Monday, January 6, 2014


The Curious Case of Jennifer Weiner

At the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead has written a juicy and fascinating piece on novelist Jennifer Weiner, the "unlikely feminist enforcer," who has a "reporter’s tolerance for being edited" (pretty cool!) and who writes with "a big mirror loom[ing] a few inches behind her laptop screen" (what?!). Weiner has become a reliable ombudsman for "the way that the book industry treats women writers," which is great, although the bulk of her advocacy does seem directed at the cause of women writers in the rarefied category of "Jennifer Weiner," which is not as great. Here are some tidbits from Mead's profile:


With comic triumph, Weiner shared other anecdotes of being marginalized, the kinds of stories that therapists are accustomed to hearing in their consulting rooms. She also spoke about experiencing a more rarefied form of exclusion.


"If you believed that [novels were there to help people feel connected]—if you wrote that way, or if you read that way—then, by God, you were Doing Reading Wrong.” [Claire] Messud’s comments had left Weiner with “a sinking heart, and an unhappy sense of recognition. Once again, as a reader and a writer, I was out of step, out of fashion."


Jennifer Weiner has two audiences. One consists of the devoted consumers of her books, which have sold more than four and a half million copies. Her other audience is made up of writers, editors, and critics. Through her blog and her Twitter account, Weiner has stoked a lively public discussion about the reception and consumption of fiction written by women. This audience is smaller than the one that buys her books, and barely intersects with it.


Weiner has waged a campaign against the literary media for being biased against female writers, and against books written for women.[...] Weiner also promotes other female writers.


Weiner does not take credit for changes at the Book Review, but she does take satisfaction in them. “Maybe they are doing focus groups, and lots of people are, like, ‘Could you please not write all the time about whatever Presidential biography you are reviewing for the second time?’ ” she says.


Weiner has also been outspoken about female writers whom she considers unsisterly. When Meg Wolitzer told an interviewer that she was disturbed by a rise in “slumber party fiction—as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends,” Weiner responded that “likable” had become the “new code word” for fiction previously disparaged as chick lit. Adelle Waldman, the author of “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” told Salon that she “didn’t want to write a book with a plucky heroine.” Later, Weiner tweeted an oblique, wounded gibe: “Girl writes about kissing from male POV, in Brooklyn, with artsy cover and impressive blurbs. Then it’s literature.”


Weiner believes that these writers are guilty of a tactical betrayal: “Every time a woman finally ascends to that level of ‘I’m up here with the big boys,’ it feels like, too often, what she does is turn around and throw shade on commercial works of fiction.”


[Erica] Jong said, "It is still easier to fight for Malala”—Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who defied a ban on female education—“than it is for Jen Weiner.”


It seems possible that a forthcoming Weiner novel will include a female writer of literary fiction—quite possibly slender and severely attractive—who will say something dismissive about chick lit, and who will wind up garotted with a pair of Spanx.


In [her] analysis, Weiner’s failure to receive critical recognition is not an implicit judgment of, say, the perfunctory quality of some descriptive passages, or of the brittle mean-spiritedness that colors some character sketches. (Readers looking for fairness and kindness will not always find those attributes displayed by Weiner’s fictional creations.) It is, instead, a product of the larger cultural forces that left Weiner feeling oppressed long before she became a writer. To battle those forces as visibly as Weiner does is not just to tell a fairy-tale story but also to try to live one: to insist on moving from the margin to the center, and to demand a happy ending of one’s own.

Cleverly, Jennifer Weiner invites a double bind: though she's put some dents in the Jonathan Franzens and Andrew Goldmans of the world, she is quick to enter the familiar, distinctly non-intersectional territory of Who Is Being the Right Kind of Woman and Who Is Not; to write her critiques off is to ignore some really pervasive sexism ("she lamented that publishers put dreamy covers on books by women even when their contents are less than dreamy"), and to take her very particular vantage point too seriously is to enter the same uncomfortable ring. But it should be easier to fight for Malala than Jen Weiner; all sexism was not created equal; some kinds are deadly; the kind against Weiner is not, which highlights my single takeaway from this profile, which is that I'm tired of comparing things (books, people, women) that don't have anything substantive in common at all.

[The New Yorker]

20 Comments / Post A Comment


THANK YOU, Jia, for helping me get my own nebulous thoughts about this piece organized. I found myself thinking that she would be a fun person to get a drink with ... and slowly realizing what the topic of conversation during said drink would most likely be.

Also, excellent tags.


@HereKitty Excellent, and informative, tags indeed


Unreal. Absolutely love this@k


I really do admire Jennifer Weiner for pointing out things that people would rather leave unpointed-out and her willingness to turn herself into a sort of human shield. I also feel faintly ashamed because I have never read any of her books and probably never will.

Also it is sad that it seems like every guy's kneejerk reaction to being called out on something by a woman is to go "Yeah, well, you're UGLY!"


@commanderbanana That is some guys' reaction to just about everything. Vividly remember reading an ESPN article about Geraldine Heaney being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the first comment, through a guy's Facebook account, was "Wow, what a ugly broad." It made me so mad I had to stay off the internet for like the rest of the day.


If you need me I'll be over here cry-laughing to myself.


Thanks for posting this! I'm conflicted about Jennifer Weiner, and Jia has pretty much summed up why she makes me uncomfortable.


I dig it. But the politics of digging a piece in the New Yorker about a white lady who writes books I would never read because of her feminism are weird and I'm getting all conflicted.


Yes! I read this on the bus this morning and have been mulling it over. It's hard to imagine that she is really waging a campaign to have (commercial) female authors taken seriously and respected when her focus seems to be on disparaging or subtweeting anyone who espouses a different kind of style or protagonist or purpose in their writing.


[Erica] Jong said, "It is still easier to fight for Malala” — Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who defied a ban on female education — “than it is for Jen Weiner.”

I mean, I should effing well hope so.

ARGH. I am inarticulate with rage that someone should compare a young woman - a girl! - who fought for girls' education, survived a brutal attack because of that fight, and has gone on to keep fighting for girls' education, with Jennifer Weiner. No surprise that the worship of whiteness necessary to even contemplate such a comparison is elided/erased, but COME THE EFF ON.


In what way is Jennifer Weiner "marginalized?" She's hugely popular and successful.


@whut yeah man, that's sort of where i'm at--she is very bold and adequately critical at a level that includes her and a few other (white, very commercially successful) female writers; the rest of it is left behind, and to hear "marginalized" in that context is just :/


@whut I mean, here's the thing, she is marginalized. In the same way that our cultural critics like to marginalize anything seen as girly, or god forbid, anything that appeals to teen girls and young women. Even wildly popular media that makes a ton of money can be marginalized because of who it appeals to or who the creator is (see: twilight and much ya fiction, one direction, Taylor swift, Jen weiner, romance novels, rom coms). See also that great piece in rookie about how "teen girl" tastes are seen as inherently shitty just because they are teen girl tastes. girly shouldn't be an automatic insult, and because something appeals to many young women or deals with issues of concern to young women (or, hell, older women), doesn't mean it's inherently lesser than. Until the words " teen girl fandom " or "girly" or "chic lit" are no longer used disparagingly to automatically dismiss something as not worthy (often without the critic ever consuming said media), then, yes, she is marginalized. And this is not to say that there are not other problems in the larger world relating to feminism or women, but it is part and parcel of the general disrespecting of women, even in the otherwise very privileged world of media/culture, etc.


@whut I agree, to some degree, that culture undervalues things that appeal to specifically to women but it's also true that most genre fiction gets less respect than "literary fiction"- be it science fiction, westerns, mysteries, etc. So I would say that unless she truly thinks what she writes is not formulaic and transcends the genre of chic lit (which isn't just books about women, but a pretty standard set of tropes) on literary merit, then sure, she should be upset. But formulaic genre fiction, as a rule, isn't exceptionally well written and only a few authors rise above their genre (I don't know anything about her books.)


"Weiner says that she would relinquish her role as an ombudsman of publishing-world sexism if a writer with a more literary reputation took on the job. “But I imagine they have more to lose than I do,” she says. “If some literary woman were to be known as a gadfly, or a crank, even—somebody who won’t shut up, somebody who is persistent and abrasive—that could hurt her, careerwise.”"

Yes, if only literary women like Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, and Joan Didion were less interested in coming across as charming and would start focusing on injustices!


I read a Jennifer Weiner book once, and I liked it.


I'm more sympathetic towards Weiner, although no, the misogyny faced by female writers are not on the scale of Malala and I don't appreciate her tendency to attack women writers. I think that she has done an excellent job of highlighting the lack of parity in who is invited to the table, both as reviewers and as reviewed, even as she acknowledges the difference between commercial and literary fiction. But when you start to compare apples to apples, why is Nick Hornby considered worthy of a NYT review, but Jodi Picoult is not? Why does George Pelecanos get full review treatment, but Louise Penny get sidebarred? With the drastic cuts in newspaper reviews across the country, space for coverage in the New York Times is at an even greater premium, and deciding that they will give two or even three reviews to a "quality" book and ignore others is a real issue.


Hmmm. Yeah, I've often bitterly commented on the fact that Nicholas Sparks gets to be shelved in Fiction while every other romance is in ROMANCE. Many of which are far more film-worthy than his sappy tragedies.

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