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.
Andrea cipriani mecchi
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.

(page 2 of 2)

In the books, Weiss, a blogger who lives on the outside of Philadelphia, struggles with a slow collapse into a painkiller addiction while attempting to grapple with the pressures of working and raising her young daughter. Her recovery requires Weiss to grapple with the idea of a higher power, a concept that doesn’t come as easily to her as some of the other characters she finds in rehab.

“It’s tough for her,” Weiner said. “There are religions where you can grow up feeling that you have a more personal relationship with god. Growing up I felt very Jewish, but there was never that intimate connection.”

“All Fall Down” has some sly autobiographical touches, Easter Eggs for Weiner fans who follow both her fiction and her persona as “the ombudsman that the Times never asked for,” as she put it. Like Weiss, Weiner lives in Philadelphia and began her career working at a newspaper. Like Weiss, Weiner got into an online debate about an editor’s use of the term “strident” to describe her advocacy of gender issues. One wonders whether Weiner’s activism to bring gender equality into the literary world won her some readers that she otherwise might not have had, ones who normally bypass mass market fiction.

“It’s an interesting thing to think about,” Weiner said. “I’m inclined to believe that the people who think about issues of gender disparity in fiction are in publishing anyhow and getting books for free. I always wonder, am I killing myself saleswise? Are there people who are turned off? My publisher is like, ‘Just please talk about your book.’ But I think this is important.”

Weiner’s position in publishing is unique. She is successful enough in her writing career that she can raise questions that up-and-coming authors wouldn’t or couldn’t for fear of being skipped over. Her advocacy is not just for a stronger female presence in reviewers, reviews and characters, but also for literary critics to fundamentally change what kind of books they cover. Genres in fiction are often coded ways of excluding certain groups of readers from the conversation, based on gender and race. What is popular isn’t necessarily bad, Weiner argues, and critics who refuse to consider works outside the narrow field of literary fiction end up endangering their own craft.

“Everybody talks about the death of the novel. I’m worried about the death of literary criticism,” Weiner said. “You’ve got these people who are saying increasingly offensive things to an increasingly small choir. You’ve got (New Yorker critic) James Wood saying that there’s something wrong in a world where people are reading ‘Harry Potter.’ There’s something so incredibly dismissive and condescending and wrong about that, saying that only certain books are serious and the others, you need to be ashamed of reading them. They may as well take out a billboard saying ‘Just ignore us.’”

It’s a problem, Weiner thinks, that’s unique to book critics. “Music critics do not score brownie points for saying, ‘I don’t listen to top 40,’” Weiner said. “They’re expected to have a vocabulary for it. The people who have styled themselves as defenders of modern fiction look like the Three Stooges trying to make their way out of a door.”

Things are changing, however slowly, Weiner thinks. “Even in little baby step ways,” she said. “The New York Times Book Review started a pop fiction short list, even if it’s in grudging paragraphs. It’s not all Nicholson Baker. It’s someone you read by the pool.

“People look at me and say, ‘You have all this money, so shut up.’ But I think I’ll be glad that I kept pushing for this. It’s the nature of the human, but also perhaps especially the nature of writers, to want the thing you don’t have.”

Margaret Eby is an associate editor at the magazines The L and Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Paris Review Daily and other publications. Her second book, “High Holy Places: Adventures in Southern Literature,” is forthcoming from Norton.

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