We at the Sisterhood have been following Jennifer Weiner’s crusade for literary gender parity for years. Finally, the witty (Jewish) Twitter maven and fiction writer has gotten her own New Yorker profile by Rebecca Mead, complete with childhood description, literary analysis, a home visit and the immortal phrase “garotted with a pair of Spanx.”
What follows are a few connected meditations from someone who has been following the gender and highbrow/lowbrow literary debate with my lips pursed in concentration for years.
What a treat, given that I enjoy both Rebecca Mead and Jennifer Weiner’s writing tremendously.
Okay, though. It feels like every writer discussed in this profile is white and almost all come from an urban, East Coast, Ivy League milieu.
Which is too bad, because, I would have seen the piece more about making art as a vehicle for resisting oppression–and the way “isms” can put psychological and actual strictures on writers of all genres and persuasions. Also missing: any interrogation of how race, class, gender and power structures inform our understanding of literary “quality” and “sophistication.”
Character likeability is a topic which recurs throughout the profile and is a hot one in literary circles today. Personally, I struggle with being “too nice” to my characters in my own fiction, and I think this stumbling block of mine is gendered — though I know many women don’t share it. As a reader, I enjoy novels with difficult, unlikeable protagonists, and those with purely heroic or even “Mary Sue” types at the forefront — I just enjoy them in different ways. “Lolita” vs. “Lord of the Rings.” I would never want to choose!
You see, as a nostalgist for the heroines of my favorite YA novels, I agree with Weiner that there’s a value to “befriending” fictional characters (and about the iconic status of one Bridget Jones), postmodernist doctrine about “characters” being only thin constructs aside. But at the same time, depraved and petty heroines do strike a blow for gender equality. We should be able to trot along with unlikeable lasses just as much as we do with the selfish and blind male characters that make up pretty much the whole Western canon, right?
Making sure women get equal access to the top tier of any field is only half of a true feminist project. The second half is shifting overall standards so what was once seen as “feminine” is given more universal value. Thus Weiner’s case that we should give more respect and consideration to emotionally cathartic fiction written to give pleasure to readers (specifically female readers) is a decidedly feminist case.
Meg Wolitzer and Adelle Waldman, the writers called out by Weiner for throwing shade at commercial fiction, are both currently receiving (deserved) literary recognition for writing witty, considered and smart novels about personal relationships. I agree with Weiner that these writers would actually benefit from commercial fiction being taken more seriously. Weiner’s project to elevate commercial women’s fiction into a less stigmatized place actually serves to advance female “literary” writers, making their domestic and interpersonal work less tainted by association.
On the other hand, I wish that Weiner would show more solidarity with these writers, as they are true talents up against a sexist industry that wants to trivialize their work.
Women’s fiction/chick lit is a genre with conventions. But literary fiction is also a genre with conventions. New Yorker profiles, full of witty zingers, fashion descriptions, and subtle but fair digs at their subjects, most certainly comprise a genre with conventions. The way we judge these genres certainly has something to do with quality, but we should always remember that those who hold power and status have a lot to do with defining what “quality” means at any given time.