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Jennifer Weiner Questions Genre and Gender in the Literary World

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.”

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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