07 January 2014

What we talk about when we talk about talking about Jennifer Weiner

"Weiner’s readers—who, on the Internet, review her work with all the attentiveness it has not received from the Times—seek out her latest books for the same satisfactions they have found in her earlier books, with their casual prose, happy resolutions, and lovable heroines. It is unlikely that literary critics will ever applaud Weiner’s work for these qualities, because literary criticism, at its best, seeks to elucidate the complex, not to catalogue the familiar."

from Rebecca Mead's profile of Jennifer Weiner in the New Yorker this week. Mead portrays Weiner fairly, I think, as an author with a broad base of commercial success who has also been vocal about the disparity between literary fiction coverage and treatment and commercial fiction coverage and treatment, and the gender lines on which they often fall (men writing about women is literary, women writing about anything is commercial/ not worthy of critical examination).

I am a critic who also enjoys Weiner's books, which I believe makes me a special unicorn* uniquely able to dispense the following points:

1. While Mead clearly read the Weiner canon for this article, some of her characterizations feel like oversimplifications. Weiner's work has in fact gotten darker despite what one might see as "happy endings." The ending of THE NEXT BEST THING was more troubling than satisfying, and it was my favorite Weiner book in years. The box is convenient but the profile doesn't fit in it.

2. Hand in hand with that, I think this article would have benefited from more data points from readers or people who know readers of these books (such as booksellers who successfully handsell copies, or book club programmers) -- to make these generalizations a little more palatable.

3. Clearly some of Weiner's speaking out on this issue is self-serving, but when the notion of self-promotion itself is considered dirty in the first place, it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. No one was dinging Franzen for being too much in the spotlight when he was on the cover of TIME (and I saved that cover, so I'm not here to attack him either).

4. In a way, the whole idea that Weiner has struggled with using her platforms to talk about highbrow and lowbrow culture is something that a lot of people in public struggle with, but seems to be more of a problem for women striving to be taken seriously. (In a world where Idris Elba can safely discuss the high calling of playing Nelson Mandela on one day and his bowties on the next... By the way, don't Google that if you're at work.) I do not care one whit for "The Bachelor," but I don't see it as an automatic invalidator. (For one thing, a safe margin of people who watch hatewatch it. For another, I watch some ridiculous things too.) How many male newsmakers' feeds out there are fully devoted to professional sports on Saturdays and Sundays? And that, as a form of entertainment, is superior because?

*I'm joking, but "barely intersects" was probably oversalting it.

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