David Herman

The shortlist for Britain’s pre-eminent Jewish literary prize comes up short

David Herman is unimpressed with a list that includes no British authors, history books or biographies

January 15, 2019 11:17

The JQ Wingate Literary Prize is Britain’s pre-eminent Jewish literary prize. Jewish writers have not always received their due from other literary prizes and over the past 40 years, the JQ Wingate Prize has been dedicated to promoting the best Jewish writing in fiction and non-fiction.

So why am I unhappy with the 2019 shortlist? First, where are the British writers? Not one has been shortlisted. Four of the authors on the shortlist are American, one French and one born in Poland, who lived most of her life in France.

I would be the first to praise the recent explosion of good Jewish-American writing — and the shortlisted novels by Chloe Benjamin (The Immortalists) and Dara Horn (Eternal Life) have received considerable acclaim in the US. However, no place for Clive Sinclair’s final book of short stories, Shylock Must Die or Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher?

There are other omissions. The late Aharon Appelfeld missed the cut with his last masterpiece, The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. And most seriously, the shortlist includes five novels and one memoir. No history books or biographies in a good year for both. No room for Benjamin Balint’s superb book, Kafka’s Last Trial, about the battle over Kafka’s literary estate, Steven Zipperstein’s Pogrom about the atrocity in Kishinev or the second volume of Zachary Leader’s fine biography of Saul Bellow, three of my favourite books of the past year. Nor for The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es.

Is it a coincidence that all seven of these books were written by men? Three of the four judges are women and the Chair of Judges, Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, has welcomed the fact that “four of our six books are written by women, another positive development and one that we hope continues”.

It is true that only eight out of the past 30 prize winners have been women. This is very disappointing. Some very good books by women have been shortlisted without going on to win the Prize. The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont, for example, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home or Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, Lisa Appignanesi’s moving family memoir, Loving the Dead or Louise Kehoe’s superb, In This Dark House.

Naomi Alderman, Jenny Diski and Linda Grant have never won the prize, though all have won other literary prizes.

Two years ago, Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name did not even make the shortlist. One woman judge called it “dick-lit”, unfair and untrue. This is a worrying trend and I hope future JQ Wingate judges will find a better balance between men and women, fiction and non-fiction and British and American. This year they have got it wrong.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

January 15, 2019 11:17

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