Kate Breslin's debut novel For Such a Time opens with a somewhat inauspicious line for a romance novel: "The stench was unmistakable." We quickly learn that the aforementioned stench is the smell of Jewish bodies burning in a crematorium; For Such a Time is set in the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt. And that's not even why the novel has become so controversial.
The publisher's description introduces the story as the tale of "blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin" who escapes a firing squad only to be pressed into service by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt—an unlikely romance novel hero if there ever was one—who believes her to be gentile Stella Muller. The heroine appeals to Aric on behalf of the other Jews in the camp, saving lives while simultaneously finding herself "battling a growing attraction for this man she knows she should despise as an enemy."
For Such a Time was inspired by the Book of Esther, a portion of the Hebrew Bible popular among Evangelical Christians about a Jewish woman who marries the king of Persia and convinces him to not massacre her people. (Esther's feat is celebrated during the Jewish holiday of Purim.) Breslin's book belongs to a Christian subgenre called "Inspirational Romance," whose protagonists go on a spiritual journey that coincide with their romantic ones. Published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of the Christian publisher Baker Publishing Group, For Such a Time ends with Stella's implied conversion to Christianity.
The book was entered into the Romance Writers of America contest for the RITA award, the romance genre's equivalent of the Oscars, and it was selected as a finalist in both the Best Inspirational Romance and Best First Book categories. And that's when people started to speak out against it.
Probably the most obvious accusation lobbed at For Such a Time is that it's tasteless, and that it's offensive to use the Holocaust as a backdrop for a romance (much less a Christian conversion tale). But the thrust of the criticism hinges on a more genre-specific issue. Like most romance novels, For Such a Time has a hero whose flaws are redeemed through his relationship with the heroine. Aric's flaws tend towards the genocidal, but the book portrays these crimes as on a par with character flaws common to other romance leading men, like commitment-phobia or arrogance.
Sarah Wendell is a doyenne of the romance community and editor of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a website that reviews romance novels critically. Wendell, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, published an open letter on her Tumblr account addressed to the board of RWA expressing her dismay.
"Reframing the Holocaust through a romance wherein God forgives a Nazi for his role in a genocide is a horrifyingly insensitive concept," Wendell told me. "This book appropriates a culture and religion, marginalizes Holocaust victims, reframes history, and erases a Jewish character's identity."
For Wendell, the book's problem is larger than the fact that it was a finalist in two RITA categories. "Responsibility also lies with a lot of other people," she said, "The authors who judged this book for the RITA, the reviewers at major publications like Library Journal who gave it glowing positive reviews, the author, and the editors and publisher at Bethany House who all missed how deeply offensive the entire premise is."
Other authors took to Twitter and Tumblr to agree with Wendell. "I don't think mass genocide is a forgivable thing," wrote author Katherine Locke. "Kate Breslin, her publishers, her readers, and RWA does."
At another review site, Dear Author, writers registered complaints about the marketing of the book, from the use of the word "Jewess" to the cover art, which includes a photograph of actual Jews on their way to Auschwitz.
And over at Sorrywatch, a website devoted to analyzing apologies for their effectiveness, Marjorie Ingall objected to the book on the grounds that "there can be no true consent in a relationship in which one person has the power of life and death over another."
"Yiddish literature had a word for bad art—it was called schund—and that's really the question here." –Joseph Skibell
The book's publisher refused to comment for this article, but an earlier statement said that "Bethany House Publishers has been very saddened to learn of the offense some have taken at" the novel. "We deeply respect and honor the Jewish faith, and this novel, inspired by the events and redemptive theme of the biblical book of Esther, was intended to draw on our common faith heritage." He went on: "We have heard from many readers who have been moved by this honest portrayal of courage during a time of terrible evil, and we hope it continues to inspire and remind us to never forget the tragedy of the Holocaust."
RWA for its part released a statement justifying its award process by suggesting that what Wendell and others were asking for amounted to censorship. "If a book is banned from the contest because of its content, there will be a move for more content to be banned," the statement asserts. "This is true, even especially true, when a book addresses subjects that are difficult, complex, or offensive."
Others agreed, even seeing in the attacks on the book evidence of "a new era of censorship in the name of political correctness," as author Anne Rice put it on her Facebook page. "We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored," she went on. "We must stand up for freedom in the arts. I think we have to be willing to stand up for the despised. It is always a matter of personal choice whether one buys or reads a book. No one can make you do it. But internet campaigns to destroy authors accused of inappropriate subject matter or attitudes are dangerous to us all." In a later post, since taken down, she specifically mentioned Breslin's book as the target of "an internet lynch mob."
But over at Sorrywatch, Ingall wasn't buying RWA's apology, on the grounds that criticism is not censorship. "No one suggested any content restrictions," she wrote. "What was suggested was not giving an award to an offensive book. Refraining from giving someone a cookie is not censorship."
Breslin declined to be interviewed for this story, but she did provide VICE with a statement in which she adamantly maintained that she hadn't intended to hurt anyone, quite the contrary: She says the book was borne out of "compassion for the Jewish people." In her statement, Breslin explains how reading the Book of Esther helped her realize how "the Jews have suffered at the hands of one society or another throughout history." Furthermore, Breslin writes, "I am heartsick and so very sorry that my book has caused any offense to the Jewish people, for whom I have the greatest love and respect."
In her statement, Breslin confuses the Book of Esther for a historical document rather than a Biblical narrative. Her stated intention with For Such a Time was to use the Holocaust as a quasi-fictional backdrop in order to stage the archetypal Esther story. Ironically, Breslin looked to the Biblical tale of Esther as proof of the Jews' suffering, using the horrific reality of the Nazi genocide as merely a fictional setting to convey that suffering. The mismatch between fiction and reality mirrors her publisher's insistence that the book was intended to draw on "our common faith heritage." Seeing as the Holocaust was certainly not shared by Christians and Jews, it provides at best a clumsy vehicle for this project.
Is the Holocaust ever a legitimate setting for a novel, or is it totally off-limits? Holocaust pornography, which most would consider beyond the pale of good taste to say the least, originated in Israel in the 1960s, complementing the newly emergent testimonies of survivors of the camps with perverse narratives of captured Allied pilots being abused by sadistic female SS officers. Even earlier than that, Holocaust survivor Ka Tzetnik, the star witness at Eichmann's trial, published a book called House of Dolls in 1955, a best-selling novella which included a description of the "Joy Division" where Nazis would keep Jewish women for as prostitutes. Was his book "legitimate" because he himself had been through the camps? And who gets to decide what makes for legitimate art?
"In general, I don't think anything should be 'off limits' for fiction," Ruth Franklin, author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, told me. "But obviously certain plots strain both credulity and good taste." That has less to do with the Holocaust per se and more to do with what makes good fiction, Franklin says; in other words, it's most fundamentally an aesthetic question, rather than a historical, or even an ethical one. "Does the story a writer wants to tell happen to be a story about the Holocaust? Does the writer believe that he or she can do justice to the subject by making effective art out of it? Those are the important questions to answer."
Many critics of For Such a Time say there is something horrifying about seeing the tropes of romance—an alpha male paying particular attention to a heroine's well-being, for example—when that heroine is a prisoner in a concentration camp. But many enjoyed the book, too, and it has a 3.9 (out of five) rating on Goodreads. "Besides the enjoyment you'll get from reading For Such a Time, you might just come away with a fresh understand of a heroine Queen whom you thought you knew inside out," gushes one reader. "I was drawn to the idea of a Jewish woman and a Nazi officer in love and wondered if the author would be able to pull off such an unlikely pairing believably,"another mused. "The answer is yes!"
Books like For Such a Time are probably something we'll be seeing more of, said David Mikics, a professor of English at University of Houston and columnist for Tablet Magazine. "In a sense, this had to come," Mikics said. "You can't preserve a subject like this forever, especially when there's such a drive to draw on it... What authority can you invoke to prevent people from doing it?"
It would be a shame to exclude the Holocaust from all literature, Joseph Skibell, author of the Holocaust novel A Blessing on the Moon, told VICE. "Yiddish literature had a word for bad art—it was called schund—and that's really the question here," he told VICE. "Is a particular book schund? Is it trash? Is it bullshit? There's no reason to categorically impugn all novels that address the Holocaust simply because most of them are bad."
Follow Batya on Twitter.