Why no more glittering prizes?


In just 15 years, between 1969-84, four different Jewish writers won the Booker Prize - Bernice Rubens, Nadine Gordimer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Anita Brookner - and four more were shortlisted.

In the past 33 years, however, only one Jewish writer has won Britain's most prestigious literary prize: Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question.

What caused the golden age of Anglo-Jewish writing and why did it fall away?

There was an explosion of Jewish literary talent from the mid-1950s onwards: an exciting new generation of Jewish playwrights, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Bernard Kops and the young Tom Stoppard; new poets including Dannie Abse, Ruth Fainlight and Jon Silkin.

New Jewish novelists emerged. Frederic Raphael published his first novel in 1956, Gerda Charles in 1959 and Bernice Rubens in 1960.

In 1961, Muriel Spark published her masterpiece, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; in 1963, Gerda Charles won the prestigious James Tait Black Prize for A Slanting Light, and the following year, Dan Jacobson won the Somerset Maugham Award for Time of Arrival.

New names soon followed: Émigré writers like Eva Figes, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Judith Kerr. New Jewish voices appeared in TV drama: Alec Baron's BBC costume dramas, Jack Rosenthal's The Evacuees and Bar Mitzvah Boy and Frederic Raphael's landmark drama, Glittering Prizes.

Several things were striking about this generation. First, the prominence of women: Rubens, Gerda Charles, Spark and Brooker among them. Secondly, how diverse they were in output, from children's literature writers such as Judith Kerr, screenwriters Prawer Jhabvala and Raphael, who won two Academy Awards, playwrights and TV dramatists. Thirdly, they came from all over the world: Adele Wiseman and Mordechai Richler from Canada, Ronald Harwood and Dan Jacobson from South Africa, Raphael from America and many European refugees.

These writers never really established themselves as a group. Some were barely Jewish at all in their writing, most famously, Stoppard and Pinter. Others were considered difficult, hard to get on with, Wesker and Raphael among them.

How much of this reputation was because they were assertively Jewish? Crucially, this was before there was much interest in the Holocaust or in refugees, so often Jewish experience seemed marginal to the dominant gentile critics of the time.

These very Jewish writers chronicled the break-up of the close-knit Jewish community in the East End and the move from slums to suburbia. The Wesker Trilogy began with the famous anti-Mosley riots in Cable Street in the 1930s. In Alec Baron's novel, The Lowlife (1963), Harryboy Boas lives in a world between the old East End he grew up in - "this once respectable street of working people that is now a garbage heap of lost, ferocious schwartzers and the wretchedest of whores" - and the new suburban world of North London.

Many of these writers grew up in working-class backgrounds and their early work focused on working-class subjects: Wesker's kitchen workers, Baron's servicemen, Jack Rosenthal's cabbies, removal men and firemen.

The sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants, they were the first in their families to find their voices in a new country.

They grew up in an increasingly prosperous and liberal post-war Britain and had one foot in the old immigrant communities and another in the new world of late 1950s and '60s London.

This gave the writing of their generation its tensions and energy. They moved between the East End and the suburbs. They grew up in working-class homes and built middle-class lives. They grew up listening to Yiddish but wrote in English. They were secular not religious. They were not especially interested in Israel. The Holocaust had hardly taken off as a subject.

They felt cut off from Anglo-Jewry but they didn't fully belong to gentile Britain either, with its literary traditions and landscapes. Perhaps this explains why their golden age was so short-lived.

The real literary success stories - Pinter, Stoppard, Prawer Jhabvala, Harwood, Raphael, Rosenthal, and later Jacobson - moved into the cultural mainstream. With the obvious exception of Howard Jacobson, the more Jewish these writers were, the less successful.

Many others fell into silence or were marginalised. The most successful (except, as ever, Jacobson) avoided Jewish subjects and Jewish voices. There aren't many Jews in the screenplays that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote for Merchant Ivory. Glittering Prizes grew less Jewish as it went on.

The next generation of Anglo-Jewish writers, however, addressed the kinds of Jewish subjects the older writers had moved away from, the Holocaust, refugees, Judaism and the world of Yiddishkeit. Obvious examples are two leading women writers, Naomi Alderman and Natasha Solomons.

Alderman's first novel, Disobedience, told the story of the gay daughter of a rabbi. Her third was set in and around Roman Jerusalem. Solomons's first two novels were about Jewish refugees in England. Neither author has been shortlisted for the Booker. Even Howard Jacobson's powerful and deeply moving novel about Shylock, fathers and daughters was - astonishingly - overlooked.

The new generation of young Jewish novelists has struggled for recognition from the Booker. Of the six Anglo-Jewish writers shortlisted in the last 12 years only two have been under fifty.

This year we may have a Jewish winner in Deborah Levy. But Hot Milk is set in Spain and is not especially Jewish in its themes.

So, win or lose, the Booker still has a Jewish question to answer. Jacobson's one success is not enough of an answer.

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