Novelist Jennifer Weiner on Mask Shaming, Virtual Book Tours, and the Toxic Side of Social Media
The Queen Village-based writer is one of America’s most popular novelists. Here, she talks Big Summer, her New York Times op-eds, and getting political with her fans.
Philadelphians first saw Jennifer Weiner’s name when she was a young Inquirer staffer in the 1990s. More than two decades later, the Philly-based writer is one of America’s most popular novelists, with a slew of best-sellers that include her debut, Good In Bed; In Her Shoes (which became a movie in 2005); and 2019’s Mrs. Everything. Weiner talked via Zoom about her latest novel, Big Summer; her regular op-eds for the New York Times; and her conflicted feelings about social media.
Your Times columns are snapshots of what people have been going through during quarantine: Zoom-snooping people’s homes, pandemic bubbles, pandemic shaming. In the shaming column, you said you were afraid of becoming “Coronavirus Karen.” Are you still battling that temptation?
Yes. My kids roll their eyes at me, and they’re like, “Oh, Mom, would you get over yourself?” Then I’ll be out on the corner — we live in Queen Village, so we’re South Street-adjacent — and there’s packs of kids and they don’t have masks on, and they’re all just roaming around. And I want to go out there and just start yelling at them, except I know it would be the same reaction I get from my daughters, amplified a thousand-fold. Like: “Shut up, white lady!”
I almost shamed a guy without a mask as I waited in line at Dairy Queen recently. After he ordered, he got in his pickup truck, which had a Trump bumper sticker on it.
I just can’t believe the way this has all unfolded. Any other president, Democrat or Republican, would have stood up there and said, “We all have to do this if we want to get through the virus, if we want to reopen our country.” When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And I think when you’re Donald Trump, everything looks like an occasion for a culture war.
Somebody is going to write a really smart book about this being the first pandemic of the social media era. I read somebody talking about two epidemics that are running on parallel tracks. One is the coronavirus pandemic, and the other is the misinformation epidemic — in that there are all these bananas rumors and conspiracy theories. Before, if you were a crackpot, you’d subscribe to a couple of newsletters and maybe be on a mailing list with a couple of your fellow tinfoil-hat-wearing lunatics. And now you can get on Twitter and say, “Bill Gates wants to implant us all with microchips.” And people are like, “Yeah!” We’re in real trouble with this. And I don’t know what to do.
Have you thought about the long-term cultural impact of the pandemic?
I think it’s still unfolding, and we’re still sort of figuring out how to get to normal. Being part of a country that seems to be getting it so wrong is very difficult. I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people. We’re America. We’re the best at everything. We’re the innovators. We’re the inventors. And here we are, flailing around like assholes.
“We’re America. We’re the best at everything. We’re the innovators. We’re the inventors. And here we are, flailing around like assholes.”
You spend a lot of time on Cape Cod. Is the vibe there different from in Philadelphia?
I’m in Truro, which is on the outer Cape, the last town before Provincetown. Provincetown is super-duper gay and always has been. They’ve just handled this so smoothly. Somebody said to a town manager, “How is it that you guys are just adapting to this? There’s no resistance, there’s no you-can’t-make-me.” And the person said, “We lived through the AIDS epidemic. We know how to handle a public health challenge.” If you think it’s hard to get people to put masks on their faces, imagine how hard it was to get people to start using condoms all the time. But they did it. When you go on Commercial Street in Provincetown, which is the main drag, you gotta have a mask on. There are signs everywhere. I’ve seen guys where basically, a mask is all they have on. They’ve got on a mask and they’ve got on a Speedo, and it’s questionable which one is bigger and covering more real estate.
Coronavirus forced you to do a virtual book tour for Big Summer. How different did that feel?
Normally, book tour is like going from being the most introverted introvert to the most extroverted extrovert. You’re at home, you’re in your office, you’re basically living inside of your own head for 50 weeks of the year. And then you go out and you’re doing nothing but interacting with people in large crowds for 14 days solid, and you’re moving from city to city every day.
I was like: The travel was terrible, the pace was grueling, having to take millions of selfies with people was hard. But then, when it didn’t happen and everything went on Zoom, I realized that I was really getting something from the traditional book tour. What I was getting was a sense that there were actual people out in the world who were reading my stories and who were enjoying them, or who were comforted by them or felt some sense of connection. Those kinds of interactions really filled me up and allowed me to just sit down again and go back into my head and write the next book. So my tank feels a little empty right now.
The life of a commercial fiction writer is interesting. You’re an artist and creative person, but you’re also a business — you’re making a product and selling it.
It’s definitely a balance. I came from newspapers, where there’s a wall between editorial and advertising. If you’re writing a critical piece about a car manufacturer, you can’t worry that that same car manufacturer is taking out a giant ad in the Sunday supplement. But when you’re writing fiction … I’ve had cases where they show me a cover, and I’m like, yeah, that’s not really doing much for me. And they’ll say, “Well, the fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble really likes it, so we’re going with it.” And I’m like … “Art! My art!” And they’re like, “But we gotta sell your art. We gotta make some money off your art.”
But this is another thing that social media has changed. With social media, you’re expected to participate in the brand-building. You’ve got to maintain presences on all the platforms. You’ve got to interact with people. You’ve got to be accessible to them. And I think that’s especially true if your brand, as my brand does, involves kind of relatable women.
One of the characters in Big Summer is an Instagram influencer.
One of the things with Big Summer was, I just wanted to make some sense of this. What I learned is that if social media at its best is about connection and community — especially for people who don’t live in places where there’s lots of gay teenagers or Black women who like science fiction or plus-size women who want to look cute in bathing suits — Instagram is where you find your people. The whole plus-size fashion influencer piece of it is like — of all the things I don’t get about Instagram, that’s one thing I do understand. When I was a young woman and a teenager, plus-size representation was Carnie Wilson from Wilson Phillips behind a boulder in a music video. Because they would never show her. But [on Instagram] there’s women who are just in their bodies, in bathing suits or yoga clothes or prom dresses, and they’re living their lives. And what they’re saying to those young women is, “It’s okay, you don’t have to lose 30 pounds before your life can start. Your life can start right now.”
I wanted to write about a character who was getting that piece of what Instagram has to offer, but she’s also on this treadmill — she’s feeding the algorithm. She’s responding to every comment. She’s upvoting every other person who’s in her circle so the algorithm will notice her and put her in the top of people’s feeds. And as good as Instagram is when it’s good, that piece of it felt pretty toxic to me. As the mother of daughters who are on social media, I think about this a lot. What does this tell them about their value, and how is it shaping their brains if they’re getting that little dopamine hit every time they get a like or a comment or a new follower? And what is it doing to us as a culture?
Digital media in general can feel very gamified. We’re always looking at what drives the most traffic.
I guess it’s maybe just the latest iteration of no-publicity-is-bad-publicity. You can see the most popular articles in the Times. And sometimes it’s some David Brooks thing that everyone on Twitter is just piling on because they all think it’s so terrible, and yet it’s generating a ton of traffic for the site. Does that reward people who are writing things that are deliberately provocative and are going to get people riled up? And what does it do if you’re the kind of journalist who’s going to take a year to report out some very dry but very important story about, for example, how Donald Trump’s family has been cheating the government out of millions of dollars in tax revenue for decades? That story — it wasn’t sexy. There were lots of numbers. But I wanted to jump up and down and say, “Everyone needs to read this!”
Can you tell if there are many Trump supporters among your readers?
I’m gonna say not many. A lot of my readers are women who are like me — who live in big cities, who are coastal people who kind of feel the way I feel about political issues. But every once in a while, I’ll hear from somebody who’s like, “I wish you’d keep your politics out of your social media. I don’t want to know what my favorite author thinks about Trump.” But I don’t think that being quiet is a choice anymore. I think the stakes are too high. Jewish people like to think about, well, if I was living in Germany in the 1930s, what would I have done? And I feel like in America, we’re at that inflection point. What are we gonna do? I really don’t want to have to tell my grandkids someday, well, I knew what I was seeing was wrong, but I just kept quiet because I wanted to sell more books.
It’s interesting that Trump supporters keep reading your books. Is that a sign that you’re hitting something deeper than politics?
Occasionally I’ve said to my Trump-supporting readers: We’re all women. A lot of us are moms. We care about the world that our children are going to inhabit. For you, maybe that means having seven guns in your house and only voting for people who support the Second Amendment. And for me, it means something different. But what we share is that desire — we want our kids to be safe, we want them to go to good schools, we want them to live in a world where they have the possibility of finding meaningful work and meaningful romantic connections and living lives that make them happy. Maybe we disagree about the details and how we’re gonna get there, but at least that’s some common ground.
Will the pandemic show up in your books at some point?
That is a really good question. I’m in a group chat with a bunch of other popular fiction writers, and we’re all talking about this. What do we do here? Do we have the pandemic? Do we not have the pandemic? [laughs] The book I’m working on now, I’m just setting it in 2018 so I don’t even have to deal with it.
Published as “Fact and Fiction” in the October 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.