Jennifer Weiner (Andrea Cipriani Mecchi)

Jennifer Weiner was right about sexism, media and women writers: "We were told we were lying"

Salon talks to the bestselling author about family, Franzenfreude and feminism


Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 17, 2019 7:00PM (UTC)

Author Jennifer Weiner has built a built a career writing the kind of female-friendly, relationship-oriented fiction that typically gets dismissed as "chick lit," with bestsellers like "Good In Bed," "In Her Shoes" and "Little Earthquakes." She's also spent nearly a decade challenging the elitism and sexism of book publishing and criticism. Her new novel, "Mrs. Everybody" is a culmination of Weiner's work as both a storyteller and a truth-teller, a sweeping multigenerational family saga against a backdrop of 70 years of women's history. Weiner joined us recently for an episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss family, Franzenfreude, and why guys should read "women's" literature.

This book is so amazing. It is big. It is sweeping. It is ambitious AF. And it's interesting because your last two were a children's book and a memoir. This is a very different kind of book for you too. What made you try this?

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After the 2016 election a lot of fiction people and novelists — especially those of us whose fiction tends to be on the more fun and entertaining side — were doing a gut check and saying, "All right, what am I called to do at this moment in time?" I wanted to write a big dystopian thriller about a future where abortion was illegal and where birth control was illegal. I wanted to write "Red Clocks," if you've read Leni Zumas' book, "Red Clocks." It's a dystopian [novel where] women can't have fertility treatments. Women can't get birth control. Women can't have abortions.

I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried and I just could not make it work. I am not Margaret Atwood, as much as I would love to be Margaret Atwood. Then I'm sitting here thinking, "What am I going to do now?" I always wanted to write a historical novel. Susan Isaacs is one of my all time favorite writers and one of her favorite books of mine is "Almost Paradise," which does the same kind of thing as "Mrs. Everything." It takes on generations. You go back and you see people's grandparents and people's parents and how they were formed in the crucible of expectations and limits.

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I wanted to do that. Then there was a voice inside that said, "Is that book big enough? It's just another sister story." I had to tell that voice to shut up because I had to really argue with myself and remind myself that the personal is political and that women's stories can be big stories, even though we are not taught to think of them that way. I just had to get over my fear of doing all the research, which was no joke. I finally gathered up my courage and went to the library and here we are.

I'm so glad you brought that up because traditionally stories about war are stories, and stories about men things are stories, but stories about family are ...

Domestic. Women's fiction. Chick-lit.

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If it's a story about women, then it's not interesting to everyone.

You have to package it so carefully. In my reading last night, this topic came up and I was talking about Meg Wolitzer's books and how carefully those covers are designed to make sure that there's not a woman, there's not a beach, there's not a flower, there's no Eiffel Tower with a beautifully dressed woman photographed from behind in the mist. The subtexts of those covers is, "Men, you can read this and be OK."

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You will not be embarrassed on an airplane.

You will not get your period. It will all be fine. There are women in the book, but don't worry, don't worry. We've made it safe for you. I hope that men read "Mrs. Everything," I really, really do, but as you can see there are women on the cover.

It's abstract enough.

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The men can think they're just shapes. Just shapes. Just circles and swoopies and shapes.

My 16-year-old, the grumpy one who hates me, came to my reading the other night and she's like, "Ugh, it was a room full of middle-aged white ladies." I said, "OK. A, what do you think I am?" I said. "B, what do you think you are going to be?" Then I was like, "Lucy, who do you think reads any book?" Women are enormous consumers of fiction. Women are the readers. We read books by women, we read books by men.

We read all the books. Nobody has to do any special arranging to signal to us that Dave Eggers is OK or John Cheever is OK. We read men in school and we were taught that that was Literature, with a capital L. We read books by men. Men did not grow up reading books by women in school and believing that that was literature. I think that for a lot of men it's like, "Oh, it's all romance," or, "It's all fluff," or, "It's not for me." I think that's really unfortunate. I think men are missing great stories.

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They absolutely are because it's just about the human condition and about family and about relationships and about the dynamics. This is also about a 70-year period in American history. It's not a bad thing to know about what went down in this period. I want to talk to you about that because you are a former journalist. Reading this, I could feel you doing the work, Jennifer. Even when I got to 2003 and someone has a Blackberry and someone is on the Zone Diet.

Some of it I could remember. I had my Blackberry a lot longer than most people. I just gave it up. I didn't want to use an iPhone because the typing was hard. The typing still is. I have really huge thumbs.

But there are pieces I could remember, obviously the pieces that I lived through. I remember the '90s pretty well. I remember the '80s-ish. I barely remember the '70s when I was a kid. The '60s, the '50s, that was where I really had to dive into the magazines and the newspapers and the classified ads, which were always the most interesting part of the newspaper. I wanted to get the details right. I wanted to really make you feel like you were there, like you could feel that shag carpet under your feet, or you could taste the New Coke in the '80s, or whatever it was.

The Jell-O.

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The Jell-O.

Jell-O comes up a lot in this book.

It's those kinds of little details that make it very real. Just even the little moments of, this is what the experience of being an African-American veteran of the Vietnam War would be like. Things that, again, guess what, men? There are men in this book.

There are men in this book. Perhaps we should have put one on the cover.

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This is a book about history. It's also really personal. There is a very crucial element in this book that is drawn from your family.

The story of my family is that my parents both grew up in Detroit in middle-class Jewish families. They both went to the University of Michigan. They met and they got married. My dad became a doctor and they moved to Connecticut and they had four kids and they lived in the suburbs. My dad left in the '80s, just decided he was done being a father and being a husband and left. My mom was a single mom for ten years with teenagers and young adults and all of us trying to get our lives started. Then in her mid-50s, fell in love with a woman. We were all shocked. None of us had seen this coming.

I remember being on a conference call with my siblings and being like, "Did you know? Did you know? Did you have any idea?"

Her first girlfriend was this much younger woman who was closer to my age than my mom's, which added this whole other layer of awkward weirdness to it. Then they broke up and then my mom met Claire, who's been her partner for the last 16 years. My mother would tell me when I was growing up, I would complain about things, and she would say, "It's all material." When I grew up and used that material in fiction and had characters like complaining about their gay mom, she was OK with that.

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As I got older and as my daughters got older and as I started to think about what her life must have really been like and what it must be like when there's a part of you that you can't share, that there's this secret you're always keeping, there's something you know about yourself that you can't be open to the world about and how that shapes your life. I wanted to write about that because I'm interested in women's stories and women's secrets and the way we are in public versus the way we are in private, the way we are with men versus the way we are with friends, or family, or sisters. I wanted to do a more thorough and respectful telling of my mom's stories. That's where Mrs. Everything, that's was where it was born.

We can talk about the secrets that women carry. We talk about where we are now at this moment in history, which is not great.

#BelieveHer.

#NotGreat, also. These characters, through multiple generations, go through molestation, rape, illegal abortion. Being closeted. Having an interracial romance. Going on a sugar daddy site. Being sexually harassed and abused in the workplace.

Being judged for not wanting kids.

Being shamed for your size, for having the audacity to put on weight. All of these things that women do go through and do suffer through in quiet. In times past, there was no back and forth. There was no conversation. This book is a conversation about that.

I promise there's funny stuff too!

There are two sisters in "Mrs. Everything." There's Jo and Bethie. Jo, as in "Little Women," she's the rebel, she's the tomboy. She wants to be a writer. She wants to live in a city. She wants to have a big life, as in "Little Women," ends up married to a guy who sniffs at her writerly ambitions and ends up as a mother for awhile. My Jo, I was able to give a different ending to. Then there's Bethie who's the good girl. Bethie in "Little Women" is the sister who dies. I'm sorry if I just spoiled "Little Women" for anyone who hasn't read it yet.

But you've had like 200 years.

Yeah, so come on. Catch up. Bethie, she's the pretty, suffers-in-noble-silence sister. Then when she dies it's this moment of heartbreak for this family. She's like, "Don't weep for me." I wanted to take a good girl and I wanted to talk about what the world does to good girls. Here's my Bethie who is shiny as a new penny and she's bright and she loves to perform and she loves to be the center of attention. She's Queen Esther in the Purim play. Then there's this uncle.

What happens with Bethie and the uncle, I am discovering, has happened with a lot of women. I did one video chat with a group of readers about this book a couple weeks ago. I was like, "And then this terrible thing happens to Bethie." Right down the screen scrolled, "That happened to me. That happened to my sister. That happened to my best friend. That happened to my partner." Just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I was just like, "God, I so wanted to believe that I was making this up." Of course I know what happens, but boy, it happens a lot.

Everything, every single thing that we've just talked about, affects everybody.

Affects everybody.

Every single person in the world is or knows someone who's been sexually abused, who has been sexually assaulted, who has had an abortion.

With Bethie's story, I wanted to show the importance of language because she doesn't have the words, really, to even tell anybody what's going on. She can't say, "He's molesting me." She doesn't know that word. Or abusing me, even. All she can come up with was like, "He's hugging me too long." Her mother, who is a widow now, who's supporting this family, who's out in the workplace, who is enjoying her life in the workplace and probably feeling guilty and conflicted about that, is like, "What do you mean he's hugging you too long?" Bethie ends up confiding in her sister. Jo is the one who sort of takes care of business on her behalf.

As I was writing the book and as I was putting Bethie through one thing after another, I had to be careful that it wasn't too much. But I wanted readers to think about the importance of naming things. How once you've got a term for something or a word for something or a language for something, that's when you can start to solve it. That's when you can start to fix it. As we move forward and we think about the gains we've made and perhaps the ground we're losing, I wanted people to think about the importance of naming things and speaking out loudly and telling our stories bravely and knowing that our stories matter in the world.

It's the Mr. Rogers quote, "What is mentionable is manageable." It's that simple. Speaking of telling our stories, you know we want to get into this. The past nine years, you have been in a very bold, brave — to the point of being really savaged for this — talking about the sexism in the literary world, in the way that women's stories are written about, in the way that women's literature is talked about, in the way that women in general as a group, or demographic, are talked about. When you started having this conversation you were pilloried for it. Now here we are.

Here we are.

Can we just say, you were right? You were right about a lot. In this book,  you take on in a pretty explicit way some of that hypocrisy. What does it feel like now to look around and see that there has been this reckoning?

There has been this reckoning. Again, this goes back to naming a problem and being able to point at something and say, "Yes, this is real." When I started talking about it and Jodi Picoult started talking about it and saying, "Women's books are not reviewed as often," and we were told we were lying. We were told we were jealous. We were told we were just making it all up. We were told we were hysterical. We were told that our books are crap and that's why no one reviews them. Then someone started counting.

The organization VIDA every year does its count and they discovered that lo and behold, there was a true discrepancy. They started calling editors and then reporters started calling editors and saying, "Hey, New Republic, you reviewed seventeen books by men and one book by a women. What do you have to say for yourself?" Or, "Hey, Paris Review, you published 75% of your short stories by men last year. What's up with that?"

Also, discovering the rot that was actually going on behind the scenes at some of these publications.

Some of the biggest offenders have been "Me Too-ed," as we say in my house, and are no longer at the head of these organizations. I think that there's been a shift. There are women at the helm of some of these publications, which makes an enormous difference. A lot of editors have tried to do the right thing, have said, "Yes, we know there's a problem here. We are trying to address it."

Even the editors who haven't said that, they get called on the carpet. If they say, "We review the best books and if the best books are by men, we will continue to review books that are just by men," people say, "Well, let's talk about your criteria. What is best to you? How are you defining it? Who's defining it? Who's on your staff? Let's take a look at that masthead." I've seen real progress. For me personally, to see this book called ambitious and to see people call it a great American novel and to see people say, "This book has something to say and it speaks to readers," that's just tremendously gratifying and rewarding. I don't want to do a big victory dance or anything because it's not fixed yet, it's not all better yet. Are we moving forward? Yes, I think we are.

I love this book because it is at a moment when there is so much despair and hopelessness. This is a book that looks at that, but it also ultimately joyful and hopeful and funny. And sexy.

Sexy, yes. Super entertaining because that's my job, at the end of the day. I don't want to write polemics. I don't want people feeling like they've just spent 400 pages watching me stand on a soapbox and yell at them about reproductive rights, even though I want to do that sometimes. Yeah, there's some pretty sexy sex scenes. Honest to God, I gave the book to my mom. She was at my house for Passover, so I give her the advance reader's copy. I'm sitting there watching her read it. I'm thinking, "Oh God, please leave. Please leave. Please just go. Just get in the car before you get to the sex scene because I don't want to sit here and watch you read about two teenage girls and a vibrator. I just do not."

 


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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