The tumblr of writer and editor Jessica Grose.
I went on the DoubleX Gabfest to talk about the new Jennifer Weiner profile in the New Yorker and the ongoing debate about women and the literary community (Thanks for having me, ladies!). I wanted to address a few points that I didn’t respond to during the discussion, but that I feel I have some insight into as a writer of what has been classified as “chick lit.”
Towards the end of the discussion, people were asking the question: Why does Weiner need to be taken seriously by the New York Times book review? Isn’t she asking for too much? She sells a bajillion copies and makes a ton of money, which is what the culture at large respects. my pal June said:
As the profile points out, you write for the outlet…You don’t write in the same way for the New Yorker as for the Daily News. And she’s kind of writing for the Daily News, but in her heart, she’s a New Yorker writer. I think in a way, the easiest way to address this is to have kind of different voices, different pseudonyms and write in different styles. That would satisfy her soul.
I can’t speak for Jennifer. I don’t know what goes through her head when she writes her novels. But for myself, I didn’t sit down to write a “chick lit” or “commercial” novel. I sat down and wrote the plot I thought work, in the voice I thought worked for that plot. Certainly I hoped it would be appealing to a broad audience and sell a lot of copies. Most novelist aren’t hoping that their book becomes a cult failure.
When I was writing I felt like there were serious issues that I was grappling with: What do we think is privacy in an Internet free-for-all? How do we construe celebrity? What is it like to work in a media world where the arbiters of privacy and celebrity are often very young and only moderately trained?
Yes, the protagonist was a young woman, and she the language was youthful and humorous. But so was the protagonist of Lucinda Rosenfeld’s fantastic debut, What She Saw in….which was excerpted in the New Yorker. Her book was taken seriously by the powers that be. Couldn’t mine be?
It was disappointing, then, when editors who passed on the book did so because they thought it was insufficiently deep. I understood their criticism and accepted it, for sure. And I don’t think that the criticism was necessarily gendered. And I was so grateful to end up with an editor who understood and loved my book (love you, Kate!).
But a huge part of being a novelist is having an ego! It’s the only thing that will push you through to the end, is to convince yourself that what you’re writing is worthwhile and important. The nagging self-doubt that your work isn’t worth following through on is ever-present.
I want to note here that I was super super lucky to be published at all. I know this. I was also lucky to have really smart critics write pieces about my book that were thoughtful and thorough. Those reviewers in TNR and Los Angeles Review of Books understood my complex intentions and didn’t dismiss the book as frippery because it was written by and about a young woman. Did I wish I had a review in the New York Times, too? Fuck yes I do!
I don’t think Jennifer Weiner is asking too much to want this, too. It’s not like, as with Jonathan Franzen, she is dismissive of her fans or ungrateful about having sold so many books. Quite the contrary, she is lovely to her fans, as Rebecca Mead’s profile takes care to point that out. Maybe people are just mad at her for publicly expressing what every writer of novels secretly wants: which is to be critically and commercially adored.
Oh Mark. How I do enjoy our semi-yearly talks about modern Jewry. I appreciate your discussion of “thick” cultures and “thin” cultures. But, I do object to your labeling me and my irreligious-yet-technically-Jewish Bretheren as “liberal consumerists.”
If I were to talk about my thickest cultural and ethical affiliations, Jewishness is one of them. But I’d say feminism is just as thick, as is a commitment to education. I do, on a day-to-day basis, feel that these affiliations are thick enough for me. I am not an especially spiritual person. As my own mother says, “I have no talent for spirituality.” When I think about the texts that have meant the most to me and helped me navigate life, they are not faux Buddhist. They are Lorrie Moore short stories and Anne Lamott books.
I can only speak for myself, but the guilt I feel is not out of a sense of desire for a thicker Jewish identity. It’s more a knowledge that there aren’t that many Jews and we’re disappearing in the United States, and feeling complicit in that disappearance. I feel guilty because this would upset my grandmother, to whom I was very close, and it upsets women like Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner, who probably has good intentions. I feel guilt about the disappearance with my daughter in particular, because she looks just like her father, and she has his last name. Her Jewishness will not be obvious to the world in the way that mine is, because I look like a member of the tribe and have a Jewish name.
The comparison you make to Spanish and Black cultures is not quite right because their disappearance is not imminent in the same way. If I moved to Spain tomorrow, in a few generations my kids would be Spanish, and there are more Spaniards being created each day. Black culture is a closer comparison, but there are millions more black people in the United States than there are Jews.
That said, I do appreciate your specific suggestions about reading Jewish texts and talking about Judaism to my daughter (she’s not even a year old yet so we’ve got some time to figure this one out). We also live in New York City, where I’m pretty sure she will get exposure to a lot of Jewish people who will talk to her about Judaism and present fine examples of Jewish living.
Got to go. I hear her waking up from her nap now, and I need to bring her some organic wooden toys.
Now that my Sesame Street piece has been published, I can post the funniest thing I discovered in my research. That time in 1973 when a local broadcast of Sesame Street was interrupted by the “Miss Nude Galaxy” pageant.
Here’s how it went down:
A weakening signal from Burlington, Vt., triggered an automatic switch that replaced the educational children’s show with whatever happened to be appearing on the local monitors in the studio. The local monitors were reshowing the Miss Nude Galaxy pageant held two weeks ago in Quebec. The showing was meant only for staff members, a station spokesman said.
"It was lousy timing," said Don DiCesare, assistant director of the station. "Machinery is machinery."
Unsurprisingly, the station was flooded with calls from angry moms furious that cookie monster was replaced with boobs. A different kind of nom nom nom, no?
Lauren Sandler—whose book about only children, One and Only, I reviewed for The New Republic—has been on the receiving end of some backlash after publishing a piece on the Atlantic’s website about women writers who had only one child. The essay is hobbled by the inflammatory headline: “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” I read the piece as a musing on Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, et. al, rather than an insistence that the best female writers are mothers of onlies. But other women writers who are mothers of multiple children, like Jane Smiley, Rebecca Mead and Zadie Smith disagreed. “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd,” Smith says in the comments to Sandler’s piece.
Indeed, that is absurd. And when the firestorms about pieces like this erupt, we miss the actual point that Sandler’s book makes, which is that more children need more resources (Smith makes this point, too, eventually). I’m nowhere near the caliber of writer as Smith or Smiley. And I can only speak for myself on the calculations that go into having more children when you already have one.
I’ve already written ad nauseam about my complicated pregnancy and so I won’t recap that in full here. The gist of it is that for most of my pregnancy I was out of commission as a writer. My family took a financial hit because I couldn’t earn money for a chunk of the year, and we only got by because my husband has a steady white collar job with health insurance.
After my daughter was born, I went back to work after 5 weeks. Freelancers don’t get maternity leave, and not only did we need the cash, but my feelings of worth as a writer are quite tied up in whether or not I’m earning money from my work. This has to do, in part, with knowing how vulnerable women are when they have to rely exclusively on their husbands for support (this is no comment on my marriage, which is strong. Merely a historical feeling that makes me uneasy. As my beloved Oma always said, “a woman should have her own money.”).
We currently have childcare 32 hours a week. That is what we can comfortably afford, and that is my writing time. Sometimes my parents come and pitch in on Fridays when I have a lot of work, because I am lucky to have retired folks who live nearby. I often work nights after my daughter goes to sleep, because I am also lucky to have a kid who is a regular sleeper. My husband is a wonderful partner and he takes my daughter fully in the mornings if I have a deadline. He can’t get home from work until after our daughter is asleep most nights so I have her in the evenings until she goes to sleep.
Before my daughter was born, I had a full time job and wrote a novel on top of that, without taking any time off for book leave. I would love to write another book, but I need to earn money, right now, to help pay for that 32 hours a week of child care. I can’t afford to spend time writing something that might not sell. I’m happy with that tradeoff, and I love the work I am doing right now. I guess I could write a novel in some of the time I spend with my daughter, or seeing friends, or watching TV, or running, but I don’t want to. We all make our choices.
I can’t (and won’t) tell you the calculations that go through my husband’s head when he’s thinking about whether we have a second child. But I can tell you some of what goes through my head. Can I give up another year of writing, if I get as sick as I did with my first pregnancy? Can we afford childcare for that 32 hours a week with a second child? Will those free hours I steal in the evenings to write disappear if we have another? Will I just be too tired to care about writing another book five years from now after we emerge from the exhausting fog of caring for small children? And that doesn’t even get into the expense of having kids once they’re in school, and what that means for our future, and for our ultimate potential retirement.
When, in the course of this conversation about parenting and creativity, people Tweet things like, “A lot of parent-writers write at 3am before going to a job, or after the kids are in bed. Choices, sacrifice,” it just ups the martyrdom stakes. I don’t doubt that some parents can function after waking up at 3 am, and that it’s worth it to them to do so. But I don’t know that that’s something we should all aspire to—it’s not something I aspire to, at least. I think both my parenting and my writing would suffer if I were burning myself out like that. This is becoming more than a woman’s problem, by the way—as it should be. I think creative men who are fathers also make these calculations.
I want to reiterate that these are high fucking class problems to have. We’re financially secure, we’re never worried about where our next meal is coming from, I can freelance and see a lot of my awesome kid because my husband has health insurance. I’m ridiculously privileged that I get to pursue a creative career in the first place. There are a lot of women writers who are a lot more talented than I am who don’t have that kind of security, who also want to have kids or already have them. But when we get lost in these pointless discussions of what is the “right” number of kids we lose sight of what this issue, ultimately, is really about.
It’s about money, and privilege. If we had all the money in the world, I would have another kid tomorrow. Maybe another two kids, I don’t know! But I’m glad Sandler’s book exists because it gives me a framework to think about these issues, and it’s given me license to think the thought—maybe I don’t want more kids because it would be too difficult to write and enjoy our life—without making me feel like a horrible mother and/or person.