Nathan Englander’s first book, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," caused considerable buzz when it was released in 1999. Tall and slender, with a mane of dark curls and soft features befitting a biblical hero, the 30-something author became the darling of the Jewish book-fair circuit, drawing swarms of potential book buyers in Jewish Community Centers and synagogues nationwide.
Englander’s successor appears to have arrived in the form of Jonathan Safran Foer, a 25-year-old bespectacled Princeton graduate and author of "Everything is Illuminated," which appeared last month after being excerpted in The New Yorker magazine.
Besides estimable writing talents and swoon-inducing public-speaking abilities, the two young authors share an important admirer: Carolyn Hessel, executive director of the Jewish Book Council, which coordinates some 70 Jewish book fairs and oversees the National Jewish Book Awards.
Already, months before the award ceremony in November, Hessel has deemed Foer to be "the next Phillip Roth" and is discussing a book-fair touring schedule with his people at Houghton Mifflin.
But if such laurels are awaiting Aryeh Lev Stollman, he hasn’t caught a whiff of them yet.
Stollman’s second novel, "The Illuminated Soul," has won the accolades of literary colleagues and major papers: including a glowing review last week in the Boston Globe. Released in February, the book has been translated into multiple languages. Stollman has yet to hear from the Jewish Book Council.
"They have not contacted me," he said, adding, "I’m puzzled about it."
"I’m not sure they’re seeking out some of the more important young writers," Stollman told The Jewish Week.
Stollman is not alone in his confusion about the purpose and process of the New York-based Jewish Book Council. What is clear is that the council can have a tremendous impact on the fortunes of the authors it promotes through its book tours and endorses through its annual awards. Hessel estimates that the Jewish book industry generates $3 million annually; authors and publishers know appearances at the 1,084 Jewish book fairs, large and small, across the country can generate a lucrative word-of-mouth trade.
That kind of influence has some critics charging that the council is tainted by a conflict of interest: The same council that promotes some authors over others is also the body that awards what are billed as the community’s best Jewish books.
"How can they be in both jobs?" asked Thane Rosenbaum, an author and the literary editor for Tikkun magazine, who says he is outraged by the appearance of impropriety. "Are they an impartial commissioner of the league or are they going to be a player?"
Neither, Hessel said this week in a phone interview. "We’re the gatekeepers," she said.
The mission of the organization, as Hessel sees it, is to promote reading books of Jewish interest. And authors are a "vehicle" to advancing that mission.
In her role as gatekeeper, Hessel meets with authors who have caught her attention, decides which writers will make the best speakers for which communities, recommends book titles to book clubs, book fairs and libraries. Hessel also keeps authors whose message she deems "no good" away from her network of books fairs administrators.
And she does go to bat for those authors, usually new ones, whose message she finds particularly important. "We’re doing the job of the publicist," she said. "Until we came along, these authors weren’t on the map."
Hessel said she is sent enough manuscripts to "paper the walls," and skims them for quality. She is known to evaluate a book based on its first and last page. But many authors find their way into Hessel’s stable through the efforts of their publicists and agents.
"They know that if a book of Jewish interest comes along to contact me right away," Hessel said of her contacts at Jewish publishing houses and "many of the large publishing companies" like Simon & Schuster and Random House.
Hessel meets with the authors, and sometimes their agents, to "shmooze" over coffee. If she likes them and believes in their speaking potential, she invites them to join the council’s fold. Benefits of membership include fully paid travel for the first tour and the promise of speaking fees in an author’s second year.
Samuel Freedman, author of the 1999 book "Jew vs. Jew," said Hessel gave him "the chance over two years to talk to 35 or 40 different audiences" ranging from six to 400 people. "What that does in terms of getting out to readers, giving the publisher a reason to also do events on their own: it’s just literally priceless."
Freedman said that the demise of small, independent booksellers and the dominance of chain stores, together with shrinking book review sections in most newspapers and magazines, have made it much harder for most authors to get their books publicized in a significant way.
"What you get from doing that [book fair] circuit, the exposure you get, you can’t quantify," he said. Freedman’s book is now in its fourth printing.
"Carolyn is like a publicist in the sense that she goes and gets all the different authors and gets them to commit," Liora Petel, the book festival co-coordinator in Atlanta. "What she does is what the Oprah Winfrey Book Club does. She finds a Jewish author, promotes the heck out of them. Every Jewish author wants to go to her."
Critics of the council say Hessel tends to favor authors backed by publishing houses with large publicity staffs. If the council exists to promote Jewish literature, they say, it should promote all Jewish authors, including those from smaller, academic presses.
Hessel makes no excuses about the subjectivity of the selection process.
"I’m sure there are authors who are very good who don’t get promoted," she said. "But nobody’s paying us to do this. I have to do what’s best for the network."
"We want to sell books," said Hessel, who does draw a salary, but refused to discuss specifics.
Whiners beware: "Some people are bitter that we did not take them on," Hessel said, but "you can’t take on 1,000 authors." Say something against the selection process, and Hessel sees to it that "the network won’t touch them."
However imperfect the system, many people acknowledge that Hessel has raised the council’s profile and visibility since she took over from Marcia Posner in the early 1990s.
"She’s the one you talk to about Jewish book fairs," Jill Morrison, a publicist at Knopf said.
The Jewish Book Council began as a Yiddish-language enterprise in Europe in 1925. The devastation of Jewish publishing during World War II forced the council to the United States, where it came under the aegis of the Jewish Community Centers Association. In 1990, the Jewish Community Centers Association pulled its sponsorship, and today the council relies on donations from individuals and foundations as well as book fair fees and subscriptions to its publications.for its shoestring budget. (In 1999, the last year for which tax records are readily available, the council’s budget was $133,000.)
Hessel had just begun a Ph.D program in Judaic studies at Yeshiva University when Posner approached her. Hessel brought a love of reading, but no literary background to the role. What she did have was organizational acumen, which she attributes to years of work at Jewish communal agencies focusing on education.
Under Hessel’s tenure, most of the board has been replaced; she has established a network of 70 book fairs with a waiting list of 10, and an annual conference for book-fair organizers. She has seen to it that there is a book sale at the annual conferences of most major Jewish organizations, and taken book fair reps to Israel to meet with authors there.
She’s adamant that she does not act as an agent, but admits that "an author can send us a donation."
In return for the fees between $100 and $300, Hessel and her staff of one work act as a liaison between the communities and the publishers and coordinate schedules for the authors she’s signed up. Book fair representatives in large communities still make some of their own arrangements and contacts, but most authors come through Hessel’s filter.
She said she also has worked, with less obvious success, to improve the half-century-old annual Jewish book awards ceremony, which "had a dowdy aura," she said.
In fact, some authors were so appalled by the disorganization of the 1994 awards ceremony that they encouraged the San Francisco-based Koret Foundation to launch its own annual book awards, now in their third year.
Hessel said she has "learned to keep her mouth shut" when it comes to awarding the council prizes. She contends that the winners represent the judges’ selections based on the merits of books sent in from publishers for consideration.
But the system is problematic, nonetheless.
"Supposedly the Jewish community is giving out these book awards," said Arthur Kurzweil, a former president of the council who worked with Hessel in the early 1990s. Kurzweil, who spent 17 years in Jewish publishing and is now executive director of Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in the Catskills, said he disagrees with the premise of anyone’s choosing "the best Jewish books."
"I think if somebody wants to represent themselves as the Jewish community, we have to ask whom they are speaking for," he said.