I don’t know how it’s possible, but after reading this New Yorker profile “Written Off” by Rebecca Mead, I love Jennifer Weiner more than I did before reading it, although it’s widely being described as “a take-down” piece. The profile starts out fine, but about half-way through, the paragraph that starts “Weiner has also taken literary inspiration from her mother…” is the point where the whole thing just skates off the rails (Mead’s suggestion that Weiner’s lesbian characters are somehow anti-gay is bogus, small and unworthy of that publication) and Mead begins just coloring on the walls rather than finishing her work. I’m not sure whether I respect Mead’s audacity more for just saying “aw fuck it, I’m writing myself into a corner” in the middle of an article for The New Yorker, or The New Yorker’s for publishing it without fixing it, or apparently, even realizing it needs to be fixed.
This paragraph is so funny I had to get up and go to the bathroom and pee before I could finish:
A novel that tells of the coming of age of a young woman can command as much respect from the literary establishment as any other story. In 2013, Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her hard-edged exploration of this theme, “The Flamethrowers,” and the previous year Sheila Heti won accolades for her book “How Should a Person Be?,” even though it included both shopping and fucking. The novel, and the critical consensus around what is valued in a novel, has never excluded the emotional lives of women as proper subject matter. It could be argued that the exploration of the emotional lives of women has been the novel’s prime subject. Some of the most admired novels in the canon center on a plain, marginalized girl who achieves happiness through the discovery of romantic love and a realization of her worth. “My bride is here,” Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre, “because my equal is here, and my likeness.”
Emphasis very much mine. I can’t even with the Jane Eyre in a discussion of women in contemporary literature.
The thing that is almost entirely missing from this article is any detailed analysis of Jennifer Weiner’s case for re-thinking what is and what should be considered “literary merit.” Her critique is a serious (and valid) one, and not to be dismissed, but Mead attempts to ignore it almost completely, falling back on George Eliot’s 1856 essay to bolster the blinders she keeps, while ignoring the very points she lightly quotes about Weiner’s thoughts early on in the piece.
A loose paraphrasing of Weiner’s ideas:
- that the two great contemporary literary themes “white men doing great things or failing in the attempt” and “oppressed peoples struggling against a harsh society” leave some serious gaps of examination of human experience
- that white middle-class modern women’s life experiences (one of those missing pieces) are not just fluff (shopping and fucking? really?), and to dismiss them as such is fundamentally sexist
- that regular, ordinary people really do, actually, often achieve happy endings, and this is valid literary subject matter
- that literature doesn’t have to be painful to have great affect on us
- and that taking comfort in things that are uplifting can actually lift us up, and that has value
If you change the lens on the microscope by which you analyze writing, both commercial and literary, with many of these ideas in mind, you realize quickly that contemporary literary criticism leaves a lot of worthy writing behind, especially the writing of women.
Mead dissects and dismisses several of Weiner’s books in this piece by refusing to think of them in this proposed new context, instead shoving them under the traditional lens of “The Old-Tymey Rules of What is Good Literature” while willfully ignoring that more and more women are successfully challenging the notion that these long accepted “Rules” have some serious bias in the way of both sexism and snobbishness. That Mead has to reach as far back as George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë to make her case in discussing a contemporary author and her place in contemporary literature says a great deal about how weak her case is.
I can’t imagine how Mead interviewed Weiner, read large sections of the woman’s twitter account, and listened to her speak about women, commercial fiction and the place of both in contemporary literature and yet got Weiner’s voice so very wrong. The woman is not exactly smoke and mirrors; there isn’t a facade there. Weiner’s pretty straight-forward, and it’s impossible to follow her on twitter for any length of time and not come to think of her as self-reflective and open. I can’t imagine how Mead spoke to her and didn’t come away seeing her as genuine, but she didn’t.
Mead also bolsters a wide-spread belief that “Jennifer Weiner has two audiences. One consists of the devoted consumers of her books, which have sold more than four and a half million copies…. Her other audience is made up of writers, editors, and critics.” Even Weiner apparently believes that to be true, and I guess she would know her own audience(s), but I find it hard to believe those two audiences are entirely separate. I definitely bridge that gap.
In the end, Mead decides that Weiner is just whining; that her work doesn’t deserve critical recognition, not because it’s viewed through a sexist and snobbish literary lens, but because of:
the perfunctory quality of some descriptive passages, or of the brittle mean-spiritedness that colors some character sketches. (Readers looking for fairness and kindness will not always find those attributes displayed by Weiner’s fictional creations.)
That was a jaw-dropping statement for me; that same statement could be could be made about sections of work from many contemporary male “literary giants” including Roth, Franzen, Eugenides, Chabon, David Foster Wallace, men who clearly receive great critical recognition, some of it deserved and sometimes not so much.
Mead goes out of her way at the end of the piece to tie Weiner back into her place as “chick lit” by describing in detail the women who come to have their books signed, and how they measure her books against what Mead clearly considers the irrelevant minutia of their own lives, an ending I found as lazy as most of the article.