Jennifer Weiner, bestselling author of "Good In Bed" and a number of other "commercial women's fiction" (a much nicer name for "chick lit") titles, doesn't need any help selling her books. In fact, when you've racked up more than 4.5 million sales for novels bearing your name and headshot inside the book jacket, you'd think kicking back and resting on literary laurels would be in order -- but not for Weiner who has positioned herself at the forefront a now-longstanding conversation over the value and recognition of fiction aimed at a female audience. Beginning in 2010, Weiner took to Twitter to express her dismay at the rapid and seemingly unvetted embrace of Jonathan Franzen's novel (which I thoroughly enjoyed) "Freedom," which had recently been published to immediate acclaim:
And since then, Weiner has periodically harnessed the power of her nearly 82,000 Twitter followers to call out Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and other writers and critics for what she perceives as a double standard that rewards literature penned by and about men as inherently superior. In 2012, a report from the Women in Literary Arts organization VIDA supported Weiner's stance with its revelation that nearly three-fourths of authors reviewed by the Boston Review, Harper's, London Review of Books and other well respected outlets were male authored. Weiner, for instance, despite spending plenty of time on The New York Times bestseller list has never been reviewed by the publication. As book critic Lizzie Skurnick told the LA Times in 2010 regarding Weiner: "She's super smart, but her books are perceived as fluffy. It's very hard to have that [intelligence] acknowledged when you write for women, and your readers love you and come to see you."
Caroline and I dug further into this issue of author gender, literary respect and book marketing in our podcast "Can you judge a book by its gendered cover?", which I highly recommend listening to (of course). More recently, a New Yorker profile of Weiner and her quest for literary respect re-piqued my interest in this what we're really talking about when we talk about the value of commercial women's fiction, particularly because an undertone (and sometimes overtone) of "what's OK to enjoy and still be perceived as an intelligent female reader?" emerges. Does the flippant -- a woman at a beach, recovering from heartache, running up a credit card bill -- maintain any value, and why don't we hear similar debates in regard to "commercial men's fiction," (which isn't really a thing because "male" stuff often doesn't get niche categorized in the same way women-oriented fare does, but for the sake of argument think Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisholm and the like)? I don't have the answers (if I did I'd probably have a corner office at Penguin), but fittingly I do have some recommended reading:
"Written Off: Jennifer Weiner's Quest for Literary Respect" by Rebecca Mead. The New Yorker.
"Jennifer Weiner, I Love You, But You're Smothering Me" by Kelly Faircloth. Jezebel.
"Jennifer Weiner's Curious Definition of Literary Sisterhood" by Michelle Dean. Flavorwire.