Jennifer Weiner Questions Genre and Gender in the Literary World

A New Book, an Old Battle

Literary Ombudswoman: Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner criticizes how books by, for and about women are reviewed.
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Literary Ombudswoman: Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner criticizes how books by, for and about women are reviewed.

By Margaret Eby

Published July 03, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.
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Most people who recognize Jennifer Weiner know her as an author of fiction aimed at women, a writer whose pastel-covered covers perennially crowd the best-seller list and command an audience most novelists would salivate over. She has written 11 books and had one made into a rom-com starring Cameron Diaz (the 2005 film “In Her Shoes”). Weiner’s latest novel, “All Fall Down,” arrived in June with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for celebrity lifestyle books. She appeared on “Today” and launched a 13-city book tour, no mean feat in an age of continual hand-wringing about the state of publishing. It’s a safe bet that copies of “All Fall Down” will shortly appear on beach blankets, in book clubs and all over public transit. Suffice to say, in the world of commercial fiction, Weiner is a big deal.

But Weiner has also managed an accomplishment that few other blockbuster mass market novelists have, which is to become an equally big deal in the smaller, more closely guarded ranks of literary fiction, albeit perhaps not in the capacity she would have preferred. Using her considerable following on social media, Weiner has been a vocal critic of the way that the literary establishment treats and reviews books written by, for and about women. She has picked battles with heavyweights like The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books over their failure to feature — or even acknowledge — books most Americans are reading, and questioned the assumptions about genre distinctions like “young adult” and “chick lit.” She earned a sneering reference from Jonathan Franzen in an essay in The Guardian, and a profile in The New Yorker that focused on her bifurcated audience.

“It’s hard when you’re deeply invested in book culture and no one else gives a f–k,” Weiner told the Forward. “I feel incredibly grateful to my readers, and I’m so lucky to be in the position that I’m in. But money is not the only metric for success. We have to pay attention to whose voices we listen to, whose stories matter, why women land in the styles section.”

Weiner grew up in Connecticut in a Jewish family, though the influence was more cultural than religious. Like many of her characters, the heroine in “All Fall Down,” Allison Weiss, is Jewish, scheduling an annual Hanukkah Happening for her family, where they fry up an assortment of latkes.

“On the one hand, I like writing Jewish characters because I know what that’s like,” Weiner said. “All of my heroines are outsiders. They’re never the prom queen. Being Jewish was, personally, feeling a little bit on the outside. It was just another way I was different. In my books, Judaism is a stand-in for that outsider-dom.”


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