That’s No Way to Treat a ‘Lady Book’
What makes great literature? Do Jeffrey Eugenides and Stephen King write beach reads or books worthy of the canon—or both? And where do women writers fit in? One of the biggest advocates for breaking down barriers between popular and critically revered books is a writer whose trademark is creating quirky Jewish women who worry about their weight and eventually find true love—and themselves in the process. The author of 12 novels that have sold more than four and a half million copies, Jennifer Weiner has leveraged her fame—and her 100,000-plus Twitter followers—to lead the charge against what she sees as a bias against fiction written by and for women. Even people who don’t read her books know her as a thorn in the side of the publishing world.
As Weiner sees it, the main difference between her novels and those of many other commercially successful fiction writers such as King and Dan Brown is that women’s books are less likely to be taken seriously. She hasn’t been afraid to get into feuds over this: She famously criticized the outpouring of accolades heaped on Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 book, Freedom, leading to very public bad blood between the two. Weiner even coined the term “Franzenfreude” to describe “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.” Franzen, in turn, has skewered her work—and her. Moment’s Sala Levin talks with Weiner about her ongoing battle against entrenched literary discrimination toward women, why Jewish women feature so prominently in her work, and her new book, Who Do You Love.
Why did you take on the cause of women’s place in fiction?
I think about my obituary sometimes, and I think I wouldn’t be satisfied if, when I die, all it says is, “Jennifer Weiner, who wrote many best-selling novels, died in her sleep after an excellent dinner at the age of 98 in her house.” I really want it to say, “Jennifer Weiner, the best-selling author, who worked hard to expand the boundaries of the kind of books that got attention.” It’s the tikkun olam thing. I was raised by parents who really believed that if you saw something wrong, you were obligated to try to do something about it within whatever power you had. And if you’re lucky enough to have a platform and have people listen to you, then shame on you, really, if all you’re doing is saying, “My new book’s out. Yay. Buy my new book. Here’s a shiny basket of treats.” I wouldn’t feel great about myself at the end of the day.
How would you like to see genre fiction by women treated?
What I want is for mainstream places that cover genre fiction by men to cover genre fiction by women. The New York Times covers Stephen King and reviews Dan Brown and reviews John Grisham—if you’re going to do that, then you really need to write about Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber and maybe even me.
Do you think that some headway has been made?
Yes, yes, yes. In 2010, VIDA:Women in Literary Arts started doing its count of the number of books by women that get reviews in major publications and female bylines in major publications. That has been tremendously helpful. There are places that have made progress, and even editors at places that have dismal ratios of women to men have to be accountable now. They can say, as some editors have, “Women aren’t producing good enough work for us to publish more of it,” or, “This is a problem. We need to address it.” A lot of places still need to improve. Even the fact that there is still a thing called “women’s fiction.” It’s not like there’s men’s fiction and women’s fiction. It’s like there’s real fiction and then, lady books.
Is there any genre fiction that you would say is not worthy of being reviewed in The New York Times? Like 50 Shades of Grey?
But you know what? It sold a million copies, so I think that you have to pay attention to it, at least from the perspective of business, and I think the way they covered it was actually pretty good. I look at a literary novel by a very well-connected white guy that sold fewer than 1,500 copies and got reviewed twice. Then I look at 50 Shades of Grey, which, for better or worse, love it or hate it, everyone bought and is part of the cultural conversation, and I feel that if you’re going to be a newspaper that’s covering the culture the way The Times aspires to, you’ve got to cover it and you’ve got to review it, even if you hold your nose.
Do you see yourself as an outsider in the literary world?
That’s a piece of it. The author Grace Paley was asked many years ago, “Do you consider yourself a political writer?” And she said, “I write about women, so yes.” And I feel that way. I’m not in New York. I don’t have an MFA. I do have friends who are writers—especially now on social media, it’s very easy to connect with other writers—but my friends tend to have different jobs. And then there’s the whole issue of respect and whether the kind of books I write get any of it, and are they doing anything worthwhile. When Jonathan Franzen had his last temper tantrum about me, he said, “No one I know says you must read Jennifer Weiner,” and I’m just imagining him polishing his monocle somewhere, like, “None of the best people think you should read Jennifer Weiner.” And it’s like, “Well, who are you hanging around with? I know lots of people who think that people should read my books.” But probably not many of them in his world.
Being Jewish makes you an outsider…having a character who is on the outside, figuring out how to get in as opposed to being completely at ease and completely part of the mainstream, is what’s interesting to me.
You are a pro at Twitter. What’s your verdict on social media: good or bad?
For writers like me, good. The idea of who gets to talk about these things, who gets to discuss what books matter, what books get covered, where they get covered, how they get covered—that used to be a very tiny handful of people. It would be editors, agents, well-regarded literary writers. And if a writer like me had a problem with what The New York Times was doing, she was basically limited to talking to her husband and her friends about it. And then social media come along and it means that you can get on Facebook or you can get on Twitter and say, “The New York Times just reviewed Nicholson Baker’s book twice and wrote a 5,000-word profile of him in the magazine and yet all of these books by women go ignored.” The world can decide if it cares, if this is a conversation that’s worth having. I think we’re really seeing a democratization of that conversation. I think that Goodreads and Amazon mean that, for better or worse, everyone’s a critic, everybody gets a chance to say what they think of a book.
Do you ever wish you were writing in the pre-Twitter age?
I don’t. Every once in a while you can sort of get nostalgic for the day when all anybody knew of a novelist was the little postage stamp-size picture on the back of the paperback and your little tiny bio. And now it’s all out there. They want vacation pictures. They want to know the names of your pets. They want to know what you cook for dinner. And it has been a fine-tuning process in terms of what I want to show, what I don’t want to show. But it’s really worked out well for me, and I think it’s because I have the kind of personality that’s okay with letting people in that way.
Many of your characters are Jewish women. Are you “writing what you know” or is there some other reason for this?
It definitely has to do with write what you know, but being Jewish makes you an outsider. You’re not part of the majority religion. I was watching the Republican debate, and all of the politicians were like, “I’ve been saved by Jesus. I’ve been washed in the blood of the lamb.” And I’m like, “This is landing very differently for me than for 95 percent of the world that’s just like, ‘Okay, yeah, Jesus.’” For me as a writer, having a character who is on the outside, figuring out how to get in or observing the culture from that perspective as opposed to being completely at ease and completely part of the mainstream, is what’s interesting to me.
Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?
When I think about Christian fiction, I think about evangelical books, books that have a mission to convert people or show them the way of Christianity. I’m certainly not out to sell anybody on the merits of Judaism or convert them. It’s just a very matter-of-fact thing with me. I see Judaism as part of the fabric of my characters’ lives. I guess if writing Jewish characters makes you a Jewish writer, then I’m a Jewish writer, and if dealing with Jewish themes like tikkun olam makes you a Jewish writer, then I’m a Jewish writer. I do think there is kind of a comfort for Jewish readers to recognize a seder or a shiva call, or Hanukkah, or a bar mitzvah. And I feel like for Christian readers, that’s a little exotic for them. They’re like, “What is a see-der?”
What inspired your new book, Who Do You Love?
I wanted to write a love story. I love books like The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, or Almost Paradise, by Susan Isaacs, where it’s two people who, for whatever reason of fate or temperament, can’t get together as a couple. I wanted to explore who these people were at different moments of their lives and talk about the nature of love—how it’s different when you’re in your teens, when you’re in your twenties, when you’re in your thirties, and the idea of, is there that one special person out there for you? Or are there infinite choices?
Jonathan Franzen has a new book out, Purity. Have you read it, or any of his other books? What do you think of them?
I’ve read a bit of the new one, and The Corrections, Freedom and The Discomfort Zone. It’s hard for me to come to the books with an open mind. I do my best. And my issue with Franzen as a writer is that he seems to have a lot of contempt for everyone he writes about. Maybe himself most of all.