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.