A Gadfly Of The Literary World

In a profile of best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, Rebecca Mead lays out the many ways that Weiner “has stoked a lively public discussion about the reception and consumption of fiction written by women”:

The same cultural prejudices that maligned large women, she said, explain why books like hers do not get critical respect. Her campaign about books, she suggested, is more than just a campaign about books: “Just as I want plus-size women visible, and valued, and loved in my books, so do I want books like mine visible and valued, if not loved, by a critical establishment that’s still too rooted in sexist double standards, still too swift to dismiss women’s work as small, trivial, unimpressive, and unimportant.” …

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.”

Kat Stoeffel sides with Weiner:

Weiner’s campaigns sometimes seem undignified, like she’s yearning for entry to a male literary enclave that has loudly eighty-sixed her. … But what’s much more important is that she’s right.

Women novelists and critics and “feminine” genres are criminally underrepresented across literary institutions, which will sometimes lavish men like  [Jonathan] Franzen and and [Jeffrey] Eugenides with multiple reviews and a profile. (See: Franzenfreude, a term coined by Jodi Picoult and adopted by Weiner.) What sets Weiner apart from other female authors isn’t some innate writerly disqualification from the boy’s club, but her unique position to critique it. She’s one of a handful of female authors with the publishing clout — in terms of dedicated readership, sales, and movie options — to speak out against industry sexism without fearing retribution.

Amanda Hess acknowledges that “Weiner’s allegations of sexism in the critical establishment are persuasive in the aggregate,” however:

[T]hat does not mean that, all things being equal, Weiner is a great novelist or that she should be one of the Times’ 405 featured authors in a given year [89 of whom were female]. To a certain extent, Weiner acknowledges this as a necessary function of her critique. “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,” Mead writes. “I imagine they have more to lose than I do,” Weiner told Mead. “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.”

As a popular novelist ignored by the literary elite, Weiner’s crank status only serves to boost her own career. And many of her criticisms seem aimed at promoting her own writing style over that of “literary women,” even when these writers are also confronting industry sexism.

Jia Tolentino is on the same page:

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 [Yousafzai] 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.