"Reaching the Reader in Scholarly Nonfiction"
When Nina Romano invited me to contribute a column I was flattered. I had generally never thought of myself as a writer, but as a scholar, a professor. And yet I agree with Nina: that transformation is taking place. How does one – how did I – move from writing like an academic whose work exists to be consulted and cited to writing like an author whose work will be read? Granted, I suspect that A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill will be used often in the way I’ve described, by scholars seeking information on one particular story or novel, or a detail about the early Zionist movement. And I’ve had to explain to some people who told me they had trouble staying with it that they might want to try reading the intro, the conclusion, and then just one or two chapters in the middle, rather than reading it from cover to cover as they would most biographies. I took pains at the outset to explain this book as the biography of a career, not a life; having been told by a brilliant colleague that he gave up working on Zangwill because he knew a biography would take up his own lifetime, I’m glad I made that decision. Yet at the same time I have heard from scholars who have apparently read the book and enjoyed it, and a rabbi of my acquaintance told me he couldn’t put it down. I don’t think rabbis lie—at least not that boldly. So how did I write what I suppose can be called readable scholarly nonfiction?
First of all, I took to heart the advice of my friend and colleague Lynne Barrett, who urged me to aim for an audience wider than the scholarly community. This was a bit of a challenge, since while I wanted to get at that larger readership, I also wanted to maintain my book’s status as a reference work. I had done research for approximately fifteen years, much of it in archives, and I was concerned not to speculate beyond what the record allowed. Several of the chapters started life as conference papers or journal articles, genres not usually known for liveliness, although recently that’s been changing and I had done my best. At the same time, the diaries and letters I found in Zangwill’s archives gave me ample opportunities to include rich human detail simply by quoting. If I had it to do over I might have brought even more quotation from the endnotes to the body of the text, though my concern, too, was to limit digression. The excerpt below, for example, contains (in the book) an endnote quoting Zangwill’s advice to an aspiring writer. I went back and forth on that one and decided, finally, that it was too much detail for a general introduction. But I hope readers will be curious enough to find it. Fitting together biography, history, and literary criticism was itself a challenge, and making it all readable was another, but in some ways a more pleasant task. I tried to put myself in the position of my reader: what questions would I be asking? What would I want to know at this or that point? Where would I need a transition from one discussion to the next? My favorite chapters, in the end, turned out to be those with the most new material, which I was writing while thinking of myself as a writer, and the conclusion, into which I was able to put much of my own reflection and even (just a little) emotion.
One of the biggest difficulties I encounter in writing is to make sure I’m actually saying something. This may sound odd, but since my apprenticeship was as a student I can find my prose at times (too many times, but in drafts only, I hope) resembling the writing my own students often hand in: writing that is more about words and phrases, in which the effort of composition shows, and that takes forever to get to the point. In revising my work, I need to step back and ask myself, what do I really want to say here? I find myself then thinking in terms of topic sentences, and adding them. I add concluding or summing-up statements, too, along the way of my argument. Sometimes I find myself at an impasse while revising on the computer screen, and I need to print out the article or chapter to see the totality of what I’m doing. Then I can determine what I want to say and delete everything that doesn’t help me say it, adding those clear and direct sentences that do the job. I just went through that process with an article that started out life, a year ago, as a conference paper so long and rambling that I am now embarrassed to remember it had been circulated to the participants. After much reworking of the kind I’ve described, it ended up dealing with fewer works of literature, it made fewer central points (supported by carefully chosen examples), and I think it was a lot better overall. Am I making sense here? I ask myself that continually as I revise, and I’m asking that of you, my reader, now. If I’ve gone over this piece enough, it should give you something to take away, and I hope it does.
Excerpt from A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008; paperback 2010: pp. 1-3. Reprinted with permission.
In his time, and especially from 1892 until his death in 1926, Israel Zangwill was probably the most famous Jew in the English-speaking world. Having achieved an international audience with his novel Children of the Ghetto, he went on to write short stories (eventually collected in several volumes), four additional novels (not specifically on Jewish themes), and numerous plays, including his most famous, The Melting Pot, and his most successful, a now forgotten piece called Merely Mary Ann. His essays on subjects literary and political were published in periodicals as varied as the Pall Mall Magazine and the Critic, the Jewish Chronicle and the Fortnightly Review; his stories appeared in the Idler, Cosmopolis, McClure’s, and the Illustrated London News, among many others. Reports of Zangwill’s activities regularly graced the pages of the Bookman and the Times, in London and New York. He was the first person Max Nordau chose to introduce to Theodor Herzl when the founder of modern Zionism visited London in 1895; as a result Zangwill became a leading British spokesman for the Zionist movement and, later, the founder of the Jewish Territorial Organization (known as the ITO). His political work was not confined to Jewish issues, however. He was an active male suffragette, giving speeches and writing pamphlets for the radical Women’s Social and Political Union as well as other suffrage organizations, and he was a founding member of the Union of Democratic Control, an organization that opposed the process by which Britain had become involved in the First World War, and which continued to support pacifism and progressive causes until the 1960s. In 1911, he represented the Jews at the Universal Races Congress held in London.
A member of the Vagabonds, Dramatists’, and Playgoer’s Clubs as well as the Maccabaeans, Zangwill numbered among his acquaintance Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw, Jerome K. Jerome, and H. G. Wells, and served as mentor and friend to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mabel E. Wotton, Emma Wolf, and Nina Salaman, as well as to his fiancée and wife, the writer Edith Ayrton Zangwill. Many other aspiring writers--published and unpublished, male and female--sought out his advice, which he frequently gave. His energy was enormous, although not boundless. His correspondence attests to both a punishing schedule of lectures, articles, speeches, and productions and a comparably large number of “regrets” to organizations and individuals who had also asked him to speak, write, produce, evaluate, or comment. In his last years, his wife had to coerce him to take vacations, and in the end he suffered exhaustion and emotional collapse, dying in a sanitarium in 1926 at the age of sixty-two.
Like Amy Levy’s fictional Alfred Lazarus Cohen, a brilliant writer ironically placed in Trinity College, Cambridge, Israel Zangwill sought perfection and attained success, both in the Jewish world and in the world beyond. Yet, like Cohen, he remained dissatisfied, the “baffled idealist” Levy evokes in a question at the end of her story. Refusing to compromise on his personal ideas and ideals, and feeling himself increasingly at odds with the mainstream Jewish power structure, three years before his death Zangwill managed to alienate a large segment of the community that had formed his most loyal readership, by criticizing the mainstream Zionist movement. His last plays, into which he had put a great deal of energy and money, did not suit the spirit of the times and failed to draw audiences. Despite a bubble of interest at the time of his centennial in 1964, by the time I first read Children of the Ghetto, fifty years after his death, he was largely unknown. Yet Israel Zangwill’s career is well worth examining. Like the "grandchildren of the ghetto" he delineated in his major novel, and like the descendants of many Jewish immigrants to Western Europe and America throughout the twentieth century, Zangwill sought to define a meaningful identity that was both modern and Jewish, and his writings reflected the conflicts, concerns, and questionings that must have made part of his own experience as a nonobservant Jew, well integrated into English cultural circles, who yet insisted professionally and personally on being recognized as Jewish. In the process, he became the first Jewish celebrity of the twentieth century.
Meri-Jane Rochelson is Professor and Associate Chair of English at Florida International University. She is the author of A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill (Wayne State University Press, 2008), editor of Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto (Wayne State UP, 1998), and co-editor, with Nikki Lee Manos, of the critical anthology Transforming Genres: New Approaches to British Fiction of the 1890s (Palgrave/Macmillan, 1994). She has published numerous articles on Victorian and Anglo-Jewish literature and culture, and is the current President of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association.