A fan letter to Nathan Englander

A fan letter to Nathan Englander

Don't let that nasty man get to you; your fiction is exceptional

Dear Nathan (if I may call you that; we recently have been close, you and I; as close, that is, as reader and writer can get).

The Hebrew and Bible scholar Robert Alter has been fumfering about your “moral unseemliness” and your “weakness of moral imagination.”

In fact, in his recent New Republic review of your new book “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95), he writes, “These stories are neither courageous nor outrageous. They are merely bad.”

Pay no attention. Well, maybe a little. It doesn’t hurt to listen to honest criticism, which I believe this is, as long as you have a solid sense of what you are doing, or trying to do.

And what you are doing – or trying to do – is superb. You are writing exceptional fiction, not tracts of moral philosophy. You are creating characters whose unfolding lives enter our own. You are allowing them – with careful authorial nudging – to forge their own paths.

The book’s title story, about two couples who meet again after many years apart and discover unsettling truths, is an absolute knockout – almost literally. I felt punched in the stomach and was gasping for breath after reading it.

And I was “openly weeping,” to borrow a phrase from “The Reader,” in the midst of that fable about an aged author and his remaining fan, who follows him from stop to stop on a doomed book tour.

Even when you did not precisely enthrall me, I could appreciate your craftsmanship. “Sister Hills,” about one Israeli settler mother’s loss of husband and sons, and another’s bad bargain and the enslavement of her child, I found – forgive me – painful to read. But it taught me about the source, and nature, and stubbornness, and commitment of the settlers to their isolated hills, which is something that pages of lecturing could never do.

I did feel a few stories were not up to your highest standard: “How We Avenged the Blums,” about Jewish kids terrorized by an anti-Semite peer, might have been written by any of the Jewish-American writer cohort. And “Camp Sundown,” about Elderhostelers gone berserk who murder one of their number because they think he was a concentration-camp guard, while ambitious, falls short of success.

But you are young, and so talented. You have such imaginative scope, such a sense of story, of characters, of the shapeliness of plot, that it is a reader’s pleasure to watch you at work, to hope you continue to grow into your writer’s skin, and to wait for the next book – and the next and the next.

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