Having the Best-Selling Cake and Eating the Review, Too: An Interview With Jennifer Weiner
Jennifer Weiner is a #1 New York Times bestselling writer whose eleventh novel All Fall Down came out yesterday. All Fall Down’s protagonist is Allison, a housewife whose respectable suburban existence conceals a growing addiction to pills. (Like Orphan Black’s excellent character who shares her name, this Allison is also funny, shockingly capable and occasionally more than slightly delusional.) I read the book straight through without putting it down once, over the course of a sunny Sunday morning, and talked to Weiner over email afterward.
Your newest protagonist is a blogger! She writes for a sex and relationships site called Ladiesroom.com, and part of her excuse for her pill habit is that specific pressure: writing all the time, publicly, about heated topics, turning everything into material, coming under heavy personal scrutiny from anonymous readers. How much did your own experience as a writer who engages online — and whose primary medium of engagement is becoming inextricable from online conversation — influence this character? Could you imagine a weird fork in the road in which you’d turned from journalism to (instead of fiction writing) blogging?
I don’t want to say Allison Weiss, c’est moi, because these days nobody gets a good Flaubert reference, but certainly a lot of the things Allison deals with are things that I have dealt with myself. Some of the grief I get for engaging with issues online — where I try to make a point about fairness and equality and the response is “you’re just jealous/you’re ugly/no one wants to sleep with you” — made its way into Allison’s story, and became one of the reasons she turned to things that helped her feel better. I remember one counselor telling me that people with addictions don’t have a problem with booze, or pot, or pills. Their problem is with feelings. They didn’t learn to cope with feelings, and the substance abuse is just a symptom of that. It’s easy to get your feelings hurt, or to get genuinely scared by the response you get online, from people who just seem to be so full of rage and lashing out at anyone, without the understanding that there’s a real person on the other side of the avatar, and they’re not just kicking a virtual dog. If you don’t have healthy — or healthy-ish — ways of handling it, it’s easy to see how a pill or a few glasses of wine could start looking very appealing.
As for blogging, I think it’s simply a matter of being born at the right time. When I finished college, in 1991 (lo, these many years ago), it was possible to learn how to be a writer by getting a job at a small newspaper, making all kinds of mistakes, and (hopefully) getting better every day. If I’d been born in 1980 or 1990, I have no doubt I would have ended up at a blog. Which might not have been a good thing. At newspapers, I was forced to wait, to actually learn to report hard news before I got to write the culture and opinion pieces that appealed to me much more. Which meant that, by the time I got to write those pieces, I knew how to do my research, how to back up a claim, and how to deal with the naysayers (at least a little bit).
I also made my mistakes at a place where not many people saw them. My first paper had a circulation of around 20,000. These days, even a young blogger can write something that takes off and goes viral and is seen by many, many more eyeballs than that. And if there’s a mistake in her piece, well, heaven help her. I remember being just flamingly jealous of my classmates who landed internships, then jobs, at national publications — but in retrospect, I’m so grateful I got to screw up, and get better, far, far from the national stage.
You’ve talked really cogently about the automatic categorical discrimination embedded in the category of “chick lit” — as you said in your Jezebel chat, “there is no ‘commercial men’s fiction,’ there is no ‘dick lit.’” I wonder what you feel about nominally female spaces online versus nominally female spaces in literature? For example, the Hairpin is described as a female-slanted website and the Awl is just a website; I’m not super fussed about that for a number of reasons, but I wonder what the situation seems like to you, and whether or not your narrator in All Fall Down (and her relationship with her husband, who was working on less-salable but more “serious, male” subjects: poverty in Philadelphia) was subconsciously frustrated by being seen as lady first, writer second.
Last week, the Bailey Prize for Women’s Fiction was announced. With it came the predictable tide of critics saying, “Why a women’s prize? Women want to be equal, let them compete for the Booker and the Pulitzer with the boys!”
In an ideal world, that is exactly what would happen. But we all know how far the world is from ideal. Women get published less frequently, reviewed less frequently — taken, in general, less seriously than men — and they have to work that much harder to prove that they’re deserving. Until that glorious day comes when we are all judged by the content of our pages, not the pink pastel purse on our cover, I have no problem with ladies-only prizes, or ladies-only spaces.
I suppose Allison might be aggravated to think of herself as toiling in the ladyghetto, while her husband is viewed, and rewarded differently for addressing “important” issues. And, of course, I made sure to note that, while he might be the one getting respect, she’s the one getting not only read, but paid, which is a familiar state of affairs to the best-selling lady. But Allison fell into journalism in such a backward, roundabout way that she’s still in a state of disbelief that anyone wants to read what she’s written. Which, I think, is a common feeling among women. Men take it for granted that the world wants to hear what they’ve got to say, women have to be convinced that anyone besides their immediate family members care. And, unbelievably, accusing a woman of self-promotion is still a thing. In 2014! As if the very act of publication didn’t come with the inherent belief that you’ve written something worth reading — if not, why publish?
I’ve always appreciated that you read and love literary fiction, but also criticize the idea that it’s what you should be writing to be taken seriously, and — on a surely related note — are a loud proponent of “park your ass in your chair and write.” I just finished an MFA program that had a big implicit highbrow emphasis and barely heard that advice at all; in fact, I heard a lot more of the opposite (“writing is tricky, give it space”). I have a hard time articulating literary boundaries but think a lot of what ends up delineating these areas stems from the underlying ethos: on any given day, is a given writer going to prize delicacy or word count? The perfect paragraph or two more pages that read kind of rough? (I, definitely, fall in the “park your ass” category.) This is to say that I’m interested to know what, to you, differentiates your work from literary fiction. How would you describe the gap between your work and something like The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., or the work of a male writer who you’d consider your rough stylistic equivalent? Is it pace and plotting? Something else?
Wow. This is tricky. I feel like literary fiction is kind of like pornography — I know it when I see it? But maybe that’s a cop-out. I can read a book like Nathaniel P. and recognize that, okay, the subject matter might be the same as one of those old Red Dress Ink paperback originals, but clearly, Waldman’s approach is different. Some of it has to do with language, and the privileging of great writing or beautiful description over, say, a page-turning plot. Some of it has to do with the ending — tie it all up in a bow, let your caddish protagonist be reformed, vow to stray no more, and find True Love in the arms of the pure-hearted (but large-bottomed) woman we’ve all been rooting for, and it’s chick lit. Let your caddish protagonist break up with the PH(BLB) woman we’ve all been rooting for in an excruciatingly painful and realistic fight, and then have him hook up with the cold-hearted snake of a ladyblogger we’ve all been rooting against, and it’s literary fiction.
So some of it’s intrinsic to the text, and some of it is straight-up packaging and perception. If you’re writing for FSG or Knopf it’s like it cannot, by definition, possibly be something as degraded as chick lit, because they don’t publish that stuff! If your book has a cover that’s just typography and color, it’s literature, but if there’s a female body part, it’s chick lit. If you’re smiling in your (color) author photo, it’s chick lit. If you’re smirking, or giving a stern, thin-lipped stare in your black-and-white picture, and if you go out of your way in every interview to talk about how “unserious books do not deserve serious attention,” then it’s literature. (Or, more likely, it was literature all along but you just want to make quadruply sure that absolutely no one is mistaken about your serious intentions and gets you confused with one of this icky pink girls who have cooties.)
Finally, if you’re a guy writing a funny, fast-paced, relatable comedy of manners, with a Jewish protagonist, you’ve written a book. If you’re a girl and you wrote that same thing, you’re… me. I remember, years ago, picking up Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe, and thinking, “Wow, this guy writes like I do!” I still think it’s true. Except Janet Maslin reviews him on the regular, and the most I’ve ever gotten from Maslin is a few sentences in what I call the Vagina Flyover that she comes out with every May, where she’ll review a whole bunch of books with nothing in common but female authors.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, in general, my books sell better than Jonathan Tropper’s. You could say it’s a fair trade-off, except I don’t think women writers should be in the business of making trade-offs. Men who write popular commercial fiction get reviewed in the Times and become big best-sellers. Women should be able to have that best-selling cake, and eat that review, too.
I want to ask you about how you researched All Falls Down? Does your reporter’s background influence the way you germinate ideas for new novels? There’s a lot in this book that’s timely: your character uses bitcoin (!) to buy drugs on a marketplace that’s clearly Silk Road. And certainly, I think the fact that a character in one of your books can be (as she eventually recognizes) a few steps away from copping heroin is emblematic of where opiate addiction has come to today.
Like pretty much anyone drawing breath in These United States, I’m familiar with the issue of addiction. It’s touched my own life, and, of course, you can’t pick up a paper, or a People magazine, without knowing the statistics, and how many women it’s affected, and how your notion of who an addict is and what he looks like probably isn’t true.
I set about researching this story like I was reporting it. I read a lot of books — Inside Rehab and Her Best Kept Secret are two that I highly recommend. I visited treatment centers. I went to twelve-step meetings. I talked to people. And, of course, once people knew this was what I was working on, they forwarded me every single newspaper story or magazine article about opiate addiction, the heroin epidemic, women and addiction. You name it, I read it.
And lot of what I learned surprised me, especially what I learned about rehab. You imagine — at least, I imagined — these very well-regulated, well-run places that had to adhere to all kinds of rules about who delivered the treatment, how much time patients spent with counselors, how trained those counselors needed to be. What I learned is that it’s very easy to slap a sign on a facility and call it a treatment center (in fact, one of the places I spent time was a former assisted-living facility, where the owners decided that treating addicts would be more profitable than treating the aged). There are very few rules about the qualifications you need to treat addicts, or about who gets to treat addicts in the first place. I imagined it would be all PhD’s and medical doctors, and learned that, frequently, the only qualifications counselors and coaches had were (A) being in recovery themselves and (B) getting a postgraduate certificate that involved (to my mind) not a lot of training.
In some cases, these counselors and coaches were terrific. They got it, they were committed, they were empathetic, and they got the job done. But in other cases, it was like Allison said. The people running the rehab might as well have been stocking shelves at Toys R Us.
There was also the issue of there being just one choice on the menu: rehab and more rehab. Most rehabs are the same — they use 12-step programs, they truck patients to meetings, they make them read the Big Book, which has not been updated since in the 1930’s, which is tremendously problematic when it comes to treating teenagers and young adults. It’s very, very difficult reading.
Finally, there’s the problem of too few options. If you go to rehab and then relapse, you get sent back to rehab. They tell you in treatment that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, with the hopes that that idea will get you to stop using. But then, if treatment doesn’t work, they send you for… more treatment.
It was interesting, knowing all of this about treatment and options and how rehab works, and doesn’t work, when a Philip Seymour Hoffman or Cory Monteith would die, and Twitter would erupt with well-meaning people saying, “Get help! If you’re in trouble, go get help!” Well. Both of those men had gotten help. They’d been in rehab, then overdosed when they’d gotten out. What do we do when the help’s not helping?
You’ve become a public figure for the role you’re playing in a larger literary conversation about audience and seriousness and elitism and sexism. “Jennifer Weiner” is now an idea that people who have never read a Jennifer Weiner book will have pretty clearly fixed in their heads. Do you think people — let’s say, the audience that Rebecca Mead pointed out in your New Yorker profile, that reads all of your opinions but not all of your novels — see you accurately? What’s the disjunction, if any, between what people perceive of you and how you perceive yourself?
This is such a smart question!
In her piece, Rebecca Mead suggested that I have two audiences: the first, much larger audience comprised of people who enjoy my books and could not give Shit One about sexism, gender equity, who the New York Times reviews and how that one time Jonathan Franzen made fun of me.
Audience Two is made up of the people who follow my struggle (five points: Karl Ove Knausgaard reference!) with the powers that be about book reviews, who are readers of The New Yorker, The New York Times and maybe even The Paris Review, and would not be caught dead holding, or ever admit to reading, one of my books. Some of them think I have a point, but because I’m a not-so-good, popular writer, I am the wrong person to make that point. Some of them think I’m Just Jealous, and also a not-so-good popular writer, and no one should listen to me.
I don’t think those boundaries are impenetrable. I think there are people who came to my books with no idea that I was even on social media, and found me on Twitter, and started paying attention to things like the VIDA count afterwards. And maybe there’s more than two audiences. Last week Bustle ran a piece saying I’ve got two audiences: the readers, and the holy-shit-would-she-please-just-STFU people (they changed their wording when I gently suggested that at least a few of the people who follow the sexism-in-book-review thing might agree with me).
Then, when USA Today ran a squib about All Fall Down and said, “Jennifer Weiner’s readers don’t care that she’s become a feminism cause celebre,” I heard from a bunch of people on Twitter saying, “We read her books and we care very much about the feminist stuff.”
And what about the people who don’t read my books, who don’t care about the Times, and who just show up for the Bachelor tweets? What about my kids, who don’t care about any of it at all?
It’s like the blind men and the elephant. You know that one? Where one blind guy grabs the tail and says, “It’s a snake!” And another blind guy grabs the trunk and says, “It’s a giant snake!” And a third blind guy picks up the leg and says, “it’s office furniture!” (I am paraphrasing).
Here’s the truth — I am greater than the sum of my parts, and I think that people who just think “ranty feminist” or “funny twitter lady” are missing some intriguing parts of the picture. However, I think that even readers who think they’re just picking up my books for entertainment know that I’m a big old feminist. My feminism informs my writing, my characters, the choices they make. How could it not? So I’m not sure I buy the bifurcated audience thing. While there are absolutely people who wouldn’t touch my books, can’t stand my politics, and wish I’d just have some terrible industrial accident involving my tongue and all ten fingers that would shut me up forever (holla, Ecco Press! Cheers, Adelle Waldman’s publicist! Salud, Angry Assistant Editor at GQ!), I think most of my readers have some sense of who I really am and what I believe.
I also worry that people picture me as walking around with a breastplate and a battle-axe, like Brienne of Tarth, only in Spanx, and the truth is, in person, I am, like, the least confrontational human being in the world. I don’t fight with anyone! Ever! I just seethe quietly about it, and then use it as raw material for a book five years later! In real life I am extremely easygoing. Also: a fan of literary fiction, which I think people miss, or are confused about. Literary writers are not my enemies. Unless they go out of their way to trash books like mine. In which case, it’s on.
There’s a wave of that perpetual fuss going on right now in terms of critics wanting to protect the “center” of literature, which is such an old, boring horse to beat. But I wanted to ask you: as Mead suggested in that profile, are you looking for your work to slide from margin to center? Or would you prefer that the idea of the center just dissolve?
A novelist living in the time her books are published is the absolute last person with anything smart to say about where her books stand, or where history might shelve them. Those decisions — which books matter? Which will survive? — are going to be made be people who haven’t even been born yet, people who will probably be swallowing books in pill form, so I try not to spend too much time thinking about margins versus middle and where my books might end up.
I believe in playing fair with regard to gender. If you’re reviewing genre fiction by and for men, you need to review genre fiction by and for women. Will those books last? Are we going to read, say, Harlan Coben and Robert Crais, or Allison Pearson or Helen Fielding fifty or a hundred years from now? I wouldn’t even take a guess.
With all that being said, I think my work is at the center, if you’re talking about the books that people are reading and, maybe more importantly, talking about and thinking about. There are books that are fun and very easily digestible — you find out who solves the crime, or the girl gets the guy, and you’ve had a perfectly fine time reading the thing, but maybe it doesn’t stay with you. Then there are big-deal books that people feel obligated to own, but maybe not read (I think that once Oprah’s told you to go buy Middlesex or Freedom, and it’s won a huge prize and it’s gotten a huge Times review and it’s on the bestseller list, you kind of have to go get it. But I think plenty of copies of those books are sitting prominently on bookshelves with their spines uncracked).
I hope that my books entertain — that’s my very first goal — but I also hope that with, each one, there’s a kernel of something to think about after the final page, whether it’s the prejudice we attach to appearance, or how even beautiful girls can be ugly or angry on the inside, or how we put together families in these modern and confusing times. That’s been part of the New York Times crusade — getting the recognition that these books are being read and being talked about, and so maybe the Times should consider including them, because, to a large extent, its audience is my audience. My critics sometimes get confused about this, but I actually don’t mind that The New Yorker or Harper’s or The Atlantic doesn’t touch chick lit. They cover literary fiction. They’re not interested in engaging with the mainstream. Which is fine, as long as their VIDA numbers aren’t terrible (which they are, in all three cases, but baby steps). But the Times, which is a big, mainstream newspaper with a big, diverse readership, needs to make its tent big enough to include books like mine. When that happens, I’ll feel like I’m in the center. Or that they’re acknowledging that I’ve been there all along.