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.