Early one morning in November, five hundred clinicians gathered at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott for the twenty-third annual Renfrew Center Foundation conference, devoted to the understanding and treatment of eating disorders. The keynote speaker, Jennifer Weiner, the best-selling novelist, was there to offer a personal perspective on weight issues, with a talk entitled “The F Word: On Growing Up Big, Speaking Out Loud and Raising Betty Friedan Girls in a Britney Spears World.”
The Renfrew foundation’s Web site described Weiner’s 2001 début, “Good in Bed,” now in its fifty-seventh printing, as “the first ‘chick-lit’ novel featuring a large protagonist.” The character, Cannie Shapiro, established the template for a number of Weiner’s subsequent heroines: clever, quippy young women whose dress size tends to be well into the double digits. Her characters navigate the perils presented by lacklustre boyfriends or disappointing husbands, slender mean girls, dysfunctional families, and self-esteem issues. “Nobody’s going to date me looking like this,” Cannie tells the tall, handsome, kindly doctor who interviews her for a weight-loss study. “I’m going to die alone, and my dog’s going to eat my face, and no one will find us until the smell seeps out under the door.” Despite their travails, Weiner’s heroines arrive at happy endings that defy cultural prejudices while upholding the implausible conventions of a Hollywood romantic comedy. (Cannie’s tall, handsome, kindly doctor falls madly in love with her.) Weiner’s second novel, “In Her Shoes,” was actually made into a romantic comedy, in 2005; it starred Toni Collette, as the brainy, full-figured heroine, and Cameron Diaz—featured prominently on movie posters—as her skinny, feckless sister.
Weiner, who is forty-three, was outfitted as if for a cocktail party, in a scarlet sleeveless dress and nude stilettos. Her makeup had been applied, before dawn, by a professional; her long, dark-brown hair was loose and shiny. She looked pretty and polished but approachable, like a co-host on “The View.” Weiner, who has a degree in English literature from Princeton, is cognizant of the expectations that attend a writer of commercial women’s fiction. “Handbags are important signifiers,” she told me. (Lately, she has leaned heavily on an orange Givenchy tote.) Her outfit projected confidence, but it also gave her an opportunity to reveal a winning vulnerability. After ascending the podium, she began, “Good morning, Renfrew Center clinicians and therapists. Or, as I have been affectionately referring to you in my head, the people I don’t need to wear Spanx for.”
Weiner is a witty public speaker. “She’s like Kathy Griffin,” the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, who is a friend of Weiner’s, says. “She definitely deserves her own reality show.” Weiner devoted much of her speech to recounting a childhood in Simsbury, Connecticut, where her looks and her sense of humor were unappreciated. She described herself as “a beaky, busty, mouthy kid in a Dorothy Hamill bob . . . looking ungainly in an unflattering Esprit shirt-and-vest combination.” When the audience laughed, Weiner ad-libbed, “Don’t act like you don’t remember the eighties! Bitches.” She spoke of travelling to Israel the summer she was fifteen. “There I am in the Promised Land, and there were five Jennifers on this trip, so I became the fat Jennifer,” she said. “Here I am in this part of the world famous for its suffering, and I’m, like, ‘No one has suffered more than me.’ ”
With comic triumph, Weiner shared other anecdotes of being marginalized, the kinds of stories that therapists are accustomed to hearing in their consulting rooms. She also spoke about experiencing a more rarefied form of exclusion. In the spring of 2013, she explained, Claire Messud, the novelist, published her first book in seven years, “The Woman Upstairs.” Widely praised, it features a protagonist, Nora Eldridge, who becomes obsessively involved with her neighbors—a married couple and their son—whose domestic and professional contentment she seeks to partake in and disrupt.
Weiner described Nora Eldridge as “a twist on a familiar type: the Unhappy Singleton.” Messud, rather than representing Nora’s misfortunes as screwball comedy, and sending her on bad blind dates and the like, had created “a curdled version of Bridget Jones, notable mostly for her anger.” Weiner had been particularly bothered by Messud’s response to an interviewer who had suggested that Nora Eldridge was not the kind of character a reader might want to befriend. “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud had replied, citing other fictional characters who were not B.F.F. material: Humbert Humbert, Mickey Sabbath, Hamlet, Oedipus, Antigone, Raskolnikov.
“Novels were absolutely, positively not there to serve the petty function of helping people feel connected,” Weiner went on. “And if you believed that—if you wrote that way, or if you read that way—then, by God, you were Doing Reading Wrong.” Messud’s comments had left Weiner with “a sinking heart, and an unhappy sense of recognition. Once again, as a reader and a writer, I was out of step, out of fashion.”
Jennifer Weiner has two audiences. One consists of the devoted consumers of her books, which have sold more than four and a half million copies. As Melissa Byers, a blogger, puts it, the novels are “filled with humor, touching moments, heartwarming scenes, and endings I adore.” Weiner’s books have spent two hundred and forty-nine weeks on the Times best-seller list, and more than fourteen thousand readers have rated her most recent novel, “The Next Best Thing,” on Goodreads. Weiner accommodates the demand for her books with hard work and good cheer: “All Fall Down,” her eleventh book in thirteen years, comes out this spring, and she supplies an e-book short story every Halloween, writes magazine articles, and maintains a chatty blog. (“My kids started school. Then they both got lice. I feel like my life has been an endless cycle of combing, rinsing, washing, and calling the professional nit-pickers.”) Weiner has almost eighty thousand followers on Twitter, to whom she live-tweets “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”
Her other audience is made up of writers, editors, and critics. Through her blog and her Twitter account, Weiner has stoked a lively public discussion about the reception and consumption of fiction written by women. This audience is smaller than the one that buys her books, and barely intersects with it. Yet social media have given Weiner a parallel notoriety, as an unlikely feminist enforcer. [cartoon id="a17959"]
Weiner has waged a campaign against the literary media for being biased against female writers, and against books written for women. (She has never been reviewed in the Times.) In 2010, when Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” was published, Weiner and Jodi Picoult, another best-selling novelist, objected to the attention garnered by Franzen and his work, which Weiner termed “Franzenfreude.” (Weiner started but didn’t finish “Freedom.” “I got about halfway through the Patty’s diary section, and then I realized that a female author would get crucified for attempting to write in a male voice that sounded so utterly inauthentic,” she says. “That, plus my typical Franzen issue—the endless contempt he seems to have for all his characters—made me put it down.”) On her blog, Weiner criticized Jeffrey Eugenides for dismissing Picoult’s complaints as “belly-aching”; earlier Weiner had created an ad for one of her own books which spoofed the promotional campaign for Eugenides’s novel “The Marriage Plot.” It showed Weiner in a dashing vest of the sort that Eugenides has been seen to wear, and read, “Jeffrey Eugenides doesn’t have a book out this summer, but Jennifer Weiner has: ‘The Next Best Thing.’ ”
In the fall of 2012, the journalist Andrew Goldman, in his interview column for the Times Magazine, asked Tippi Hedren if she had ever been tempted to use the casting couch for career advancement. Weiner tweeted, “Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout.” Goldman unwisely tweeted back, “Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top,” and, though he apologized to Weiner, he was temporarily suspended from the Times. Even Weiner seems to have been shocked by the fallout. “I never sought to get him fired or suspended,” she told me. After Alexander Nazaryan referred to her in a column for Atlantic Wire as “strident,” she tweeted, “Men with opinions—even sharply-worded ones—don’t get treated like this,” and “Whose voices do we lose when women who speak up get slapped with ‘strident’ and told to be ‘quiet’?” Nazaryan, who had previously characterized the male critic D. G. Myers as strident without generating offense, withdrew the adjective. “I think you can make a case that, yes, I’m strident, although it’s not my favorite word,” Weiner now says. “I cringe and I flash back to Bella Abzug and the hats.”
Last spring, the Times appointed Pamela Paul, an editor and writer known for her attention to gender issues, to run the Times Book Review. The move was seen, in part, as a response to complaints, by Weiner and others, about the underrepresentation of women in its pages. For the past three years, an organization called VIDA has tallied the number of books reviewed and written by women in publications ranging from the Book Review to this magazine, and its statistics have confirmed a significant gender imbalance. Last September, the Book Review announced that it was introducing a new column, “The Shortlist,” featuring capsule reviews of books grouped by theme or genre. The first was devoted to “Difficult Women,” and included reviews of books by Terry McMillan and Chelsea Cain, whose books had previously been reviewed in the Times, and the historical-romance writer Nicole Galland, whose books had not. (The reviewer, Alex Kuczynski, compared Galland’s reimagining of Lady Godiva to “a scheming, chortling Samantha from ‘Sex and the City.’ ”) Weiner does not take credit for changes at the Book Review, but she does take satisfaction in them. “Maybe they are doing focus groups, and lots of people are, like, ‘Could you please not write all the time about whatever Presidential biography you are reviewing for the second time?’ ” she says. “I would love to believe that I had something to do with it, but I have no idea. They are certainly not writing me thank-you notes.” (In an e-mail, Paul wrote, “As the last free-standing newspaper book review in the country, we feel all the more responsible about covering the territory, and meeting our readers where they are, which means not only the high and the low, but also the vast middle.”)
Weiner also promotes other female writers. Her tweets drew attention to Jami Attenberg’s affecting novel “The Middlesteins,” which features a morbidly obese protagonist and reached the best-seller lists in 2012. “(“god I fucking love you. Fairy godmother status,” Attenberg tweeted at Weiner.) Weiner also helped launch “The Opposite of Me,” by Sarah Pekkanen, a story of twin sisters, one smart and responsible, the other reckless and beautiful. She and Pekkanen share an editor, Greer Hendricks, at Atria Books. Hendricks told me, “I asked Jen if she would mention Sarah’s book on Facebook, and she said, ‘I will do better than that.’ ” On her Web site, Weiner offered to give a signed copy of one of her own books to readers who could prove that they had pre-ordered Pekkanen’s. “My author, who was ranked a millionth on Amazon, started climbing the ranks,” Hendricks recalls.
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.”
Wolitzer’s comment was part of a larger discussion about the way that the book industry treats women writers: at one point, she lamented that publishers put dreamy covers on books by women even when their contents are less than dreamy. In Waldman’s novel, a female friend of the protagonist makes a persuasive argument: “Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. . . . It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact. . . . But who cares, right? It’s just girl stuff.” Nevertheless, Weiner believes that these writers are guilty of a tactical betrayal: “Every time a woman finally ascends to that level of ‘I’m up here with the big boys,’ it feels like, too often, what she does is turn around and throw shade on commercial works of fiction.”
Erica Jong admires Weiner’s willingness to risk personal attack and institutional unpopularity. Weiner recently wrote a new introduction to Jong’s 1973 book, “Fear of Flying,” and, at a joint reading last October in Brooklyn, Jong said, “For the first time, we have a woman editor of the New York Times, we have a woman editor of the Book Review who is pro-women, we have women rising into these positions. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try to bend over backwards to hate their own gender. It is still easier to fight for Malala”—Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who defied a ban on female education—“than it is for Jen Weiner.” [cartoon id="a17967"]
Some critics have suggested that Weiner’s purpose in such debates is less to champion the writing of women than to champion the work of Jennifer Weiner. In Salon, Daniel D’Addario wrote that Weiner’s critique of Messud “cannily tilted a conversation on its axis” to insure that she became the focus of attention. In the comments sections of online publications, cheap reference is sometimes made to Weiner’s surname, which is pronounced “whiner.” On one occasion, when Weiner suggested in an interview with the Huffington Post that her fiction deserved as much attention as that of Carl Hiaasen, she was mocked. “I had to call my mom and be, like, ‘Don’t read the comments!’ ” she says. “I mean, I love Carl Hiaasen’s work, but you would have thought I was comparing myself to Chaucer.”
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. “But I imagine they have more to lose than I do,” she says. “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.” Weiner’s provocations, though, have arguably helped her career, giving her a voice in cultural conversations that her books alone might not have granted her. Franzen recently published an essay in the Guardian in which he decried the effect of social media on the practice of serious literature; he made a reference to “Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion.” Weiner says that her reaction was “eighty per cent indignation and twenty per cent ‘Holy shit, Jonathan Franzen knows who I am.’ It was kind of thrilling, in a pathetic way.” For a while, she changed her Twitter bio to “Engaging in Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion.”
Weiner lives in an attractive residential district of Philadelphia that resembles brownstone Brooklyn in all but its property values: row houses, tree-lined streets, stroller-filled playgrounds. Her large, handsome home is a former schoolhouse; there once were separate entrances for boys and girls, and when she bought the house, eight years ago, Weiner joked about reinstating them. The place is tastefully decorated, with an enormous kitchen, comfortable sitting rooms, and art that Weiner bought from galleries on Cape Cod, where she has a summer home. She shares the house with her two daughters, who are ten and six, and her boyfriend, Bill Syken, an affable former reporter and editor for Sports Illustrated. Lately, he has been editing a collection of calendar shots from the magazine, a project that amuses Weiner in spite of her feminist sensibilities. “I told him to make sure it’s printed on waterproof paper,” she says. Weiner has been amicably separated from her husband, Adam Bonin, a political-law attorney, since 2010. “We expected that things would proceed one way—he’d be the primary breadwinner, a successful attorney, and I’d make less money, stay home with the kids, with fiction essentially a lucrative hobby,” she says. “When it didn’t work out that way, I think we both had a hard time rewriting the contract of the marriage.”
Weiner works in what she refers to as a closet, though it may be bigger than some of the apartments occupied by struggling writers in Brooklyn. Lit by a large window and painted pale blue, with a lofty ceiling and white shelves, it suggests the boudoir of a Victorian lady of letters. She writes at what the interior designer intended to be a vanity; a big mirror looms a few inches behind her laptop screen. She sits on a delicate stool upholstered in a pastel fabric. Hanging on the closet’s rails are garment bags containing entire outfits, including jewelry, which Weiner’s personal shopper has prepared and tagged to indicate the public event at which they will be worn. One recent purchase is a luxurious camel-hair coat that she ordered from Max Mara after seeing a paparazzi shot of Kim Kardashian wearing one. On Twitter, Weiner referred to it as the Koat.
Her hybrid closet-office was inspired by Stephen King, who, in his book “On Writing,” advised aspiring writers to place their desks in the corner of a room, so as not to privilege their art over their life. “Working here helps me remember that writing is work, that it’s not about creating the perfect setting for the Muse to stop by for a visit,” Weiner says. “I roll my eyes when I read about writers who can’t work unless they have perfect silence, who tape garbage bags over the windows and put earplugs in their ears and set up pink-noise machines in the corner.” (In a 2001 profile in the Times Magazine, Franzen told Emily Eakin that, at times, he had resorted to earplugs and a blindfold.) Weiner has no need for the Internet-blocking software used by many writers, among them Zadie Smith, who in the acknowledgments to “NW” offered thanks to the programs SelfControl and Freedom. Before Weiner became a novelist, she was a journalist. She says, “You’re writing in a newsroom, where it’s noisy and profane and there are televisions bolted to the ceiling with CNN and MSNBC. You learn to focus.”
Weiner wrote “Good in Bed” at night and on weekends while working as an entertainment reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her fiction has a ripped-from-the-style-pages quality, tackling such subjects as the evolution of a political wife after her husband is caught philandering, and surrogacy as an infertility-treatment option for the wealthy. She continues to produce at a deadline pace. When completing a first draft, she writes two thousand words a day. Her agent and her editor typically weigh in on the draft; occasionally, characters are entirely reconceived. Weiner gets another set of notes after her second draft. “Those notes are, basically, a whole lot of ‘Go deeper,’ ‘More flashbacks,’ ‘More scenes like this,’ ” she says. “I will have roughed something in, and they will be, like, ‘O.K., write this scene more specifically.’ ” She has a reporter’s tolerance for being edited; as a reader, Weiner has similar editorial instincts. She told me that Waldman’s “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” would have been improved by the introduction of another female character who called the protagonist on his limitations. “I kept waiting for someone to say, ‘Nate, that’s a shitty way to look at women,’ ” Weiner said. “What if he’d had a sister who had, like, an unfortunate complexion, or maybe wasn’t the cutest girl?” (Waldman says of the suggestion, “My aim was to capture my protagonist’s mind-set and to do so in a way that felt fair and accurate. My thinking was that readers could then judge him for themselves.”) [cartoon id="a17965"]
“Good in Bed” was partly inspired by Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which popularized the genre of chick lit—the hapless and approachable half sibling to what was then called the “shopping and fucking” novel. Weiner says of Fielding’s novel, “I can see that book being taught, fifty years from now, as some sort of psychological snapshot of a moment: what it was like to be female in Britain at that moment, what were the pressures and what were the expectations.” Like Fielding’s book, “Good in Bed” featured a single, urban, working woman whose romantic life and habits of material consumption are mined for comedy. An entertainment reporter at a newspaper, Cannie Shapiro discovers that an ex-boyfriend has landed a relationships column in a men’s magazine; his first piece is titled “Loving a Larger Woman.” (“When I met C., I fell for her wit, her laugh, her sparkling eyes. Her body, I decided, was something I could learn to live with.”) Weiner’s prose is breezy, and her humor is often well observed. A teen-age guest at a Thanksgiving dinner, who has a nose ring through his septum, has “the look of a baffled Jewish bull.” The brand of wish fulfillment expressed by the book is sometimes peculiarly distinctive to Weiner’s profession: after Cannie is blown off by a celebrity’s publicist just before an interview, she finds the celebrity in the hotel’s bathroom, befriends her, and sells her on a screenplay. Cannie not only finds love with a far more deserving man than the magazine columnist; she also discovers that getting thin makes her miserable, and that she’s happier—more herself, more lovable—when she’s plump. The weight-loss doctor, a sketchily drawn fantasy figure, heartily agrees. On the book’s penultimate page, he tells her, “I think you look like a queen.”
Still, the novel is darker than its premise suggests. Early in the book, the father of Cannie’s ex-boyfriend dies; she pays a shivah call that takes an unexpected turn, and she becomes pregnant. She contemplates getting an abortion—“a no-brainer, a $500 afternoon in the doctor’s office, a few days of cramps and crying, end of story,” Weiner writes—but dismisses the option. (A surprising number of Weiner’s lonely, worthy heroines become accidentally pregnant, and are redeemed by the birth of a child.) Cannie’s baby is born prematurely, which leads to an emergency hysterectomy. The most vivid writing is in the final third of the novel, where Cannie descends into postpartum depression: “I walked and walked, and it was as if God had fitted me with special glasses, where I could only see the bad things, the sad things, the pain and misery of life in the city, the trash kicked into corners instead of the flowers planted in window boxes.”
In Weiner’s other novels, too, a sometimes uneasy balance is maintained between light comedy and heavier themes. “In Her Shoes” charts the problematic relationship of two sisters: Rose, the older, clever, heavy one, who works as a lawyer, and Maggie, the younger, thin, pretty one, who suffers from learning disorders and works as a waitress while struggling to become a performer. Weiner’s sister, Molly, who is now a singer and a comedienne, suffered from learning disabilities, and Weiner’s depictions of Maggie’s difficulties are often acutely drawn. After Maggie experiences a sexual encounter that verges on date rape—another motif in Weiner’s stories—she senses “how slippery a thing her own power was, how fast it could turn in her hands, like a knife in the sink, slick with soap, how quickly and deeply the blade could cut her.” Maggie’s eventual career success, as a personal shopper, is much less interesting. Sometimes the reversals of fortune and the discoveries of love in Weiner’s books can feel forced, given the anger and hurt that precede them. Her 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.
“Goodnight Nobody,” Weiner’s fourth best-seller, is a cartoonish satire. Its protagonist, Kate Klein, an acid-tongued former reporter, is a bored stay-at-home mother in the suburbs. When a female neighbor is murdered, her response is less fear than excitement, and she turns amateur detective. In a departure, Weiner provides no tidy ending: the book concludes with Kate traumatized, and torn between her husband and an ex-boyfriend. “I wanted to see what it was like to write literature,” Weiner says. “Not that anybody perceived it that way. But at this point in my career I could write the Odyssey and people would say, ‘Chick lit in Greece.’ ” Some readers hated the book’s inconclusiveness, and wrote to Weiner to complain. She didn’t like the ending much, either. In later novels, she decided to “give my characters the thing that none of us get, which is the promise that it’s going to be O.K.” Weiner describes her books as modern fairy tales that provide the satisfactions she sought as a teen-ager, when books such as “Shining Through” and “Almost Paradise,” by Susan Isaacs, helped her imagine a happier future. “There is so much antipathy today toward the idea of fiction existing for pleasure or escapism,” she says. “I just have a very hard time seeing entertainment as a bad thing. The things that come up again and again in my books, like a man who thinks that you are beautiful just as you are: is that sentimental, wish-fulfillment bullshit that isn’t ever going to happen in real life? I feel like it’s something that we want, and I believe in it, even if it is sentimental.”
On the likability scale, Weiner is closer to Bridget Jones than to Messud’s Nora Eldridge. Warm, funny, and frank, she can also be charmingly self-deprecating. “My assistant just sent me a packing list,” she e-mailed me before an out-of-town event. “The list includes underwear. I don’t know who I am any more.” But her humor can be aggressive. One day, she told me about a passage that she was working on: “There is a husband and wife, and they are not getting along, and every time the wife looks at the husband she thinks that he’s looking at her like he’s trying to figure out how he can set her hair on fire. My editor is, like, ‘That is a horrible thing for someone to be thinking!’ And I am, like, ‘I think people think that way sometimes.’ Not all the time, not everyone. But who hasn’t wanted to set somebody’s hair on fire? Who hasn’t wanted to kill her husband and make it look like a shaving accident? You?” My face must have betrayed a lack of kinship with this sorority. “You wouldn’t want him dead every once in a while?” she said. “Or maybe just . . . away?”
When writers ask Weiner for career advice, she tells them that the most important thing is to have had an unhappy childhood. “Mine was grim,” she told me one day, over lunch at a restaurant off Rittenhouse Square. The eldest of four, she was bookish and socially isolated. Her mother, Fran Weiner, recalls, “She was always reading. She would get off the school bus reading a book, with one shoe on and one shoe left on the bus.” There were few other Jewish families in their neighborhood. “At Christmas, you looked down our street and it would be full-on decorations in the yard, tree lights, a playable Santa on the roof, and then our house would be blank,” Weiner says. “It would be the missing tooth in the smile of the neighborhood.” Her mother, Weiner says, was consumed with feeding and clothing the family, and didn’t notice that she was friendless and unhappy; her father, a child psychiatrist, had different priorities. “He read to me—Shakespeare, the Aeneid,” she says. “He cared about books, and he cared about learning.” But she felt valued by him only when she achieved academic success. [cartoon id="crawford-2011-07-04"]
When she was fifteen, her parents announced that they were getting a divorce. “I had friends whose parents had got divorced, and what would happen is the dad would move to a condo in town—there was a condo complex where a lot of them washed up—and you would see your dad on weekends, and he would very diligently show up at your soccer games or your crew meets,” she says. “My dad just left, and really renounced us. He said he didn’t want to be married, but he also didn’t want to be a father anymore. He was just gone.” In “Good in Bed,” Cannie’s father tells her “that he wanted to be less like a father, more like an uncle,” the words that Weiner’s father said to her and her siblings as he made his exit. Fran Weiner says, “I would say he had a psychotic break and he never got put back together. He floundered. I think he lost control of things. It was depressing and sad and bewildering.” Later, Weiner discovered that her father had abused drugs and alcohol. At one point, he went to prison for failure to pay child support.
At Princeton, she took a seminar with John McPhee, writing nonfiction pieces in which she included her sister Molly as a comic foil. Upon graduation, Weiner followed McPhee’s advice to work at a local newspaper, becoming a reporter in State College, Pennsylvania. Her father attended her graduation, but she rarely saw him otherwise. In 2001, after “Good in Bed” became a best-seller, the Hartford Courant ran an article about her; upon seeing it, he called her and asked for money.
“I asked him if he was in treatment, and he got really mad, and yelled at me and called me names and hung up the phone,” Weiner says. It was the last time that she spoke with him, though he showed up at a group reading a few years later. “One rule of doing a reading is, Don’t ever call on the crazy homeless person,” Weiner says. “But this other novelist at the reading was, like, ‘Sir?’ And my dad stands up and delivers this screed about the nature of art, and how art comes from suffering, and because he caused me to suffer I owe him everything and lots of money.” He died five years ago, from an overdose. “I didn’t really imagine, like, crack,” she says. “It is not something you tend to think about when your dad’s a doctor, and you grow up in a nice suburb in Connecticut.” After her father’s death, Weiner discovered that he had another young son, now nine, whom she has been helping to support.
Weiner has also taken literary inspiration from her mother: when Jennifer was in her mid-twenties, Fran Weiner came out as a lesbian, as does Cannie Shapiro’s mother. Given Weiner’s interest in countering stereotypes of women, her depiction of lesbians in “Good in Bed” is surprising. The girlfriend of Cannie’s mother is a gruff-voiced stereotype, a swimming coach “with an aureole of frizzy reddish hair and skin tanned the color and consistency of old leather”; she weaves for a hobby, and hangs a rainbow-patterned sun catcher in her window. Weiner says of her mother’s revelation, “It wasn’t so much being squicked out by the gayness. It was more like ‘Our mom is passionately in love with somebody who is much younger.’ Whether or not it had been a man or a woman, just that idea that there is sex happening was, like, ‘Holy shit!’ ” A later novel, “Then Came You,” features a more nuanced lesbian character, a Princeton graduate who has donated her eggs to make money.
Other Weiner novels include cultural and media allusions that she has planted for the amusement of a fraction of her readers—or, possibly, only for her own. In “Certain Girls,” Weiner revisits Cannie Shapiro, now the author of a novel that makes it onto the Times best-seller list. “The cover piece was a review of a 160-page short-story collection, ‘Budapest Nights,’ by Daniel Furstmann Friedlander, who’d been written up the week before in a ten-page profile in the New Yorker that had made much of his boyish good looks and charming Russian accent,” Weiner writes. “Good in Bed” appeared on the Times best-seller list in the spring of 2002, around the time that A. O. Scott compared Gary Shteyngart’s novel “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” to “a precisely measured map drawn by one of Nabokov’s whimsical madmen.”
One villain of “Goodnight Nobody,” a conservative columnist who writes about the perfidies of working mothers, is transparently based on Caitlin Flanagan, a contributor to The Atlantic. Weiner’s columnist is “a flat-chested androgynous sprite the size of a starving fifth grader,” and “her obligatory blond tresses, dyed the color of straw, had been blown out and sprayed until her entire head looked like it had been stuck under a broiler and crisped.” She created the character after her first daughter was born; she found staying home unfulfilling, and, when she came across an essay by Flanagan exalting motherhood over work, she felt personally attacked. In Weiner’s most recent novel, “The Next Best Thing,” which is set in Hollywood, an interviewer for the Times Magazine asks a comedienne if she slept her way to the top. This prompts Weiner’s heroine to wonder whether the interviewer “had a sitcom or a novel or a screenplay in a box under his bed that he’d tried to sell and couldn’t, whether he reflexively hated anyone who’d gotten what he wanted, or whether it was just the women he loathed.” It seems possible that a forthcoming Weiner novel will include a female writer of literary fiction—quite possibly slender and severely attractive—who will say something dismissive about chick lit, and who will wind up garotted with a pair of Spanx.
In 1856, Marian Evans, the critic and editor who later became known as the novelist George Eliot, published an essay in the Westminster Review called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” At first glance, it appears to be a sardonic attack on the Victorian equivalent of chick lit—the throwing of shade at popular works that Eliot excoriates for having sentimental plots, one-dimensional characters, and impoverished language. Such authors, Eliot wrote, “have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.” In light of Eliot’s later career, it is clear that her critique of such clichés helped her work out what might constitute a more legitimate approach to fiction, by determining what did not count as literature. But the essay also identifies a larger problem: when women publish cliché-ridden novels, they encourage men to maintain condescending views of women. “We believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature,” Eliot wrote.
A novel that tells of the coming of age of a young woman can command as much respect from the literary establishment as any other story. In 2013, Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her hard-edged exploration of this theme, “The Flamethrowers,” and the previous year Sheila Heti won accolades for her book “How Should a Person Be?,” even though it included both shopping and fucking. The novel, and the critical consensus around what is valued in a novel, has never excluded the emotional lives of women as proper subject matter. It could be argued that the exploration of the emotional lives of women has been the novel’s prime subject. Some of the most admired novels in the canon center on a plain, marginalized girl who achieves happiness through the discovery of romantic love and a realization of her worth. “My bride is here,” Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre, “because my equal is here, and my likeness.”
But the obligation of a commercial novelist does not lie merely in representing, as fully as possible, the emotional lives of her characters. It also lies in meeting the demands, perceived or expressed, of readers. Weiner’s readers—who, on the Internet, review her work with all the attentiveness it has not received from the Times—seek out her latest books for the same satisfactions they have found in her earlier books, with their casual prose, happy resolutions, and lovable heroines. It is unlikely that literary critics will ever applaud Weiner’s work for these qualities, because literary criticism, at its best, seeks to elucidate the complex, not to catalogue the familiar.
During her talk at the Renfrew conference, Weiner argued for the value of familiar books, with their tropes of self-realization and rescue. And she defended the “political impact of escapism,” having written her first book “almost as a life raft to the girl I had once been.” She continued, “I 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.” Why do we read? Weiner asked the audience. “Yes, to understand the world, and, of course, to meet characters that are alive and visceral. But, at least to me, sometimes we do read to make friends. Sometimes we do read 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.”
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.” In this analysis, Weiner’s failure to receive critical recognition is not an implicit judgment of, say, the perfunctory quality of some descriptive passages, or of the brittle mean-spiritedness that colors some character sketches. (Readers looking for fairness and kindness will not always find those attributes displayed by Weiner’s fictional creations.) It is, instead, a product of the larger cultural forces that left Weiner feeling oppressed long before she became a writer. To battle those forces as visibly as Weiner does is not just to tell a fairy-tale story but also to try to live one: to insist on moving from the margin to the center, and to demand a happy ending of one’s own.
After a standing ovation, Weiner went to the lobby to sign books. She kicked off her shoes, tied her hair in a scrunchie, and tucked one foot underneath her on her chair, as a long line of women stepped forward, paperbacks in hand. She took time to talk to everyone—the woman whose daughter was struggling with anorexia; the woman who came from Simsbury, Connecticut, and knew her family—and posed for photographs. She signed more than fifty books, and when the supply ran out she started signing adhesive labels, so that her readers could stick them on the title page of whatever she wrote next. ♦
A few weeks ago, in the New York Times Book Review, a writer began her review of my new novel, Class—a satire about race, class, public school, parenting, and liberal hypocrisy—by calling me a “lit chick.” It was a phrase I had not seen in print before, but the meaning was clear enough: All you had to do was flip the two words.
Whatever I’d accomplished in my 20-year career and over five books, the reviewer seemed to imply, I was still apparently a writer of “chick lit,” that amorphous if much denigrated sub-genre of “women’s fiction” that sprang to life in the mid 90s with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sophie Kinsella’s Diary of a Shopaholic and which tended to concern itself with plucky and sometimes hapless under-40 urban white female heroines in search of love.
Never mind the bizarreness of being called a “chick” at the age of 47. In the current political climate—and while a man for whom women seem to be, above all, decorative objects, sits in the White House, surrounded by a nearly all-male cabinet—I admit that being accused of writing in a category best associated with fluffy escapism, having just completed my most ambitious book to date, did not fill me with joy.
And yet, in truth, I didn’t always have such negative feelings about the nomenclature.
By the early aughts, the tag “chick lit” came to encompass such an enormous range of books—for a time, pretty much any novel written about a woman, by a woman—that to dismiss it would have been to reject Jane Austen and even George Eliot.
What’s more, having one’s own work affiliated with the genre on any level—even if my books were always darker than what was traditional thought of as chick lit and rarely mentioned shopping—seemed like a reliable means of selling copies. And what self-supporting writer doesn’t long to do exactly that?
From a political standpoint, assailing the genre also struck me as unnecessarily snobbish and not unlike an Ivy League student looking down on someone who went to community college. It also struck me as vaguely self-loathing insofar as a) the audience for the genre was entirely female; b) the heroines of the books were always female too; and c) the topics they concerned themselves were traditionally female ones, as well. Was war any more valid a topic for fictional inquiry than dating or marriage—or, for that matter, consumerism? To denigrate chick lit seemed like a way of conceding that the male critics who, throughout the 20th century, unthinkingly understood the Great America Novel to be, by definition, a male project, had been right all along.
In 2006, a writer named Elizabeth Merrick published an anthology called, This Is Not Chick Lit. I remember seeing a copy in a bookstore. There were some wonderful novelists listed on the back—Jennifer Egan, Francine Prose, Chimamanda Adichie, Curtis Sittenfeld. Yet the very thrust of the project seemed both overly defensive and ultimately aggressive. Did women writers of this caliber need to knock down other women writers in order to assert their own merit? One didn’t see Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides, both of whom frequently wade into the so-called “domestic sphere,” contributing to anthologies called This is Not Crime Fiction, or I Don’t Write Thrillers About the International Espionage. As if the very existence of David Baldacci or Michael Connelly put their own careers at risk.
And yet, as I grew older and more cognizant of my own place in the universe (along with my fictional heroines), the very idea of chick lit grew enervating to me, as well. In its hyper-focus on the lives of a particular subset of young women (mostly white, mostly middle class and above), it seemed unforgivably myopic to larger currents afloat in the outside world. The very phrase, in its cutesy offhandedness, also filled me with a particular type of shame that I suspect only women know intimately—and frequently internalize. I speak of a shame built on the idea that women care, above all, about “unserious” topics, like gossip and dating and how we look—and that we somehow belong more to the body than we do to the mind. (As if it’s impossible to simultaneously be interested in both fashion and politics.)
Moreover, while I avoided having my own books blighted with bright pink covers decorated with martini glasses, lipstick prints, and shopping bags, the headless female models, photographed from the back, that graced my and so many other women novelist’s covers over the past decade seemed scarcely preferable in their single-minded appeal to female readers. Was it too much to expect that I might write novels that men might want to read as well as women—and that my covers might reflect this type of universal appeal?
Over that same decade, chick lit lost its popularity in the marketplace as well. I only wonder what sort of books its former fans are buying now. Given that so many women writers and readers currently feel that, once again, we are fighting for our basic liberties, might a new category of women’s fiction, more overtly feminist than its predecessor, be on its way? Instead of women searching for sex and love with the opposite sex, perhaps the genre might revolve around women simply trying to survive the opposite sex. Settings in a dystopian near future would be optional. Though the patron saints of the genre would, of course, be Suzanne Collins (see The Hunger Games) and Margaret Atwood (see The Handmaid’s Tale). If the movement takes off, count me in.
Lucinda Rosenfeld’s new novel, Class, was just published.