Jennifer Weiner’s Shiksa Lit
Her heroines are Jewish, but the best-selling novelist is working—despite her protests—in a goyish genre
Back in 2007, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic “cruised” through a Border’s with Maureen Dowd, who later penned a column about their stroll. They were searching for a copy of Nostromo but found instead nothing but pink-covered novels emblazoned with “a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos.” “These books,” Wieseltier disdainfully pronounced, “do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels.”
Among the leading voices of this suspect genre is Jennifer Weiner, who has spent the last few years tentatively re-appropriating the term “chick lit,” defending her fellow female authors in op-eds and railing against the critical stonewalling of a genre whose male counterparts—fantasy, horror—are not only financially successful but also reviewed. In 2010 the Huffington Post interviewed her, along with Jodi Picoult, about the much-logrolled “Franzen Feud,” over whether the male writer’s Time magazine cover and lavish critical attention indicated bias against “women’s fiction”; Weiner’s answers were acerbic in ways her protagonists never are, and her demands were realistic, righteous, and self-aware. She admits that she doesn’t write literary fiction but thinks she should be taken “at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby,” both of whom she later includes in a list of male authors who “would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls.”
Weiner’s body of work, which includes, along with the books, a television producing/writing credit (State of Georgia) and a movie based on one of her novels (In Her Shoes), epitomizes the chick lit market: financially robust, but critically shunned. Good in Bed, her debut novel, has sold more than 1.6 million copies to date and is now in its 56th reprinting. When it was released in 2001, it stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year, but it was never reviewed. A decade later, advice columnist Susan Quilliam wrote in the Journal of Family Planning that readers of chick lit “suspend reality” and apply its standards to real life—with disappointing results. Chick lit fans, we can extrapolate, are considered too dumb to know even their own motivations for indulging in the cheap pleasures of their favorite novels.
In a few weeks, bookstores and airport kiosks nationwide will prominently display Weiner’s soon-to-be-published 10th novel. The Next Best Thing is the story of Ruth Saunders, a 28-year-old Hollywood screenwriter who has just sold her first sitcom. The TV show, based on a semiautobiographical script, takes liberties with Ruth’s own experiences while preserving some of its most salient details. Her alter ego, Daphne, is a chef, not a production assistant, but like Ruth has a boy-crazy, best-friend-of-a-grandmother, whose love life often serves as a foil to her own. A green light from production, exciting though it is, promises little more than the guarantee of more hard work. As showrunner, Ruth is met with a bevy of daily struggles: rewrites, unreliable actresses, ratings-obsessed execs. Ruth’s backstory ensures from the start that we’ll tag along cheering: A car crash killed her mother and father when she was just a baby and left her with a half-scarred face. She’s set up as an underdog, physically maimed and ready to be rooted for.
Weiner’s prose style is cheery and friction-free: She gives us female protagonists that readers can identify with in uncomplicated ways. It’s not their bold actions or lithe minds that win our sympathies. Rather, the grim details of their biographies are supposed to compel us to like them in spite of their flaws. In many ways, one of the better clues to understanding the mystery of chick lit’s unique combination of fierce mass appeal and equally intense critical hostility is to look to Weiner’s use of Judaism. She endows her Jewish characters with a sort of all-purpose self-loathing—and her non-Jewish ones fare no better, ironically mazel tov-ing and bandying about terms like shiksa. The screwball slur connotes a gauzy head and the willingness to eat garbage—which is, not coincidentally, exactly how detractors like Wieseltier and Dowd think of chick lit and its readers: intellectually worthless, indiscriminate, both feared and dismissed.
For the 10th anniversary edition of Good in Bed, Weiner wrote a confessional first-person introduction that reads much like her fiction. The writing is snappy and fluent; she uses familiar, prefabricated phrases to describe her childhood (“picture-perfect suburb of Connecticut,” “a house full of books”) and then piles on the pathos-drenched particulars of her father’s eventual desertion and mental illness (he vanishes, he rants, he slurs). We get a chronicle of her professional ascent, first as a journalist and then as a novelist, as well as some details about a failed, though formative, relationship. When a prospective agent asks Weiner if the heroine of Good in Bed really needs to be fat (bad for movie deals), she holds her ground: “Yes, I said, the heroine needs to be fat, because if she’s not, then this is basically Bridget Jones with a bat mitzvah, not that I even read that.” Within the course of a few Roman-numerated pages, Weiner is, in effect, novelizing her own life. The swiftness with which her autobiography is conveyed reads like background she gives to her characters, who are spirited and self-deprecating, once-wounded but now healed—ready to make charisma out of their quirks.
From the archive: A gay man and an Orthodox rabbi find connection in Wayne Hoffman’s novel Sweet Like Sugar