I love Jennifer Weiner, but she needs to back off
I am a longtime and devoted fan of Jennifer Weiner. I connect to her books and, even more, to her. I believe in her battle against the so-called literary elite who too often dismiss Chick Lit merely because it is about women and romance and not "serious" issues. But after Rebecca Mead’s profile of Weiner in The New Yorker, I find myself actually a little disappointed in this literary icon.
When I read Weiner’s Good in Bed in college — the first of her nearly dozen books that have spent a cumulative 249 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list — I fell in love. When it comes to describing being overweight, struggling after a break-up, building a writing career — all challenges that the protagonist Cannie Shapiro faces — she makes you laugh and gives you hope without dipping into the most maudlin cliches. How could I, a Weight Watchers veteran who had been single her whole life, not love an author who writes:
So here I am. Twenty-eight years old, with thirty looming on the horizon. Drunk. Fat. Alone. Unloved. And, worst of all, a cliche, Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones put together, which was probably about how much I weighed. [Good in Bed]
Weiner is not only a kindred spirit. Her intelligence shines through in her books, which can crackle with humor. The Chick Lit stamp evokes some mass media machine producing generic rom-coms that bored women buy on the grocery check-out line. But Jennifer Weiner’s writing sounds like it is coming from my smart best friend, which is why I want to read it.
Her highly articulate arguments against the literary establishment only make me like her more. She has fought hard for the Chick Lit genre, arguing it deserves more respect. Astutely, she zeros in on gender bias. Discussing the book review coverage at The New York Times, she told The Huffington Post:
Chick lit gets ignored. Romance gets ignored completely...and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages? It would be as if the paper's music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that? [The Huffington Post]
She has also tangled with the insufferable Jonathan Franzen. After Franzen went on a neurotic rant about "What’s wrong with the modern world," in which he hated on Twitter, technology, and authors who use "Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion," Weiner called out his garbage in The New Republic, writing:
From his privileged perch, he can pick and choose, deciding which British newspaper gets the honor of running his 5,600-word condemnation of self-promotion that ends with an unironic hyperlinked invitation to buy his new book. Few — no — other writers have it so good. For the rest of us — commercial and literary alike — there is social media for fun, ads, and tours for publicity, billboards, and book trailers only if we’re lucky. [The New Republic]
She tackles the pretensions of the literary world head-on, and is glad to separate herself from the delicate artistic sphere. Mead’s profile notes how Weiner prides herself on her background in journalism (she worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer), which involved sticking to deadlines, working with editors, and, yes, writing to make a living.
She recognizes that her success in commercial fiction has given her unique leverage that more "literary" female authors may lack, and she wants to use her power for good. She tells Mead she feels compelled to be a mouthpiece, because "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, career-wise."
But when it came to Weiner’s attacks on some of these other authors, she has gone over the line, especially with female writers.
There's the case of Claire Messud, author of several critically acclaimed novels, who said in reference to Weiner's amiable protagonists, "If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble." Messud was acknowledging that good fiction is teeming with unlikable characters, from Uriah Heep to Gollum. But Weiner overreached in her response, taking Messud to mean, "Novels were absolutely, positively not there to serve the petty function of helping people feel connected. And if you believed that — if you wrote that way, or if you read that way — then, by God, you were Doing Reading Wrong."
Of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., a novel about dating and romance in New York that received much critical praise, Weiner tweeted, "Girl writes about kissing from male POV, in Brooklyn, with artsy cover, and impressive blurbs. Then it’s literature."
Weiner also added that she felt Waldman’s novel could have been improved "if he’d had a sister who had, like, an unfortunate complexion, or maybe wasn’t the cutest girl" to call out his bad behavior towards women.
While she has every right to criticize another author’s work, her comment misses the point. I haven’t read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., but Waldman said she didn’t include a female character to remark on her male protagonist’s behavior for a good reason. "My aim was to capture my protagonist’s mind-set and to do so in a way that felt fair and accurate," she said. "My thinking was that readers could then judge him for themselves."
That trust in a reader to make those judgments is something that can separate good literature from bad, and as much as I love Weiner’s work, I haven’t seen much room for that in her books. Even Mead wrote that Weiner’s "characters can appear to be mouthing lines they have read in self-help books rather than expressing authentic emotions. It often seems that inside these calculatedly lightweight books there is a more anguished, and possibly truer, work trying to get out."
Weiner is fighting a good fight. Chick Lit — or whatever you want to call it — should not be ignored by critics merely because of its genre or its audience. Indeed, it's because I have so much respect for Weiner and her writing that I am disappointed in her over-generalized and misguided critiques of others.