The Dangers Of Female Pleasure – And Rage. A Q&A With Jennifer Weiner
Jennifer Weiner, best-selling novelist, has been known to be outspoken about inequalities in publishing and in the consideration of women’s work.
This is what Weiner told me she wants her obituary to read when we caught up last week. And unlike the obit your favorite male novelist is probably composing for himself, Weiner’s is 100% accurate. In addition to selling 11 million books, keeping the lights on in a struggling publishing industry, Weiner — like other best-selling female novelists — toils in the shadow of a male-dominated industry that doesn’t bother to hide its contempt for “chick lit” (Weiner’s only book to be reviewed thus far by The New York Times is a children’s book).
No matter. Weiner’s oeuvre has provided millions of women with that most dangerous of commodities — female pleasure. And her refusal to take the industry’s contempt sitting down has radically changed it for the better.
Weiner’s latest novel, “Mrs. Everything”, is a story of two sisters, Bethie and Jo, born into mid-century suburban America, a time and place not particularly kind to women. Jo, whose story is modeled on Weiner’s own mother’s, is gay, yet ends up married to a man, while Bethie spends a lifetime trying to flee, and then come to terms with, the sexual abuse she experienced as a child.
Last week, I spoke to Weiner about “Mrs. Everything”, women’s stories, female pleasure, and female rage.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Batya Ungar-Sargon: Your newest book “Mrs. Everything” is about two sisters. But it’s also about America. It’s kind of like “Forrest Gump” but about two Jewish women.
Jennifer Weiner: A little less clueless, I hope.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s sort of a great American novel in that it shows how these huge seismic political and cultural shifts are actually personal. I’m wondering if that’s how you thought about it?
Yes, it absolutely is. You know, the personal is political, and I think that there is great power in women’s stories. I think that at this particular moment in our country’s history, we need those stories, and we need to talk about where we’ve been, and what that was like for women, and where we are now and what changed, and what happened.
What happens if we don’t tell those stories?
You end up having people speak for you. I think of all the pictures we’ve seen lately where it’s twenty white men in a room deciding reproductive rights or making decisions about sexual harassment policies. When you don’t have a seat at the table, when you don’t have a voice in the room, you end up being invisible — and your pain ends up being invisible.
There’s so much pain in this book.
Yes. I know. (laughs)
I’m wondering if you see it as a departure from your other work, or a continuation of your other work?
I hope that it’s a continuation. I think that I’ve always written sort of breezy, funny books with relatable characters at their center, but my books have always dealt with some pretty significant issues, whether it was dysfunctional families, body image, self esteem or addiction or workplace trouble — all of the stuff that women deal with on a daily basis. I think that maybe this book is a little less breezy and a little more issue-y but I hope it’s still entertaining. At the end of the day, I want to write entertaining books. I want to write characters that readers enjoy spending time with and stories that they are invested in.
“Mrs. Everything” is about two sisters. Each gets stuck in the wrong life, in a life that wasn’t the one that she was meant to lead. It’s really about their attempts to find authentic lives in a world that doesn’t quite want to yield those opportunities up. At one point, Jo looks at Bethie and sees the life she feels she should have had. It was such an interesting choice to explore this very familiar topic of female jealousy through the prism of the person you most love.
I think that it’s a very human idea, the idea of envy, and the idea of looking at somebody else and thinking, they got what I wanted. Someone could look at Jo and say, “She’s got this handsome husband, she’s got these beautiful children, that’s all I ever wanted,” but it’s not what Jo wants, and I think that yearning is the human condition, too. I think that when you’re satisfied you die; you stop wanting and you stop moving and you stop trying.
So at this point in your life, you seem to have gotten it all. You have this amazing career, this beautiful family. Are you still yearning? How do you connect to that yearning?
Well, there’s always another hill to climb. Honestly, though, at this point, what I want to do is be the best version of myself that I can be and write the best books that I can, and that’s not the best books that a very literary male writer could write. I’ve got my experiences and my voice and my talents and I want to use everything I have and bring all of that to the table and do the best work that I can. Certainly there are female novelists who are more prolific than I am — I mean, there are women turning out two books a year, which I can barely believe — and that’s not me and that’s never going to be me. But with every book I write, I want readers to feel moved, to feel connected, to feel seen, to feel like they can look at the page and see their own lives and the lives of women that they know.
So is there anyone whose career you envy? Or do you feel like, “No, this is where I’m supposed to be”?
I think this is where I’m supposed to be. Yes, I look at people who are more prolific and yes, I look at people who are more respected and of course, it’s like, “Oh if only I were a little faster” or “If only I were a little more male” but at the end of the day, I think at this point in my life, I have a pretty good grasp of my own talents and my own abilities and my own interests. I know the kinds of stories that I want to write, and these days, they are not necessarily about single girls in the city. There are issues I want to talk about, problems I want to bring to the fore. I want my books to entertain but I also want them to provoke a little bit.
I think that at this moment in American history, where we are right now, everyone, every woman with a voice, has a responsibility to tell the truth about women’s lives. I’m using fiction as a vehicle for that truth.
I love your anger at the publishing world for the way that they have treated your work. I’m also very angry! And I think that’s a really sacred emotion. But I see the way they treat you a bit differently than you do. Can I tell you how I see it?
I think it’s not about marginalizing female writers so much as female pleasure. I think you are a female pleasure machine. Your books have Big Dick Energy. And I think that what the establishment resents is that your books are responsive and responsible to a female readership in a way that guarantees women pleasure. So for me, when I look at your position in the industry, you represent being in a relationship with women that gives them pleasure, which is hugely disturbing and dangerous to a male establishment. At the same time, your work provides this framework in which women can explore dangerous emotions too, which we’re not usually allowed to express, like anger.
It’s so interesting you say that because as you know, Judith Krantz died a couple of days ago. Talk about pleasure! I mean her books, whether she was describing designer clothes or sex or art or magazines or whatever she was writing about, those books — they were delicious. A million women bought them. They were all tremendous, huge best-sellers and I went back and looked at some of the reviews that she got and people were like, “I feel sorry not just for the trees that sacrificed their lives to be the paper but also for the ink and the glue.” And I’m like, really? Was the book hurting you?
I think that you’re right. I think there’s a lot of resistance still to women’s pleasure and to women’s anger. I think that we as a culture like women small. We like them to take up very little space. We like them to make very little noise.
I just wrote an essay for Lizzie Skurnick – she’s a blogger. She writes YA and she edited an anthology of a whole list of words that women get called to dismiss them: shrewd, loud, cushy, bossy, abrasive, ambitious. Men don’t ever get called that, or they’re coded differently when they’re applied to men. When you look at these words as an aggregate, it’s really clear that we don’t want women to speak up, we don’t want them to be ambitious, we don’t want them to be enjoying themselves.
I think female pleasure scares a lot of men and I know that female anger scares a lot of men, so I don’t know, maybe that’s it. I always tell myself that the critics, maybe they don’t get it, maybe they never will, but I have women at every single reading I do who will come up to me and who will say, “That was my story,” or “Reading this got me through a hard time because I thought I was the only one who felt x, y, or z.” That’s when I know that I’ve done my work.
In “Mrs. Everything”, these really horrible things happen to these characters, like Bethie’s sexual abuse, and it’s told in such a realistic way. But at the same time, I think if a male writer or a different kind of female writer were telling this story, Bethie would get killed — you know what I mean? It would be the “Law and Order” version, where women are created to suffer and die, and this book just fundamentally rejects that. I mean, it portrays the suffering, but it rejects any calculus where that is where her story ends. That is also very much to me your trademark. The story could have gone much worse, it could have been much more aggressive with the characters, the characters could have been less likeable, but you went somewhere else. There’s this guarantee that at the end of the day, this is going to be a woman’s story and the thing that women want to see is going to be the thing that prevails.
This was my mom’s story in lots of ways and I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to do justice to all of the women of her generation whose lives were constrained by expectation, by convention, by love, by what was possible for them. I tell the stories to sort of show the world, if we go back, understand this is what we’re going back to.
Has your mom read it?
What did she think of it?
Well, her line has always been, “I tell everyone my daughter has a great imagination.”
I think she liked it a lot. I mean, she’s come to the readings with me. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to have a writer in the family. I think that you always end up feeling a little exposed. So my mom just says it’s fiction and she goes about her business and I think that works for her.
I was re-reading some passages from “Good in Bed” and I got so angry reading the sections about the main character’s father. I don’t know how autobiographical that is but his neglect, his abuse, and then just the total abandonment, which I know was autobiographical. To me, it seems almost like the way that the industry has sort of abandoned you, it must tie into those traumatic feelings, no?
Listen, that’s my therapist speaking! You know, I think that there is personal neglect and there is institutional neglect, and I’m not the only woman for whom those two things are in conversation. I think that there are lots of women who were dismissed by a parent or dismissed by a male teacher or dismissed by a male boss or just told, you’re not good enough, you’re not pretty enough, you’re not thin enough.
When I wrote “Good in Bed,” I thought, “This is my story and no one else is really going to get it,” and my publisher paid a lot of money for it, and I remember thinking, “They are really going to be sorry when they realize that I am the only one that feels this way.” Lo and behold.
I can’t say that that makes me happy. The stuff that Bethie goes through — the first time I did any kind of public event about this book, it was online with a group of 20 women, and we got to a part about Bethie and I was like, “I know not all of you have read it, but Bethie goes through some stuff,” and I’m watching the responses scroll down the right side of the screen, and it’s all of these women saying, “That happened to me,” “That happened to me,” “That happened to my sister,” “That happened to my mother,” “That happened to my best friend.” And I’m sitting there thinking, my God, if we had a day where we could just all be angry about all the shit that’s happened, the world would explode because there’s so much pain and there’s so much anger and there’s so much institutional bias and personal bias and just all of the things that we as women have to get through even to walk out the door in the morning. It’s enraging. It is.
Wow. That image of these women writing “That happened to me,” “That happened to me.” That is just so powerful. And so devastating.
It was hard. It was hard to even continue with the conversation because I just wanted to step away from the computer and be like, “Why is this so common? Why is this so prevalent? Why does it happen over and over and over again?” For generations. That was something I wanted to show as well: the idea that the woman with the handsy boss in the 60s becomes the mother of the daughter with the #MeToo boss in the 90s or the 2000s. It just continues.
Did you feel very angry while you were writing this book? Like, on behalf of the characters?
I did. I did. And it was hard because I had to fight my instinct to show up as this avenging angel and punish every man who did wrong. I’m like, “That’s not how these stories went, and I owe the world the truth.”
Another thing that I think makes your work very challenging to the powers that be is the concept of female friendship — women who would do anything for each other; women who would screw over men to support each other; women giving up on male approval. I think that your books and your characters really represent women being connected to each other in a way that doesn’t fellate male egos.
You give the reader an uncomplicated friendship with your characters, too; they are likeable, which allows the reader to feel close to your characters. It’s a circumscribed relationship. But it permits your readers to have certain almost dangerous feelings, both about the story and about themselves, that they couldn’t in a more dangerous situation, where they had to worry about how they felt about the characters, or had to worry the character was about to get murdered — you know what I’m saying?
Yes. My 16 year old is a total theater kid and we talk all the time about the contained nature of catharsis, where if you’re watching someone on stage, you’re usually not confused about what they’re feeling and what their motivations are and you can have this tremendous catharsis. You can watch somebody make a terrible decision or make a terrible mistake or end up with the right man at the end, whatever the show is, and at the end, the lights come up and you stand up from your seat and you go back into the world having had, like you said, this contained experience.
There’s a reason that every culture tells stories. There’s a reason that there are cave paintings in France. The first kind of art was storytelling. One of the best compliments I ever got about my work was from a friend of mine whose mother was dying. She was in the hospital with her mom and I gave her an early copy of one of my books. She said, “I was so glad to have this because it was like you were sitting there talking to me.”
Right? That is what I want, you know? I do think that things are changing though. Ten years ago, when we started this conversation, it was me and Jodi Picoult who were the most vocal about it and about the way women’s books were not getting reviewed as frequently or discussed as seriously and we got slammed. It was like, You are jealous, you are bitter, your books are terrible, that’s why nobody writes about them, you’re just trashy entertainment and you’re not doing art, and just every awful dismissive cruel thing that you could imagine, until people started counting and saying, “Oh, hey, look at this, there are true discrepancies in a lot of these places,” and calling editors on the carpet and making them account for their crappy ratios and their crappy mastheads and the fact that there were no women assigning review coverage, and over ten years, things have changed.
I think that publications ratios have gotten better. I think a couple of the most egregious offenders no longer have jobs because of #MeToo. The New York Times covers romance now. They ignored that entire genre forever. They covered mysteries, they covered horror, they covered science fiction, they covered Dan Brown, they covered John Grisham, they covered Stephen King. They ignored romance almost entirely, and now there’s regular coverage and it’s regular respectful coverage that’s written by somebody that is knowledgeable about the genre and who understands a book’s aims and can talk knowledgeably about whether the book achieves it.
When I was in the thick of it and it was just like every day somebody writing I was a fake populist or I was a fake feminist or I was only doing this to promote my own work and it was God awful and I just wanted to crawl under my bed and hide everyday, I would tell myself, someday I will die and my obituary will either say “Jennifer Weiner, best selling novelist,” or it’ll say “Jennifer Weiner, best selling novelist who was outspoken about the inequalities in publishing and in the consideration of women’s work.” And I was like Ok, I know what I want it to say.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.