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!”