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!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • 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.