Why Susan Steinberg May Be the Best Jewish Writer You've Never Read

Author's New Collection Is a 'Spectacle' of Storytelling

Suddenly Susan: Short story writer Susan Steinberg could be Grace Paley’s nihilistic, abandoned granddaughter.
Courtesy of Graywolf Press
Suddenly Susan: Short story writer Susan Steinberg could be Grace Paley’s nihilistic, abandoned granddaughter.

By Joshua Furst

Published April 19, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● Spectacle
By Susan Steinberg
Graywolf Press, 152 pages, $14

In the current literary environment — conservative by inclination, market-driven by intention — it’s often hard to see the true accomplishment of a work of fiction through the buzz and packaging that surrounds it. The book is a product targeted toward a pre-existing class of reader. “Good” no longer means an artful synthesis of form and meaning, of style and substance, of truth and beauty; “good” means the book has fulfilled the expectations of the genre it was intended to embody, and thus can be sold to readers who want that genre without challenging or disappointing them. This applies as much to “serious” literature as it does to low forms, like romance or sci-fi or vampire lit.

And the most serious of literature — that which wholly engages with the way words can be used to evoke and inform our fractious, often alienated, experiences of the world; that which asserts an unyielding individuality or acknowledges and explores the limits of what a story can do; that which, in short, is capable of giving the reader a singular, meaningful reading experience — is simply dismissed as “experimental,” meaning, in this case, complicated, unmarketable, pandering to no specific block of consumers.

I mention this not because I’m a great defender of experimental fiction. I find most experimental fiction to be airless, academic, incompetent, or all three. No, I mention this because the rap on Susan Steinberg) is that she’s an experimental writer — which means, if you’ve heard of her at all, you’ve been told, implicitly, that her work is too much trouble to pay attention to — and I believe that’s unfair.

Steinberg is one of the best fiction writers in America today. She writes only short stories, and over the course of three slim collections, she has developed a style that’s so full of swagger, neurosis and hurt that you almost don’t realize how accomplished she is at leading you through her fictional universe, or how complete that universe is.

As with Steinberg’s previous work, the stories in her new book, “Spectacle,” are primarily first-person narrations delivered by an unnamed author stand-in, the facts of whose life remain consistent from story to story. In this way, as well as in the elliptical, fragmented structures she often uses, and the reliance on voice to squeeze meaning from the words, and her fidelity to the short story, Steinberg owes a debt to Grace Paley (another Jewish woman, whose work would be relegated to the “experimental” ghetto if she tried to do today what she did in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s).

Steinberg and Paley are after similar things. There’s a strain of feminism running through their work. But if Paley’s feminism was the enlightened hopeful sort embodied by her urban Jewish generation, Steinberg’s is darker and more conscious of all the things empowerment is incapable of solving.

She’s like Paley’s nihilistic, abandoned granddaughter, left to fend for herself in the bombed-out ruins of a culture in which women have been told they can be, and do, anything they want but don’t feel like this is necessarily true.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.