Jennifer Weiner, Shut Up

From one chick-lit author to another: There’s a difference between popular fiction and great literature

In case you haven’t been following the internecine fights of the literary establishment, Philly’s own Jennifer Weiner, author of highly popular chick-lit works In Her Shoes and the new Fly Away Home, is having a hissy-fit all over the blogosphere because, well, essentially because Jonathan Franzen is a Big F’ing Deal Who’s Being Paid A Lot of Attention. After the New York Times called Franzen’s Freedom “a masterpiece of American fiction,” Weiner summoned her high-heeled followers via Twitter to protest against “Franzenfrenzy,” claiming that said literary establishment elevates white male authors at the expense of writers like, well, her, who write about the same topics—family, relationships, that sort of stuff—and have their work dismissed as unserious and unworthy. That touched off a flurry of back-and-forths about whether the Times’s book coverage really is sexist (apparently so) and whether “chick lit” is a dirty word (also apparently so).[SIGNUP]

There are some serious issues at play here, but Weiner’s the wrong flag-waver for the “Women are real writers, too” movement. So is Jodi Picoult, whose Twitter war on Franzen got the whole thing started, and whose criticism of Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani only drove another nail into the coffin of her cause. (Regarding the word “lapidary,” Picoult appealed to her acolytes: “Did you know what it meant when you read it in Kakutani’s review? I think reviewers just like to look smart.”) I respect popular authors a whole hell of a lot. What they do—make best-seller lists, come up with variations on the same theme again and again—isn’t easy. I know, because I tried it for a long time. Back in the day, over the course of 20 years, I had 18 romance novels published. I thought they were smart and well-written and, in places, downright moving. But I never was under any illusion that they were great literature—that they belonged on a bookshelf beside, say, The Color Purple, or The Shipping News, or The God of Small Things.

Why not? Because every time I tried to reach, in my books, for that sort of transcendency, that ineffable quality that elevates plain old fiction into great fiction, an editor would rein me in. “You can’t have the baby die,” the editor—and there was such a long, long chain of them, all marching in lock-step to the rousing strains of What Has Worked Before—would tell me. “You can’t have the hero and heroine separated for that long!” “You have got to have them in bed together by page 43!” There are rules to writing popular fiction. That’s how publishers try to ensure that it’s popular. They aren’t looking for singular expressions of thought or emotion that startle the reader into new territory. They’re looking for lowest common denominators, what the great unwashed can absorb with a frisson of delighted recognition: Hey! I’ve felt that way, too!

Weiner can rail all she wants about the Times’s mistreatment of her and her ilk. But her best refutation would be to write a great book, one that rises above rom-com-movie status and earns its place in the pantheon. Of course, then she’d have to find a publisher willing to take a chance on such an out-of-character work … and deal with the hordes of disappointed readers who’d pick it up and then toss it across the room because it wasn’t what they were expecting from her. That’s a lot to ask from an author who’s making money hand over fist, and whose own website heralds her latest work of fiction with these quotes:

USAToday: “The season’s hottest chick lit!”
Columbus Dispatch: “The quintessential beach read!”

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  • http://www.maryshawonline.com Mary Shaw

    I’m sorry that you find the First Amendment’s freedom of speech inconvenient. While I might not agree with Jennifer Weiner’s views, I will, as they say, fight to the death for her right to express them.

    Likewise, I will fight to the death for your right to express your misguided wish that she be quiet. And I will hope that she realizes that the law, and American tradition, are on her side.

  • Lily Pulitzer

    Jennifer Weiner is more of an author than you are.

  • http://www.evankerry.wordpress.com evan k.

    agatha christie
    john le carre
    john buchan
    josephine tey

    ex.’s of genre writers who were popular and great.
    :)

  • PETUNIA

    THANK YOU! weiner is over-rated pap! and a darn lucky person that so many insipid women suck it up.

  • Sarah

    Why shouldn’t Jennifer Weiner take on the Times’ beatification of Frazen and writers like him? Furthermore, if you have read any of Weiner’s work, you would know that she is smart, articulate and witty. I enjoy a wide range of literature, including both serious literary fiction and smart women’s fiction, and I must say, that I have never heard of you or your work, so to have a headline with “From one chick lit author to another”, you are really reaching.

  • Liliana

    Weiner admits that she knows very little about Franzen and hasn’t read his book, which makes it very difficult to take her seriously.

  • Ileen

    Why are we always so ready to attack our own? Jennifer has been a great Ambassador for Philadelphia and the print media

  • http://mrl581166@verizon.net Mia

    I am an unabashed reader of “chick-lit” and “great lit”…and while Ms. Weiner’s books do sit on my shelf (and Mr. Franzen’s have not to date), I still recognize the difference between the two and concur — while Ms. Weiner is at the top of her respective game (witty, articulate and smart all fill the category), anyone who reads a wide range of books can agree that hers are not necessarily books to last the ages. And, if she hasn’t actually read Mr. Franzen’s book? Shouldn’t be casting stones…shows a less articulate and smart side. (In this day and age where everyone bemoans how little people read at all, should any author be raising their voice against another?…)

  • Editor

    I find your characterization of the editing process for commercial books a bit misleading. As an editor at a major publisher with several leading commercial fiction writers, I can assure you that we do not ascribe a set of “rules” on any particular author’s work. My guess is that this may be a distinction between the editing process for “commercial women’s fiction” and straight “romance” (a nebulous distinction at times, I’ll admit), and that your publisher in particular would like to see their “romance” books sticking to a fairly rigid format. Which, if agreeable to you, I can’t argue as being good or bad.

    However, I do take issue with your supposition that this same set of rules-laden editing process is applied to all commercial fiction works across the board (and specific to those written by the authors your cite in your post). I can assure you that it does not, and that every editor I know of offers their authors quite a bit of freedom to write as they see fit. As editors, we may make suggestions that a certain character isn’t working for us, or that a certain scene in the book doesn’t ring true, but I’ve never once told an author that they need to make so-and-so do this by a certain page number, or that a major plot device like a death or a birth can’t happen because it goes against the formula for a successful book. To suggest that all commercial authors are subject to a set of rules or a “formula” for success is both outrageous and irresponsible, not to mention incredibly insulting to a number of very talented authors who have managed to achieve success.

    I would hope that, as an author and journalist, you would be more careful with such assertions in the future (though, again, I am not doubting the veracity of your own experiences with your publisher).