The New York Times Book Review’s recent survey of the "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years" produced a number of interesting findings. The first was that, despite Toni Morrison’s "Beloved" winning the prize, there were hardly any books by women among the multiple vote-getters. The second was that Philip Roth had far more of his books on the short list than anyone else, and if the Times had instead asked the question "Who is the best American writer of the last 25 years?" he would have won hands down.
But this column is not about Philip Roth, whom I have often described as a supremely important writer and guide to American and American Jewish life. It’s instead about a writer whose work couldn’t be more different than his, and who is sometimes overlooked in discussions of major post-war writers because her achievements, at first glance, are more modest; three collections of short stories over 50 years. That writer is Grace Paley, whose focus on women, whose sincere interest in characters who are not herself, whose organic connections between the personal and the political, and whose absorption of Talmudic and even Midrashic modes of analysis and storytelling make her as original an American Jewish writer as we have.
I fell in love with Paley’s work again recently after seeing a stellar word-for-word dramatization of her story, "The Story Hearer," by San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre. In the story, an unnamed middle-aged woman is describing her day to her husband, nothing more dramatic than a series of minor shopping adventures. But if, as Jane Smiley said in her recent biography of Charles Dickens, that every novel is an argument about the world, then it’s clear that beneath the melody lines of each Paley story, past the humor and the cheekiness and the winking at both characters and readers, there is a serious argument for how people should live based on Jewish culture and ideas.
Although Philip Roth, in his vast social novels over the past ten years, seems more "Dickensian" than Paley, her short stories, profoundly voice- and character-driven, allow a character’s life and myriad social concerns to intertwine in ways that demonstrate both the need for purely individual transformation, and the impossibility of doing so without an awareness of communal responsibility. In this regard, Paley’s characters live out Rabbi Hillel’s ancient dictum, itself a game plan for an ethical Jewish life: "If I am not for myself, who shall be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
This three-part idea is given explicit form in "The Story Hearer." Our narrator, by fact of her obsessive need to tell her story, is taking care of herself. But her first words are, "I am trying to curb my cultivated individualism, which seemed for years so sweet." Soon after, in a discussion of the need for tikkun olam, or a transformation of the world, she bemoans how easy it is to slip into ephemeral concerns of the day, "though the subject – which is how to save the world – and quickly – is immense." There are other reasons Paley’s work is so important in a Jewish context. For instance, the multiplicity of voices in her stories reflects the fractured, democratic expressions of Jewish life in America, as well as modern and American life in general. Her constantly shifting voices recall the inspired chaos of the Talmud, while her interrogation of storytelling itself, and her reflection on language, including the very language used to talk about language ("I do like this language (wheat and chaff) with its widening pool of foreign genes," the narrator of "The Story Hearer" tells us apropos of nothing), connects us to Judaism’s exuberant deconstructionist spirit.
And then there is the way that Paley’s stories oddly prefigure the associative genius of the World Wide Web. After a morning going back and forth from a friend’s blog to his links to global news stories, Paley’s shifts from the present to the past, from one conversation to the next, and from the individual to the global, seemed prescient.
My vote for Grace Paley’s "The Collected Stories" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to be included in any short list of indispensable recent Jewish books doesn’t reduce the importance of works by Roth, Cynthia Ozick, or Bernard Malamud. But thinking ahead 25 years to a world of constant cross-linking, of an increasingly global sensibility, of a continuing proliferation of women’s voices and perspectives on life and literature, it’s hard to imagine a writer more formally prophetic, or morally relevant, than Grace Paley. nDaniel Schifrin is a writer and editor living in Berkeley, Calif.