This week and last, the novelist Jennifer Weiner has been rehashing an old complaint of hers: namely, that the New York Times Book Review doesn’t give writers of commercial fiction like her enough coverage. They don’t review the books enough, and they don’t hire enough commercial writers as reviewers. If you’re already wondering how such a tempest-in-a-teapot claim has inspired an avalanche of blog posts — after all, the NYTBR does seem to avoid anything smacking of so-called “chick lit” — keep in mind that every literary blogger on the planet is on a perpetual audition to write for the NYTBR. (Including this one. Hi, editor!)
Anyway: Weiner’s argument is not always very well put. For one thing, she has difficulty defining the category she’s advocating for. She often cites VIDA statistics, which track the low rates of review for books written by women, but they don’t do her much good, because VIDA is avowedly about “literary writing.” And Weiner says she doesn’t want to claim to be on the same level as Franzen et al. So in her latest Salon piece, Weiner trots out a new definition; she says she’s one of a group of “female authors whose books were about, and for, women.” Sadly, that doesn’t work either. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this could describe a great many literary novelists. While few would admit publicly that they write “for women,” the truth is that the great majority of readers are women. Even of “literary fiction,” as Jonathan Franzen so famously learned at the feet of The Great and Powerful Oprah.
In fact, the only real distinction Weiner has identified in her three-plus years of making this complaint is that she’s a commercial — here’s a nicer and frankly more accurate word I’d propose by the way: “popular” — writer, and the others are “literary.” Her real mistake was underestimating the degree to which the “literary” would protect their turf. The monetary rewards of literariness are so notoriously slim that the stakes for preserving the book review space they have is strong. Anyway: you can’t blame these folks for clinging to what little status they do have.
But that still yields occasionally hilarious results, since the “serious” are a motley tribe at best. The chief criterion of membership seems to be declaring yourself such. (Put “intellectual” in your twitter bio, and bang, you are one these days.) So in this case, instead of engaging with the very real flaws of Weiner’s claims — that, for example, book reviews exist for “readers to learn about new books, to make informed decisions about old favorites, to start discussions,” which sounds more like a description of Goodreads — a number of people came out of the woodwork to change the issue to one of whether Weiner is personally likable. Which strikes me as a non sequitur.
The views of such people — that Weiner is shrill, craven, difficult, a bitch, a harpy, whiny, etc. — were pretty adequately summed up in Alexander Nazaryan’s two posts about the latest go-round at The Atlantic Wire. First, Nazaryan wrote a post in which he called Weiner “strident,” which she claimed was a sexist word and he later removed. I’m not sure that I considered it sexist in isolation — but in the context of a whole piece which described her mildly phrased tweeted criticisms as “mad” and “harsh,” it did all start to come off very condescending. In his next piece, Nazaryan stalled in mid-apology. Now he styled Weiner’s comments a “war,” and doubled down on the anonymous schoolroom gossip:
I went back to the writers and editors (all women whose names Weiner would recognize, if it matters) to whom I’d recently spoken about Weiner; not one of them wanted to talk about her on the record. The reason they all gave me: they feared being castigated by Weiner and thought there would be nothing to gain from getting into an exchange with her. One said she was “afraid” of Weiner. And, frankly, I don’t blame them.
You know, I don’t doubt that these people actually said these things to Nazaryan, but it doesn’t make them any less silly or absurd. I’m sorry these people are too cowardly to delineate their objections to Weiner’s arguments in public. But that doesn’t make her a bully, or intransigent, or “indisputably caustic,” as Nazaryan himself puts it. It also doesn’t make her personality any more relevant to this discussion.
What is relevant is that there are, yes, certain obligations that a book review might have to readers. And yes, addressing some of the fiction which much of the country actually reads is one of them. I don’t know if I count as a “serious” “intellectual” these days — of late I kind of reject the whole business — but even if I put real thought into it, it strikes me as obvious that there are currents running around in “popular” culture that intellectuals would do well to take notice of. But it’s also obvious that another obligation of the book review is to challenge readers to read other kinds of books, to indicate that there’s a whole world out there worth exploring beyond commercial fiction. This is not “literary charity,” as Weiner puts it. It’s just covering the whole of the book world. Which, by the way, even within the realm of literary fiction, a lot of book reviews aren’t great at doing. If only their lack of coverage of writers of color could inspire this level of sturm und drang.