The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Literature

By – July 26, 2022

Life is unfair,” Pres­i­dent Kennedy famous­ly remarked. In The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, Lam­bert explores the unfair­ness of lit­er­ary life in par­tic­u­lar, con­fronting six-decades-old insin­u­a­tions about the pub­lish­ing indus­try. Bare­ly three per­cent of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, Jews con­spic­u­ous­ly involved them­selves in the major deci­sions of major pub­lish­ing hous­es to deter­mine which man­u­scripts were wor­thi­est. These books then came to the atten­tion of crit­ics and review­ers — also Jews — attached to some of the most pres­ti­gious forums of taste and opin­ion. Their praise or dis­missal could make or break careers. In this same post­war era, Jew­ish writ­ers of fic­tion ascend­ed Par­nas­sus, win­ning Pulitzer Prizes and Nation­al Book Awards. Saul Bel­low once referred to him­self, Bernard Mala­mud, and Philip Roth as a bloc — the Hart Schaffn­er Marx of belles-let­tres. Were such tri­umphs coin­ci­dence or con­spir­a­cy? A reflec­tion of sheer tal­ent, or mere­ly a sign of tribalism?

Lam­bert, who is extreme­ly savvy and well-read, exon­er­ates Jew­ish pub­lish­ers, edi­tors, and crit­ics from the charge of eth­nic favoritism. He can­not dis­cern any per­sis­tent pat­terns of eth­nic sol­i­dar­i­ty — not even in the com­pa­ny records of the pub­lish­ing hous­es that Jews like Alfred and Blanche Knopf found­ed. But then — in the bulk of The Lit­er­ary Mafia—he insists that no objec­tive stan­dards for judg­ing artis­tic mer­it exist any­way. His book pro­vides no cri­te­ri­on for weigh­ing whether, say, the Hart Schaffn­er Marx of post­war fic­tion earned their prizes just­ly. The writ­ing trade, Lam­bert shows in brisk chap­ters, con­sists of net­work­ing. Some­times par­ents help out their aspir­ing and gift­ed chil­dren. Some­times teach­ers help out their ambi­tious and promis­ing stu­dents. Per­haps pub­lish­ers and edi­tors help out writ­ers accord­ing to recog­ni­tion of some shared ances­try or gen­der. There is no viable way besides net­work­ing to orga­nize the recruit­ment of tal­ent and the arrange­ment of the scarce resources — uneven­ly dis­trib­uted — by which writ­ers find readers.

Lam­bert is also keen­ly sen­si­tive to the preda­to­ry sex­u­al habits that some male bene­fac­tors” have exhib­it­ed with pro­tégées, for which one rem­e­dy may be the law. But such inci­dents reflect the larg­er prob­lem that is the theme of this book: the sys­tem is inher­ent­ly unfair. Lam­bert finds the only cor­rec­tive in the mul­ti­cul­tur­al mantra of diver­si­ty. Hav­ing excul­pat­ed the Jews who dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly defined the post­war con­tours of the lit­er­ary mar­ket­place, he shows that, though non-Jews can­not claim dis­crim­i­na­tion, non-whites cer­tain­ly can. Lam­bert there­fore pleads for enlarge­ment and inclu­sion, to sus­tain the momen­tum that began with women. So far, the demo­graph­ic changes that his book recounts and envi­sions have large­ly remained with­in the groove of the great pub­lish­ing hous­es that Jews found­ed: Simon & Schus­ter, Knopf, Pan­theon, Schock­en, Viking. Their lega­cy has endured, even as the role of Jew­ish exec­u­tives and edi­tors, he sur­mis­es, will become less prominent.

Discussion Questions

In The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing and Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, Josh Lam­bert probes the pop­u­lar accu­sa­tion that a clique of Jew­ish edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, crit­ics, and read­ers exert­ed undue influ­ence over the cul­ture of Amer­i­can let­ters. While obvi­ous­ly not tak­ing these (often offen­sive) alle­ga­tions at face val­ue, Lam­bert uses them as a provoca­tive start­ing point for a cru­cial dis­cus­sion about the fac­tors that con­sti­tute lit­er­ary taste and deter­mine access to pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal acclaim.

The Lit­er­ary Mafia delves into the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jews’ mid-cen­tu­ry accep­tance into the lit­er­ary main­stream, a devel­op­ment that pre­vi­ous his­to­ri­ans may have been reluc­tant to touch out of fear of exac­er­bat­ing anti­se­mit­ic stereo­types of Jew­ish media con­trol. Lam­bert tack­les the sub­ject fear­less­ly, using it to illu­mi­nate how access to pub­li­ca­tion, prizes, and oth­er acco­lades has often hinged on a writer’s eth­nic back­ground – with Jew­ish men only becom­ing lit­er­ar­i­ly enfran­chised” in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. This pre­sen­ta­tion of Amer­i­can lit­er­ary pub­lish­ing as a minor­i­ty eco­nom­ic niche” for mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jews not only offers new insight into the mul­ti­ple ways that Jews became part of the cul­tur­al main­stream, but it also rais­es impor­tant, often sober­ing ques­tions about how the pub­lish­ing indus­try con­tin­ues to offer and fore­close oppor­tu­ni­ties to some Amer­i­can writ­ers over others.