New York Times Book Review
June 24, 2007
By RACHEL DONADIO
Over three evenings last month, several dozen writers gathered in the airy sanctuary of Hebrew Union College for a bizarre rite of passage: the Jewish book tour casting call. In a combination of "The Gong Show" and speed-dating, they each had two minutes to pitch their books to the Jewish Book Network, 100 cultural programmers from Jewish community centers, or J.C.C.'s, synagogues and libraries nationwide. An M.C. ruthlessly held up a sign when one minute was up and cheerily announced "on deck" to prepare the next speaker.
Joyce Antler, a professor at Brandeis University, presented "You Never Call! You Never Write!," her academic history of the Jewish mother, while Dr. Loren Fishman talked up "Sciatica Solutions." Martin Lemelman pushed his memoir, "Mendel's Daughter," with the promise "I could come to your J.C.C. with a PowerPoint presentation to explain how I came to write ... about the well that saved my mother's life in the forests of Poland." M. J. Rose explained that her novel "The Reincarnationist" stemmed from her deep belief in reincarnation and marked a departure from her "very sexual nine previous novels." Two British Jewish novelists, Howard Jacobson and Charlotte Mendelson, riffed on how America "gets" Jews while England doesn't. Meanwhile, programmers took notes on the authors' book topics — and sense of humor, stage presence, poise and, probably, hairlines.
With its wild shifts in tone and quality, the annual conference offered a chaotic cross-section of American Jewish life — and of the current state of publishing. Holocaust memoirs vied for time with cookbooks and diet books, books on how to pray and why not to pray, books on motorcycles, punk rock and drug addiction, first novels and graphic novels, nonfiction reportage and novels with soft-porn covers.
But this big game of "Will this play in Peoria?" serves an important purpose. While publishers have scaled back dramatically on book tours, the Jewish Book Network has picked up some of the slack over the past decade, organizing and underwriting multicity gigs. "Before, authors were doing the Jewish book fairs a favor," said the children's book author Judith Viorst, who presented her forthcoming "Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days." "Now, the Jewish book fairs are doing authors a favor."
The auditions and centralized tours were the brainchild of Carolyn Starman Hessel, who has become a formidable power in the publishing industry in her 13 years as the director of the Jewish Book Council, which runs the Jewish Book Network. Not only does Hessel persuade authors to "fly from Minneapolis to Houston to Miami in a day and a half," as the novelist Dara Horn put it, but her tours have also helped kick-start the careers of promising young novelists including Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Hessel has an "uncanny ability" to get people enthusiastic about Jewish books, said Krauss, who first went on a Jewish Book Network tour to promote her 2002 novel, "Man Walks Into a Room." "If 'Finnegans Wake' were even a little Jewish, Carolyn could convince thousands of people in J.C.C.'s across the country to read it."
A diminutive woman with a strong Long Island accent, big hair and exceedingly long, pink-lacquered fingernails, Hessel looks more like a lady who lunches than an important literary arbiter. But when she talks, publishers listen. "It's a little too easy to be amused by" and dismissive of Hessel and her colleagues, said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House. "I wish we had a thousand more like them." In 2005, the Jewish Book Council held its annual conference at the headquarters of Random House, whose chief executive, Peter Olson, delivered opening remarks.
Though connecting with "communities of interest" (Civil War buffs, fly-fishing enthusiasts, poodle owners) has been a marketing strategy for some time, publishers are hard pressed to name another ethnic or interest group with a semi-centralized organization that coordinates book fairs. Hessel said one Catholic book society had asked her for advice. "Publishers have told me that the big reading groups, the Irish and the Italians, they wish they had some central address to go to the way they go to us," she said.
Now in their fourth year, the auditions replaced a more haphazard system in which Hessel would meet informally with writers during BookExpo America, the annual publishing convention. The auditions, which authors pay to attend, help programmers gauge which speakers may be right for their audience. Some "need a sophisticated academic author, other communities need fluff," Hessel said. After the auditions, programmers send Hessel a wish list and dates, and the council tries to schedule a tour. The auditions aren't limited to Jewish authors or even to books with overtly Jewish themes. "My feeling is, a Jewish author writes with a Jewish pen and sees the world through Jewish eyes, and those values come through in the writing," Hessel said.
"We're very democratic," she said. "We say no to nobody, unless it's an anti-Jewish book."
Which isn't to say some presenters don't raise eyebrows. This year, some in the audience were surprised to hear Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard, present his forthcoming book, "The Israel Lobby." Written with John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, the book is based on a contentious article the two published last year in The London Review of Books. "My co-author and I are both pro-Israel, but we argue that many of the key groups that lobby for Israel, such as Aipac" — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — "have encouraged polices that are not in the American national interest or in Israel's interest," Walt told the audience. He said that the book didn't "question Israel's legitimacy or right to exist" and that the Israel lobby was "just an interest group like other interest groups," while lobbying was "as American as apple pie."
Walt was received with cordial applause, but at least one programmer said he'd be a tough sell. A few days later, Dennis Ross, a former Mideast peace negotiator who was promoting his own book, "Statecraft," told the audience Walt's argument wasn't as benign as he made it out to be. "To describe that book as pro-Israel is hard to fathom," he said.
For most authors, the audition experience is "somewhere between JDate and a camel auction," said Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The New Yorker who toured last year to promote "Prisoners," his memoir about serving in the Israeli Army and befriending a Palestinian inmate. "Camels are very skittish, and so are writers. We don't like having our teeth inspected. But if we're going to sell, we know we have to have our teeth inspected." His advice? "Do not follow the woman who just published a book on how all her children were murdered in Treblinka. It's much preferable to follow a woman who has 100 halvah recipes."
In addition to doing a tour arranged by his publisher, Nathan Englander was sent by the network on a tour of 30 cities in 28 days to promote his 1999 story collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." He said he had two favorite audience questions from the "Hessel tour." "One woman in Toronto asked if she could relieve my unbearable urges," he said. "She was young and I was young, but nonetheless, I gave the wrong answer at the time." Then there was an older woman at a Jewish book fair in Florida. "I was onstage and I said, 'Yes, ma'am?' And she said, 'Why didn't you shave?' Why didn't you shave is such a clear, excellent question."
Authors routinely say audience members seem less interested in their books than in marrying them off. "I have been asked, 'Are you single?' at nearly every event, and despite answering that I am married, have then sat through the parade of eligible Jewish men in most towns," said Jennifer Gilmore, who toured with her first novel, "Golden Country." For an author trying to sell copies, Goldberg said, the "single worst" comment is " 'I just took your book out from the library; I'm really enjoying it!' "
Hessel acknowledged that while many audience members read the books, "many more I know go buy the book, have it signed, boast to their friends and never open it."
In any case, it's hard to argue with the network's promotional muscle. "There was a time when people didn't want to be called a Jewish author. They wanted to be universal," said Francine Klagsbrun, a writer and Jewish Book Council board member. "Now they write a novel, they have one Jewish character, and they want to go on the tour because publishers aren't doing this."
Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.