It’s like a parody of Philip Roth. Wendy Shalit’s sister, Ruth, made a brief career of looking cute and writing conservative, but short skirts and plunging necklines didn’t cover up the fact that the empress had no clothes: Before there was Stephen Glass, there was Ruth Shalit, and she got outed as not only a liar, but a plagiarist as well. Then little sis Wendy went to Williams, where she, too, discovered the joys of giving good conservatism. This resulted in a book called — we’re not making this up, and neither is Roth — A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. The New York Times panned it — “Populated by lecherous men, lovelorn young women and beaming virgins,” wrote Emily Eakin, “[Wendy Shalit's] world has the tell-tale contours of caricature” — whileThe Wall Street Journal cooed: “Hers will be one of the strongest voices in the struggle ahead” — the struggle against those mannish, man-hating, feminazis, of course.
But Shalit had other faux-foes in her sites. Having visited Israel and “returned” to her traditional roots as an obervant Jew (“roots,” we should add, that are only traditional to Shalit if we allow the idea of past-life experiences, which isn’t really all that traditional, Jewishly-speaking), Shalit has become a Defender of the Faith. But lacking a first class heretic like Philip Roth to battle, Shalit takes aim at a generation of nice Jewish boys and girls — Nathan Englander, Jonathan Rosen, Tova Mirvis – decent fiction writers who depict orthodox Jews in their fiction with varying degrees of familiarity.
I’d stake the Jewish knowledge of those three against Shalit’s any day, but that’s not what this is really about. Shalit’s latest attack – published, ironically, in The New York Times Book Review, which seems to have swung right under the tenure of Sam Tanenhaus — has as much to do with Jewishness as Return to Modesty (there’s that weird return thing again) did with real world sexual morality. The formula is simple, and popular with young conservatives who lack the wit of a Matt Labash or the weirdly fascinating rage of an Ann Coulter. The formula goes like this: Describe the current condition in lurid, terrifying terms. Dystopia established, hit the stacks for literary renderings of a golden age. Find a culprit — feminists will almost always do; theological liberals are also useful. Plot established, pine for the good old days, to which we should all — you guessed it – return, led by the pure prose of our brave young hero.
Don’t take my word for it. The Forward and Nextbook, two of the best Jewish publications around, were quick to respond to Shalit’s charge. “The young scold went to Israel, found God, and now opines that fiction’s purpose is not art or even mere entertainment, but P.R.,” writes Nextbook‘s Sara Ivry, who knows a fair bit more about Jewish literature than Shalit. Tova Mirvis, one of Shalit’s targets, hits back even harder in the Jewish Forward:
“Fiction isn’t about what people should do or should feel. It doesn’t set out to confirm what we already believe….
“Her notion of fiction brings to mind the world described in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: ‘We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent â€” namely, ideology.’”