Jennifer Weiner’s Curious Definition of Literary Sisterhood


This week the New Yorker profiles Jennifer Weiner, dissecting the way she’s been cast in the internet’s ongoing debate about the place of women in the world of writing. Or, sorry: “serious writing,” meaning not those ugly pink-and-blue books that only women read. The profile, by Rebecca Mead, is pretty good. I particularly liked how it highlighted, in a nice, subtle, not-laced-with-ad-hominem-attacks way, the flaw in the heart of Weiner’s crusade: she can’t seem to make her point without trashing women literary novelists. For example, from the profile alone, on Claire Messud:

“Novels were absolutely, positively not there to serve the petty function of helping people feel connected,” Weiner went on. “And if you believed that—if you wrote that way, or if you read that way—then, by God, you were Doing Reading Wrong.” Messud’s comments had left Weiner with “a sinking heart, and an unhappy sense of recognition. Once again, as a reader and a writer, I was out of step, out of fashion.”

On Meg Wolitzer:

When Meg Wolitzer told an interviewer that she was disturbed by a rise in “slumber party fiction—as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends,” Weiner responded that “likable” had become the “new code word” for fiction previously disparaged as chick lit.

On Adelle Waldman:

Adelle Waldman, the author of “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” told Salon that she “didn’t want to write a book with a plucky heroine.” Later, Weiner tweeted an oblique, wounded gibe: “Girl writes about kissing from male POV, in Brooklyn, with artsy cover and impressive blurbs. Then it’s literature.”

As Mead notes, Weiner’s problem with these women is that she perceives them as “unsisterly.” This is understandable in a vague sort of way. Weiner is not wrong to suspect that commercial novels are precisely what a lot of “literary” women novelists explicitly write against.

But I’m not sure how else she expects this to go. “Literariness” involves experimentation, and experimentation demands moving away from established forms. And Weiner’s kind of novel, whatever you might think of its merits, is an established kind of book. People know what to expect from it. That’s why it makes for a relaxing read, and why you’ll often see the hoity-toitiest of literary fiction readers bringing one or two of those books on vacation. Whatever magic they possess — and I’m issuing no opinion here about the amount of magic in question — is wrapped up in the way that they comfort their readers.

It would nonetheless be a sad world if that was the only kind of book available. When literary novelists like Messud and Wolitzer and Waldman set out to write other kinds of books, they tend to want to write uncomfortable books, yes. But then they come up in a world where far more people read Jennifer Weiner than any of them. And they end up dealing with readers and interviewers whose expectations of what a book “should be” are formulated with reference to the far more popular commercial genre. That’s why they make remarks that, filtered through the long game of telephone that is selective quotation on the internet, might sound disdainful. Whether there’s real disrespect there for the kind of work Weiner does, only these other authors can answer, and her own kind of mind-reading of their motives generally wears as a poor look.

But there is another reading Weiner never seems to consider: The disdain might really be for the way that the world, wanting all books to be safe and relaxing and fun, ends up having trouble with the sort of women who don’t meet those standards. Many women are not safe, relaxing, and fun personalities, and it is a little strange, and constricting, and even stultifying, that we are afraid of seeing them be so messy in books. It’s not unlike the way we are unwilling to see them as such in real life. And the anger it engenders; well, on that level I bet we can find some sisterly affection. Underwritten, of course, as sisterhood often is, with some healthy competition.