As It Happens

Is Superman Circumcised? beats 'stiff' competition to win oddest book title prize

Roy Schwartz says he’s deeply honoured to win the Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year for his book Is Superman Circumcised? "I'm glad it rose to the challenge," he said.

'I'm glad it rose to the challenge,’ says writer Roy Schwartz

Roy Schwartz, left, is the author of Is Superman Circumcised?, the winner of the 2021 Diagram Prize for oddest book title. (McFarland & Company)

Story Transcript

Roy Schwartz says he's deeply honoured to win the Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year for his book Is Superman Circumcised?

"Anybody can win the Pulitzer. This is something special," the New York author told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The Diagram Prize is an annual contest run by the U.K.-based trade publication Bookseller, where users can vote for the oddest title of a book published in the past year. Last year's went to Canadian anthropologist Gregory Forth for his book A Dog Pissing At The Edge of a Path, about Indonesian animal metaphors. 

The content of the book doesn't matter. The organizers don't even read them. In an interview with As It Happens last year, Diagram Prize co-ordinator Tom Tivnan billed it as "the purest literary prize going."

Schwartz's beat out such contenders as The Lifestyle of Russian Things; Miss, I Don't Give a S--t; and Hats: A Very Unnatural History.

"The competition was stiff, but I'm glad it rose to the challenge," he said.

'The subject matter is serious'

But don't let the title fool you. Schwartz's is a serious piece of well-researched non-fiction.

"The title is cheeky and it's playful, and it's meant to be fun and to sort of signal that even though the subject matter is serious, it's still a fun read, and I don't take myself that seriously," he said.

He says the true nature of the text is encapsulated in the subtitle: The Complete Jewish History of the World's Greatest Hero.

"The comic book medium is a Jewish invention, and the superhero genre is a Jewish invention, very much like jazz is an African-American invention. And I wanted to explore both the historical context and the thematic content," he said.

Superman's origin story is that of Moses.-Roy Schwartz, author of Is Superman Cirumcised?

Superman debuted in Action Comics Issue #1 in 1938, and was the brainchild of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, both of whom were Jewish.

The character of Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, is canonically Christian. But Schwartz argues that his stories and themes are deeply steeped in Jewish culture and tradition.

"The easiest thing to point to — and this has been pointed to before me — is that Superman's origin story is that of Moses. He's a baby who was put in a vessel to save him from the pending destruction of his people and sent adrift to an unknown fate," he said.

"He is found, you know, amidst thick vegetation, he's raised by people not his own with a new name, and in adulthood, he takes it upon himself to become a great saviour."

Superman debuted in 1938 in Action Comics No. 1. (Timothy A. Cleary/AFP/Getty Images)

And Superman debuted on the cusp of the Second World War amid the rise of the Nazism in Germany.

"Siegel discusses in detail how the rise of Nazism in Europe and domestic antisemitism in America — which was much greater than what the collective memory here likes to kind of acknowledge — were really the impetus for creating this character," he said.

"Before he was known as the Man of Steel, he was known as the champion of the oppressed. And before he was saving the world from alien invasions, he was really taking on the bullies of the world, including many, many Nazi stand-ins, and then, come the war, the actual Nazis."

So why not simply write him as Jewish? 

"The thing to do back in 1938 when Superman debuted was to pass. The idea of a character being Jewish was a non-starter. It wouldn't even occur to them, let alone something that a publisher would touch," he said. 

Schwartz says the book does, in fact, answer the question posed in the title — but "it's a very Jewish answer, which is: [it] depends."

"There's a fictional Superman and a real Superman. And the fictional Superman is an alien from Planet Krypton. He grew up in Kansas. He's chronically Christian, usually Methodist or Protestant. He's not Jewish," he said.

"But there's also a real Superman, which is a fictional character in the real world, in our world, and that character is very Jewish. He was created by Jews. He was handled by Jews for most of his life. And he is very rich in Jewish themes and symbolism."

Is Superman Circumcised? was published by McFarland & Company in 2021.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. 

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