Jennifer Weiner: The Ombudsman of Publishing-World Sexism

We all know that I love Jennifer Weiner. And that, while I enjoy her books, it’s really her perceptiveness of the publishing industry and her willingness to call people out on their ish that makes me a real fan. She questions the institution and the way things have always been done and I really believe that her role as the “ombudsman of publishing-world sexism” is opening the doors for me and female fiction writers everywhere.

The New Yorker wrote a profile on JW and her “quest for literary respect” this week. When women write about an emotional journey they are often marginalized—dismissed as something that is not literature despite containing dark themes or vivid descriptions.  Their work is devalued by places like, well, The New Yorker. The decision for that publication to profile JW is interesting in itself—The New Yorker is one of the few magazines that publishes fiction, but usally written by men. It’s basically part of the uppity institution that JW’s known for criticizing.  I guess profiling her was the magazine’s response to criticism?

But in true New Yorker style, the article was extremely well written and I felt a fair depiction of her. I learned about JW and her career and I admire her even more now. The piece notes that author Jonathan Frazen described JW’s fight against the publishing industry as “self-promotion.” I think he’s right. And I like that. JW seems to have this complete and utter trust in her abilities and instincts. First, she confidently writes about people like herself in a style tone that enjoys to read and then, she advocates for herself when it feels like no one else will. The result? Millions of books sold and the elevation to cultural spokeswoman. The reality is that modesty is not always such a virtue when it comes to your career. It’s those who self promote who get noticed and heard. So, whatevs Franzen.

Slate also reacted (in not quite as friendly a way) to this idea of JW’s literary quest as a means of self-promotion.

Anyway below are some highlights from the profile that I found interesting:

  • JW has never been reviewed by the New York Times despite having sold millions of books and been on the best seller list for months. This is interesting because “un-literary” but successful male authors such as Dan Brown have been reviewed several times.
  • The New York Times has made some changes to its Book Review, including hiring Pamela Paul—who cares about gender issues—as the new editor. Recently they introduced a new column called “The Shortlist” that features a capsule of reviews grouped by genre.  JW’s response? “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?’”
  • On JW’s separation from her husband: “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…When it didn’t work out that way, I think we both had a hard time rewriting the contract of the marriage.”
  • This quote from Adelle Waldman’s novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P”: “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.”
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Nicholas Sparks Confirmed My Fears (Updated)

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile—ever since I attended the Nicholas Sparks event a week or two ago. To be honest, the author of “The Notebook” kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote a relatively innocuous post about his writing tips for the The Write Practice (which were useful); however, he reignited, if not affirmed, my concerns regarding the issue of genre, pigeon-holing and gender issues in the publishing industry.  Here’s what happened.

I Asked Nicholas Sparks a Question

After his presentation, I stood at the mic and asked Nicholas Sparks, who writes about relationships, the following: “I noticed that when female writers write about relationships or an emotional journey, no matter how deep and well-written it is, it’s usually described as chick lit. Have your books ever been described as chick lit? And how do you think the response to your books or your career would have been different if your name had been Nicole Sparks instead of Nicholas Sparks?”

He Answered

To the first question he said, “No. My books have never been described as chick lit.” I didn’t think that was true, especially since he’s on lists like these: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/chick-lit; however, I accepted the answer because I’m sure, like many women, he does not want to be associated with the genre (he definitely hated being described as a romance writer).

Sparks didn’t directly answer my next question about whether his books would have been received differently if he had been a woman. Rather, his response was essentially this: “for some reason, all the writers in my genre—“love tragedy”—happen to be men” and “for some reason, women just haven’t been able to successfully break into the market.” Then cited the authors of Casablanca, Love Story, and even the Bridges of Madison County. Ok.

My  Reaction:  He Confirmed My Greatest Fears

Actually, my initial reaction was to smile tightly and then return my seat. I didn’t bother to wait in line for the meet and greet because I didn’t feel like having my dreams further crushed. Let’s face it, he basically confirmed my fears. If a woman writes about relationships (like me), she will never be received with the same respect as a man who does so.

But I’m willing to give Sparks the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he was simply making an observation and any unfair outcomes are the fault of the publishing industry. After all, it’s the publishers labeling books by women “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” and those by men as “love tragedy.”

Still, if that’s the case, then the answer to my question is this: if his name had been Nicole Sparks rather than Nicholas Sparks then his books would be in the women’s fiction and/or chick lit category.    It must be so because logic and reason indicates that it’s impossible that NO great female “love tragedy” writer exists–they’ve just been placed in a different genre–pigeonholed, if you will.  Nicole Sparks would have been subjected to all of the connotations that come with being a women’s fiction writer. For example, the audience at the event I attended would have been 90% women (like the signings for Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin and Terry McMillan), rather than 60% because men wouldn’t bother to pick up his books.  After all, they would be labeled women’s fiction.

What About Me?

Sparks’ answer to my question made me sad. I think he could have been a bit more uplifting, geez. Instead, I feel like he perpetuated the industry’s problems by suggesting women just don’t write love tragedy books. I wonder how many prospective female love tragedy writers he discouraged with his statement? At least one.

The more that I think about it, the more I believe my novel is NOT chick lit or women’s fiction or African American fiction. I’m going to make up my own genre like Nicholas Sparks did (I mean come on—wtf is “love tragedy”?) I’ll let you know when I figure out what it is.

UPDATE: And then this happened:

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Famous Author Jennifer Weiner Spoke to Me Yesterday and I Have Proof

I met Jennifer Weiner yesterday!  I attended her book signing at Sixth and I, and I was shocked by just how dynamic, engaging and hilarious a speaker she was.  She spent the first 10 minutes telling us stories about her mother coming out  in her 50s as a lesbian to JW and her siblings, and then to her mom (JW’s “nanna”).  Then we heard about her life in Hollywood–JW wrote a series with Raven Simone about a “regular,” non-skinny girl for a while–, which became the impetus for the book she was promoting, The Next Best Thing.

From the outside, one might not expect that I would be such a big JW  fan, because I don’t fit the mold—I’m not Jewish,  I was never plus sized and I’m not from Philadelphia–but I don’t think JW’s goal was necessarily to be a role model or an icon in those communities (although she has become just that).  She just wanted to write stories about women.  Those other characteristics are relevant to her books and success, but ultimately secondary.  That’s why women like me can relate…I think.

But anyway, yes, JW spoke to me, she really did.  Literally. But also figuratively.  Literally, I asked a question about why she thinks the few people who were able to overcome the barriers of the industry were able to do it.  Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) went mainstream—why her and not other black female authors?  Since JW had been talking about Hollywood, she referred to the philosophy of Shonda Rhimes (African American Grey’s Anatomy creator) to just cast the best character and not think about those things.  JW said Shonda takes a post-racial approach.  She writes whatever makes sense to her.  In real life, it’s actually not so crazy for a person to have a good friend of another race, for example.  So I guess if JW feels like writing a Lady Lit book (as opposed to a commentary on race) about a black girl and white girl who are friends, she just will.  At least I think that’s what she was saying.  Well, that’s what I took from it.

Figuratively, JW spoke to me when she discussed what drives her.  She said she just wanted to write a story about life as a woman.  Not necessarily chick lit, but something distinctly female.  If (and this is my interpretation now) she ends up providing commentary on society, that’s cool, but that’s not going to stop her from referencing the Bachelorette (or Bravo?) for example.  In real life, women watch that trash and do other embarassing things.  It’s more authentic to just embrace them and to write about whatever she wants to write about.  The intellectualness comes out in the good writing, in my opinion.  What do others think?

Anyway, when I got my book signed I asked if her she remembered retweeting me and all.  I don’t think she did; however, she might have, if I had more time to remind her, but there was a line of 100 people.  Still she told me to tweet her again, so I will! 🙂 Holllerrr