Suddenly at the Forefront of Hebrew Literature

If we want to be honest with ourselves, the Hebrew author is generally expected to be "a good dog": to wag his tail and say hello, or to stand on his hind legs when told to do so by his masters - that is, his readers, the people who buy his books.

During Hebrew Book Week, which opens today, this trend reaches its almost monstrous apex: The public exerts its buying power on the published works. It is convinced that it has shares in this enterprise known as literature, and that it can dictate to the authors what to write. The public assumes that when an author writes a book, he writes it for them, and that therefore, the book must meet his expectations and demands. One often hears people saying, after reading a book, "I would have shortened it by half."

This familiarity is the problem that Hebrew literature must face: The literary work must, so it seems, not make the readers too tired, not annoy them too much and not bring on too many allergic attacks. Had the Bible been written in our times, they would have wanted it shortened by half. The same with Shai Agnon and S. Yizhar.

Maybe that is the reason why recent Hebrew literature is so often so boring and monotonous, and why one has to search so hard to find a sliver of conceptual or stylistic originality. That may explain why Sarah Shiloh's book, "No gnomes will appear" (Am Oved, Sifriya La'am), appeared so blatantly different when it was published this year, and more so, why it became a best-seller. This is her first book, and one should realize that Sarah Shiloh is no longer 20: She has had a great deal of life experience and disappointments and is not the typical novice writer.

"No gnomes will appear" describes the consciousness of certain figures who belong to one family, first and foremost Simona, the widow of the "felafel king" of a northern development town, and her sons and daughter, as well as a secret - perhaps real, perhaps imaginary - act of incest in the family. And all of this is written in the authentic type of language spoken by the heroes.

Out of concern for the writer's privacy, I did not go to interview her at her Kfar Vradim home, but instead had a to-the-point telephone conversation with her. I asked her, for example, about disappointments that preceded the success of the book.

"There were disappointments," she said. "For example, one of my stories was not good enough to be accepted for a writing workshop at Beit Ariella [in Tel Aviv]. A few years ago, I sent a story to Haaretz's short story competition. That was before this book took form."

I asked Shiloh how she felt about an editor interfering in her writing, and if she felt that this was good. "Already in my first conversation with Yuval Shimoni, I could see how he sensed my book," she replied. "He made things clearer. He said: 'If this is what you wanted the hero to say, then let's stress certain things.' When you are involved in the writing, you don't see so sharply. Even though it was hard for me to see every change and omission. It's hard to get used to someone external's scrutiny of what you have done. But many times, during the editing process and following his remarks, I agreed that certain sections were far less good than I had thought."

Does she not feel that being published by a "mainstream" publisher like Am Oved makes her into a little more of a pet than an author?

She hastens to contradict this. "The opposite is true. I was myself - and they said that this suits them." Most of the book is written in the type of Hebrew spoken by a Moroccan family from a development town.