Are Jennifer Weiner’s novels bestsellers because
Jennifer Weiner’s breezy bestsellers are often mentioned alongside the likes of Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Her first, Good in Bed, which chronicles the romantic travails of a plus-size newspaper columnist, transformed Weiner into the reigning queen of chick lit. Weiner’s subsequent efforts, such as In Her Shoes and Goodnight Nobody also concern young women navigating the familiar terrain of early adulthood—marriage, career, motherhood—and have risen to the top of the bestseller list, earning her no shortage of critical praise.
Yet for all the attention Weiner and her books have received, one aspect of her work has gone without comment: From Good in Bed‘s Cannie Shapiro to the characters who populate her new collection of stories, The Guy Not Taken, all of Weiner’s protagonists are decidedly, unabashedly Jewish. Children of the 1970s, they grow up comfortably assimilated in an upper-middle-class world where bits of Yiddish drop easily into conversation but no one bats an eye at eating a cheeseburger.
Your heroines are all Jewish, and you put that fact front and center in all of your books. In The Guy Not Taken, for example, your characters consider cashing in the State of Israel bonds they got as Bat Mitzvah presents and swim in a JCC pool with Midrash written into the tiles. Why do you write about Jewish protagonists?
Well, the short answer is that I’m Jewish, in the same comfortable way my characters are. In my earlier books, which were much more autobiographical, it was just natural. Being Jewish is just sort of a fact of who they are, and its just sort of a fact of who I am too. I mean, I have a Jewish grandmother who lives in Century Village, not unlike the Feller sisters [of In Her Shoes.] The other reason is that being Jewish does mean you’re automatically on the outside, which sets the characters up as natural observers, and gives them an added reason to be asking questions—”Who am I? How do I fit in?”—that I like to write about people grappling with.
You never hide your characters’ Judaism, but on book jackets and in articles, they seem to be described and identified much more by their weight than their religion. Have you gotten any reader reaction to the fact they are Jewish?
Strangely enough, no. I have heard reports that my name is on some neo-Nazi website. But I’ve never, ever gotten a complaint from a non-Jewish reader who felt they couldn’t relate, or that one of my characters is “too Jewish.” The only negative I’ve received was the other way around, where a writer for a Jewish paper was indignant that Cannie Shapiro [the heroine of Good in Bed] ate bacon. I was like, “But I’m Jewish, and I eat bacon!” I guess she thought I wasn’t being a good enough role model. I said, “We can’t all be Faye Kellerman.” It was funny, actually, because I’d worried the community would be upset about the fact that Cannie had sex during a shiva call. But no, no mention of that—just the pork.
But with non-Jewish readers it’s never really been raised. I gave a speech to a bunch of sorority girls in Texas, and I thought they were going to look at me like I was an animal in the zoo. But it wasn’t like that at all. I think there’s something about that outsiderness that most people, or, most young women at least, relate to. I guess we’re all a little Jewish.
Do you think that “outsiderness” is why there are so many Jewish chick lit heroines?
You know, when you think about it, most American chick lit heroines, and authors, are Jewish. I’m thinking of Melissa Banks, Laura Zigman, Lauren Weisberger. I mean, there’s the autobiographical component, but I do think Jewish heroines resonate with the chick lit buying crowd because they are wrestling with the kinds of identity issues and figuring out of how to be in the world that being Jewish lends itself to.
Is there ever a point in your writing where you wonder or worry about making things “too Jewish” for a mainstream audience?
Not “too Jewish” per se, but there have definitely been times when I’m wondering how Jewish to make them. It mostly bubbles up with a certain kind of Jewish humor and I wonder: “Will people get this?” But my agent’s not Jewish, so I figure if she gets this joke, it’ll translate. And though some Yiddish crops up now and then, I try to be careful not to put in a term or reference most readers won’t understand. But I think nowadays, so much of Jewish humor has become so mainstream it’s really not much of an issue.
Do you think Jewish humor becoming mainstream is a somewhat recent phenomenon? Do you think people of your generation—people in their twenties and thirties—are more comfortable claiming their Jewishness than past generations were?
I definitely think so. Being Jewish gives you a kind of indie cred. You can be a part of the culture, but not really of it. But I think I’ve chosen to write about characters who are like me in part because it’s easy to do. I grew up in an era (the ’70s and ’80s) and in a place (the Northeast) where being Jewish was fine. I never had that mythic brush with anti-Semitism. Yet at the same time, there weren’t many examples of Jewish heroines in mainstream culture. I mean, you had Natalie on Facts of Life and Andrea on 90210, but it was always the supporting characters. Now you have people like Grace Adler on Will and Grace whose being Jewish is acknowledged and even played up. It’s like we’ve gone from encoded Judaism to overt Judaism. There was this joke on The Larry Sanders Show where someone was saying that Hollywood was run by Jews, and the person said, “No, you idiot, it’s run by the gay Jews.” That’s what it’s come to now.
Even so, on your website, you describe the characters from In Her Shoes as “Jewish sisters,” yet in the film version one of them was played by Cameron Diaz. And Shirley MacLaine is decidedly not the Jewish grandmother you wrote about. Were you upset that the movie was so much less ethnic?
No! I was actually very happy about the way they turned out. The movie ends with a Jewish wedding, with a rabbi, which I thought was great. My attitude about Hollywood was pretty Zen: you take the money and let them do what they’re going to do. What I wrote is still what I wrote and its still there in bookstores, between the pages.
You’re so often identified as a chick lit writer, but with this new collection, you’re being called “literary.”
I think it’s hilarious. Actually, my first thought was “Oh, no, not literary! I have to pay for nursery school!” But I will admit to being sensitive to the chick lit moniker when my first book came out. I was like, “I went to Princeton just like Jonathan Safran Foer, goddamnit!” But I realized if you call a book Good in Bed and there’s a pair of legs and a piece of cake on the cover you’re not exactly asking for a Pulitzer. And I also realized that nobody really cares, readers just want what they want. And, at the end of the day, I’m writing the books I want to write, so who cares about the rest of it?
And you want to write books about Jewish women?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, the book I’m working on now deals with a lot of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and people have been kind enough to let me crash their events. They are so rich with material for a writer! I heard of one recently where the Harlem Globetrotters performed. I mean—it’s just too easy. How can you not write about that?
Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman were rising stars in the 1960s. Roth became part of the canon. Friedman became “that guy who wrote Splash.”