In The New Yorker this week, Rebecca Mead profiles Jennifer Weiner, a best-selling novelist of romantic comedies who has, in recent years, forged a second career: as an outspoken critic of a literary establishment that fails to engage with books written by, for, and about women. A brief sampling of Weiner’s critical voice: When Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom earned him praise as the next “Great American Novelist,” Weiner denounced the love fest as “Franzenfreud.” When Weiner released her 2012 novel The Next Best Thing, she used the marketing campaign as an opportunity to cheekily mock what she sees as outsized critical acclaim of the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. And she has repeatedly pointed to her lack of presence in the New York Review of Books as evidence of industrywide sexism. “Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have to chose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller,” she tweeted in 2010. “Why should I? Oh, right. #girlparts.”
On the one hand, Weiner is in an ideal position to make this critique: She is a woman who writes about women, and she enjoys a tremendous following for doing so. But her dual role also serves to undermine her arguments: Is Jennifer Weiner fighting for greater acclaim for female writers, or is she fighting for greater acclaim for herself?
Weiner’s allegations of sexism in the critical establishment are persuasive in the aggregate. In 2012, for example, the New York Review of Books featured 316 male authors to 89 female ones. And some of her points are well-taken—is it really productive (or true) to call Franzen not just a good novelist but the best novelist living today? Still, that does not mean that, all things being equal, Weiner is a great novelist or that she should be one of the Times’ 405 featured authors in a given year. To a certain extent, Weiner acknowledges this as a necessary function of her critique. “Weiner says that she would relinquish her role as an ombudsman of publishing-world sexism if a writer with a more literary reputation took on the job,” Mead writes. “I imagine they have more to lose than I do,” Weiner told Mead. “If some literary woman were to be known as a gadfly, or a crank, even—somebody who won’t shut up, somebody who is persistent and abrasive—that could hurt her, careerwise.”
As a popular novelist ignored by the literary elite, Weiner’s crank status only serves to boost her own career. And many of her criticisms seem aimed at promoting her own writing style over that of “literary women,” even when these writers are also confronting industry sexism. When Claire Messud criticized an interviewer for asking whether the main character in her critically-acclaimed novel The Woman Upstairs was likable—Messud argued that male writers are not asked to create friendly protagonists—Weiner hit back at Messud, framing her annoyance as a personal affront (Weiner deliberately writes likeable characters). And when Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. author Adelle Waldman told an interviewer that she was not interested in writing a book featuring a “plucky heroine,” Weiner responded by saying that Waldman’s novel would have been better had it, in fact, featured a plucky heroine type who confronted Nathaniel on his sexist views. “What if he’d had a sister who had, like, an unfortunate complexion, or maybe wasn’t the cutest girl?” Weiner told Mead. Weiner is arguing that books with “plucky heroines” are unfairly boxed out of the literary establishment, while books with demented heroes are praised. But Jennifer Weiner is also arguing that Jennifer Weiner’s books are just better. That claim is harder to prove.
All of this means that Jennifer Weiner is an imperfect vessel for confronting sexism in the publishing industry. What it doesn’t mean is that Weiner is unique in her strategy of leveraging critical analysis to self-promote. In a lengthy bit of literary criticism published last year, Franzen decried the tendency of internet criticism to descend into “Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion.” When his essay wasn’t knocking other writers or engaging with the work of Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, it languished on personal anecdotes from Franzen’s own, pure, analog existence. You could call that “Jonathan Franzen-ish self promotion.” And despite his dubious status as the greatest living novelist—and a man, too!—Franzen was roundly criticized for the navel-gazing. In conclusion: Self-promotion among successful novelists remains annoying, and Jennifer Weiner is good at it.