? It might not even be as much my instinct to support them because they might seem less similar to me or their goals might be less aligned with me. But I can try to find a way to use whatever advantages I have to help them — bringing a kind of conscientiousness to who I help with letters of recommendation, who I try to set up with opportunities, that sort of thing.

You argue that “we need more literary mafias,” and you outline what that might look like in 20, 30 years if there were suddenly an abundance of Black people in these positions of publishing power, or other marginalized groups, and how that might affect Jews as well. Can you break that down?

If we can all acknowledge that Jews have played this incredibly outsized role and, still into the present, have played that in the publishing industry, one of the things you can take away from that is, it actually is OK if a group has pretty disproportionate power. 

There’s an idea of diversity that it means your proportion in this industry should relate to your proportion in the population. And I just don’t think industries work like that, and power doesn’t work like that. What you’d want to see is not a tokenizing approach to diversity that takes a couple of people and puts them in positions of power, but a real shift, where there can be a sense that there’s never too many.

And I think it’s happening in publishing right now in a really powerful and interesting sense. Since the murder of George Floyd, there’s a movement, a real attention to white supremacy in American culture. The publishing industry has hired some African American editors in really prominent positions. And I think that’s great. And what I would really hope for, what I hope the history of Jews suggests, is after they’ve hired those prominent people in those prominent positions, they should hire 400 more.

Andrew Lapin