Close-reading Jennifer Weiner: Let's give the best-selling author the serious, critical read she demands

OK -- the literary press snubs chick lit. So I gave Weiner what any serious writer deserves: A real critical look

Published May 7, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Jennifer Weiner     (Simon & Schuster/Andrea Cipriani Mecchi)
Jennifer Weiner (Simon & Schuster/Andrea Cipriani Mecchi)

In Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker profile of Jennifer Weiner, Mead observed that the chick lit author has two "audiences." One consists of the readers of her bestselling books, plump volumes bound in candy-colored covers with titles like "The Next Best Thing," and "Best Friends Forever"; Cannie Shapiro, Weiner's fictional alter ego, describes such books as "breezy" and "female-centered." Weiner's other, much smaller audience knows her primarily in a different role: as feminist gadfly of the literary press.

On Twitter and in other venues, Weiner has long criticized the unequal coverage women writers receive, both in the number of books by women that are reviewed, and in something much more difficult to quantify: prestige. She’s not the only observer to note that literary novels by men seem to get more, and more worshipful, reviews than apparently equivalent books by women, or that male novelists can write about domestic themes and still be taken seriously while women writers risk seeing their work sidelined as "small." Among Weiner's publishing-world audience -- a group, as Mead describes it, made up mostly of "writers, editors and critics" -- there's much agreement on these points.

But there's another and more contentious component to Weiner's protests, and that concerns the degree to which prestigious outlets, especially the New York Times and the New Yorker, cover commercial fiction by women. "I'd love it if the Times actually 'celebrated' my genre," Weiner told Jason Pinter of the Huffington Post in 2010, "but at this point I'd happily settle for the paper merely acknowledging it.”

One of the reasons review sections give for not covering more genre fiction is that much (though not all) of it is, by definition, formulaic. You don't need to tell readers what waits between those book covers because readers already know what they'll find there. Predictability is the point. Weiner may complain that she's never been reviewed by the New York Times, but she has never argued that this omission has affected her sales — her books have, after all, sold some 4.5 million copies. Although she's been accused of "self-promotion," at times, what Weiner seems to want is something more intangible than mere publicity: recognition from the same East Coast literary establishment whose values she characterizes with so much scorn.

In the years since Weiner launched her literary campaign, the New York Times Book Review has appointed a female editor in chief and has begun to cover more genre fiction aimed at women. But still Weiner has a point. Among those writers, editors and critics who assign, write and talk about book reviews and author profiles at major publications, it isn't easy to find people who have even read books like Weiner's, let alone valued them enough to urge more coverage of them. Weiner’s Holy Grail will always be a New York Times review (or two), a laurel she believes is disproportionately dispensed to literary writers and the occasional male genre titan. Salon can't give her that, but a big part of being taken seriously as a novelist involves having one’s work closely read and reviewed in depth. And that we can do -- so here goes.

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To read Weiner’s novels is to understand why she -- of all the many authors of commercial women's fiction, including several of its more accomplished practitioners -- has become the spokesperson for such an apparently self-contradictory cultural petition. She doesn't need the New York Times; she doesn't respect its literary standards; her readers don't care about it; and yet she craves its validation. She sees it as a club, however shabby and down-at-heel, that won't admit her, and that could well be the reason she wants in. An obsession with prestige and exclusion haunts her characters and her fictional universe, but as much as they (and Weiner herself) resent all the people they imagine to be looking down on them, they can be dismayingly ready to turn the tables and partake of the same arrogance themselves.

The typical Weiner heroine is a spirited woman burdened by a disadvantageous trait that she believes marks her out as a "freak" and bars her from some inner sanctum to which she craves admittance. Candace "Cannie" Shapiro, the 20-something narrator of Weiner's first novel, "Good in Bed,” is a quintessential example. Cannie, like quite a few Weiner protagonists, thinks that the stumbling block to inclusion is her plus-size body; in other books the heroine has a hearing impairment, a learning disability or, in one case, a face disfigured by a childhood accident.

"Good in Bed," first published in 2001, was embraced by fans of the genre formerly known as chick lit because it placed an overweight young woman at the center of the usual quest for true love and a nifty media career. Yet Weiner's Cannie is no Bridget Jones, blundering into farcical scrapes that never threatened her with more than severe embarrassment. "Good in Bed," by many reports a semi-autobiographical novel, veers from social comedy to flagrant fantasy to passages that sting with the reverberations of genuine pain. And for all her laments about her body, the obstacles to Cannie's happiness really have little to do with her weight.

Instead, Cannie's suffering is rooted in her relationship to her father, a verbally abusive, emotionally remote, chronically discontented plastic surgeon who eventually abandoned his first family entirely to start another one. Cannie introduces the trauma of his desertion in a particularly revealing way, by describing Avondale, the affluent Philadelphia suburb where she grew up, as seen from its streets. Her imagined observer scrutinizes each house for the tell-tale cosmetic flaws and lapses in maintenance that brand it -- as if with a scarlet D -- as a home where the parents have divorced. "They're the houses where Mom's Camry or Accord or minivan doesn't get replaced every year, but just keeps getting older and older."

Cannie admits that these are what we'd now call first-world problems, but that doesn't really comfort her much. In Weiner's fictional universe, the big picture never trumps the ideals of Avondale -- trim figure, five-bedroom colonial, rich husband, designer clothes, high-achieving kids, parents who could sub for the actors in a Cialis ad. The operative emotion for those who fail to measure up to that standard, and for all of Weiner's protagonists, is shame.

A Weiner heroine is always exquisitely aware of the status hierarchy at play in every situation, of just how low she rates and of just how much she resents those who score higher: the thin, the blond and the pretty, often depicted as shallow bitches who do not deserve their preeminence. Even in Hollywood, far from her native habitat, the narrator of Weiner's 2012 novel, "The Next Best Thing," promptly registers the disdain of a waiter when her proud grandmother describes her as a writer. "You could almost see the word 'nobodies' in a balloon floating above the man's neatly barbered head as he led us to a table so far in the back it was practically in the kitchen." Weiner's heroines see that balloon a lot.

Cannie's great claim to charm is that she's "funny," so these developments come nestled in the bland, comfy humor of a network sitcom. ("The Next Best Thing” recounts its heroine's travails making what sounds like the most tedious sitcom of all time, about a plump girl trying to make it as a chef in Miami while rooming with her grandmother.) You can see every shtick-y wisecrack -- "And it's not even the worst date I've been on," etc. -- coming well before it arrives, which is in itself a form of coziness, as familiar as the sofa in a soundstage living room.

Weiner's prose is serviceable and undistinguished, but then that's what it's supposed to be. Weiner herself has derided the "deeply ambiguous, finely wrought" short stories published in magazines like the New Yorker and in poorly selling literary collections. Hers is a style of writing praised as “a fast, fun read" by Amazon reviewers, designed to be clearly and easily understood — the characters slotting, with a satisfying click, into pre-established roles like Best Friend and Conniving Co-worker and Eccentric Neighbor and Bastard.

All of which makes "Good in Bed" a bit muddled because, while Cannie comes to see her ex-boyfriend, Bruce, as the bad guy in her story (he freaks out and disappears -- inexcusably but also somewhat understandably -- when Cannie informs him that she's pregnant), much of what he tells her about herself, which she mostly refuses to hear or accept, is spot-on. The same pattern recurs in "Certain Girls," the 2008 sequel to "Good in Bed," in which Cannie has bagged a handsome, devoted doctor but then finds herself the subject of a juicy profile that dishes up assorted family secrets. Though she’s an entertainment journalist who regularly exposes other people’s private lives, she's outraged when put on the receiving end of the same treatment. She deserved to tell her own story, she moans to her husband. "Fair enough," he replies, "but then I don't think you get to be angry when people tell stories about you."

"Certain Girls" reflects some growth in Cannie's self knowledge, but "Good in Bed" is the unfiltered, unstable stuff, and while harder to swallow it also feels less prudent and more alive. A preposterous middle section describes how Cannie, barred from interviewing a movie actress because she bridles at being told not to ask about the woman's love life, ends up meeting the star by accident in a hotel ladies' room. By the end to the book, the actress has whisked Cannie to Hollywood, helped her get her screenplay produced, taken her to glittering premieres and invited her to move into her house on the beach so they can spend nearly every day together on outings to farmers markets and the Santa Monica pier. The way those selfless movies stars do.

The wish fulfillment of this interlude is so naked it's almost endearing, like a 13-year-old's earnest fanfic about Justin Bieber. Yet the novel stumbles, surprisingly, in a key department: Cannie's “likability,” a word that has been at the center of many a recent literary debate. (Weiner has made her stance on the matter clear: She sees nothing wrong with wanting her leading ladies to be likable.) I suppose there's no more subjective matter than whom one finds likable, but for what it’s worth, I personally find Cannie to be spiteful (she rarely misses an opportunity to publicly mention the smallness of her ex’s penis), narrow-minded, selfish and, like too many of Weiner's heroines, a snob.

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Yes, the author who accused the editors of the New Yorker of being snobs after they declined to publish a piece she submitted to "Talk of the Town," who has railed against all who presume to look down on her own genre and its readers, is not above sneering at other people's tastes herself. A partial list of things that characters are ridiculed for liking in Weiner's fiction includes: the work of Deepak Chopra, "Smart Women, Foolish Choices" (or any number of other self-help titles), "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," Civil War reenactment, Celine Dion, the films of Jerry Bruckheimer and Hallmark cards with "abstract watercolors of birds and trees on the front and florid, calligraphy'ed sentiments inside." Other characters are mocked for being "slackers" or vegetarians, for having a lot of allergies, for going to Montclair State instead of Princeton (which Cannie attended and hated because "everyone was blond, preppy and perfect, except for the dark-haired girls who were sleek, exotic and perfect") and dressing as if they "didn't know there was such thing as the petite section."

A significant percentage of these deplorable preferences belong to Tanya, the woman who, to Cannie's eternal mortification, becomes her mother's lover after her children move out. Tanya is portrayed with such cruelty that I found myself praying she wasn't based on a real person. (Weiner's mother also came out of the closet in her 50s.) "If it had been a different kind of woman ... " Cannie says to her siblings, "say, a chic film professor from UPenn, with tenure and a pixie haircut and interesting amber jewelry, who'd introduce us to independent film directors and take my mother to Cannes. [But] my mother had fallen for Tanya, who was neither well-read nor chic." It's left to the reader to infer that Cannie's mother was miserable in her marriage and stayed with her toxic husband as long as she did for the kids, as Tanya suggests at one point. What her mother might have suffered for her sake doesn't ever seem to cross Cannie's mind.

Are we meant to read "through" Cannie, to recognize the unreliability of her perceptions as well as her ingratitude and her selfishness? If so, then by the straightforward customs of the genre, Cannie herself should have some inkling of her shortcomings by the end of the novel. Her author should be signaling that she's grown enough to notice that the people in her life take care of her far more than she cares for them. That doesn't happen, and if "Certain Girls" -- a well-observed depiction, written seven years after "Good in Bed," of the power struggle between a smothering Cannie and her restive 13-year-old daughter -- does show a growing, humorous and very welcome skepticism toward Cannie's view of her world, many of her prejudices still go unrevised. Which is pretty strange in an author who takes such a dim view of literary ambiguity.

Weiner told Rebecca Mead that when she wrote "Good in Bed," she "wanted girls like me -- who felt ugly, or fat, or lonely, or like it was never going to get better -- to be able to read something and think maybe it will." Admirably, Weiner's narratives never present getting thin as a solution to her heroines' problems. Instead, they argue that the conventions of successful womanhood ought to be more expansive and forgiving.

This would be a lot more persuasive if Weiner's characters were willing to question a much broader range of those conventions. To be fair, Weiner's recent books have featured sympathetic portraits of gay and multiracial women and even occasionally entertain the possibility that a five-bedroom colonial, designer wardrobe and a trophy husband might not constitute the apex of female achievement and satisfaction, no matter how good it looks to the neighbors. But it would be better if her heroines could get past viewing life as a competition in which every event leaves somebody one-up and somebody else one-down. The narrator of "The Next Best Thing" doesn't want the man she's had a crush on to see how disappointed she is when he elopes with a starlet, because, she tells herself, "he doesn't get to win this one."

Unlike the more polished writers in her genre -- Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes and the delightful Jennifer Crusie spring to mind -- Weiner's novels have a lumpiness that testifies to a desire to stretch the boundaries of her chosen form. Is she providing her readers with a well-crafted, escapist confection, like Fielding, or is she portraying the knotty concerns of real women's lives, like Jodi Picoult, whose movie-of-the-week-style novels tackle such issues as bullying, autism and sexual abuse? Weiner seems to want to do both, to honestly depict what it's like to be an overweight woman or to give birth to a premature infant or to try to rescue a self-destructive sibling, and at the same time to soothe her readers, as she told Mead, with the opportunity "to escape, or find comfort, or to spend time in a world that is a little more fair and a little more kind than the world that we inhabit." It's little wonder that this approach resulted in a novel about the challenges faced by a larger woman in which none of the challenges she faces have much to do with her size.

Perhaps there's an author who can pull off this trick, but from here it looks like a zero-sum game. How can a novel do justice to real life and also serve as an escape from real life? How can you write a book intended to acknowledge that most women's stories are not fairy tales if you also feel obliged to provide a fairy-tale ending? When Weiner experiments with breaking that rule, as she does in "Certain Girls," her readers are swift to make their displeasure known: "Stop reading when you get to page 344!" one Amazon reviewer warned. So if Weiner has indeed been relegated to a (golden) cage, it's not all that clear just who's keeping her there.

Further reading

Rebecca Mead profiles Jennifer Weiner in the New Yorker

Jason Pinter interviews Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult in the Huffington Post

Jennifer Weiner criticizes Claire Messud and Meg Wolitzer in Slate

Salon's Daniel D'Addario offers a brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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