Jennifer Weiner on Women in Publishing: "There is a real quantifiable inequity"

No. 1 bestselling author Jennifer Weiner's reach goes far beyond her books. Weiner is known for her outspoken criticism of the book industry and the institutionalized media that supports it, rallying for more representation of female authors, particularly of commercial fiction, which is what she writes. Weiner has taken to nearly every platform that'll have her — Twitter, notable websites, print outlets, and panels — to voice her case that women get the shaft in publishing. But not everyone is a fan of the noise she makes.

Weiner, however? She thinks it's better that way. Speaking via phone in support of her new book All Fall Down (Atria) out June 17 — which is, you guessed it, commercial women's fiction, and likely also headed for the bestseller list — Weiner discussed the issues that she's still raising her voice about, and why she thinks her brand of uproar "makes some of the gatekeepers very anxious."

BUSTLE: I want to start with something you said in your panel discussion at BEA : "Women authors much more than men are put in the position to decide, 'Do I want respect and reviews or do I want readers?'" Do you think this has always been the case, or has the rise of a certain type of fiction bred a kind of fault line?

JENNIFER WEINER: It’s so funny you ask that because last night, Ed Champion, the guy who asked the last question [at the BEA panel] — he counted up the number of books that each of the [New York] Times daily critics reviewed [over the last year]. There’s the Times Book Review on Sundays, and then there’s the daily critics — there’s Janet Maslin, Dwight Garner, and Michiko Kakutani — and basically found that they’re all reviewing about 30 to 35 percent women to about 60 to 75 percent men. Then, he posted a link to a panel from 1971, I think, which it was Nora Ephron, it was another author, it was a book critic, and the title of the panel was, Have Things Changed? and this was like 40 years ago [having] the exact same conversation, the exact same lineup of people. Back then, she was quoting something like 14 percent of the books reviewed were by women. So, I guess you could say on the one hand, if we’ve gone from 14 percent to 30 or 35 percent there’s been some progress.

On the other hand, I think it’s always, always, always been the case that women’s fiction has been seen as less important, less relevant, less canonical, less lasting than the books that men write. I think that’s just been the case as long as women have been writing — as long as women have been writing, men just denigrate their work, and talk about the damned mob of scribbling women and their silly books, and how they’re not writing anything lasting. So, this is a problem that’s always been with us, I think.

I think it’s always, always, always been the case that women’s fiction has been seen as less important, less relevant, less canonical, less lasting than the books that men write.

Where did “women’s fiction” start? Can you identify its evolution as a genre?

I think you can go all the way back to Georgette Heyer and the Brontë sisters, and you could talk about Jane Austen and the “marriage plot” and point to that as being women’s fiction. In terms of the kinds of books that I write, “chick lit” became a term [around] the mid- to late-’90s. That was a new term. There’d been romance and there’d been upmarket commercial women’s fiction, and then there was this new thing, “chick lit,” which was about single girls and the city, and then it sort of became young mothers in the surburbs, and then it sort of became any book with a woman that’s funny. In terms of where women’s fiction came from, I want to say that in the beginning, a woman wrote a novel, and then a man wrote a novel, and then he said, Oh, her novel’s not very good, it’s just women’s fiction.

Have you felt like you’ve seen an increased response from the literary community to almost distance itself from commercial fiction to create more of a delineation between the two types of novels?

I actually do believe that’s going on. I think that when someone like me starts making noise and saying, Why aren’t you covering commercial women’s fiction or chick lit or books that tell these kinds of stories? and when people start listening to me, I think that makes some of the gatekeepers very anxious because they’re the ones that are supposed to be deciding what books get reviewed and what books get attention. Ultimately they would like to be in the position of deciding what books matter. They want to say, Okay, our taste and our judgment is important and worthy of respect and we want to be the ones to decide, for example, what the New York Times covers. Then somebody like me comes along and says, Well, why aren’t you writing about books like mine? and What’s wrong with this genre? and Isn’t there some sexism here when you’re saying these stories don’t really matter? I think the pushback that I’ve seen is sort of to publish something saying, Jennifer Weiner’s books are crap and all books like that are crap. And not just that [I’m] writing back books, but that [I’m] a bad person.

When people start listening to me, I think that makes some of the gatekeepers very anxious because they’re the ones that are supposed to be deciding what books get reviewed and what books get attention.

There was this piece in Salon that ran a couple weeks ago that was a “close reading” of my books, and the critic just ripped me. You want to give me a bad review, that’s fine — taste, everyone has their own opinions, not a big deal, I’m a big girl. But that review felt to me like it wasn’t a book review that was going to inform people about books and let them make their own choices. It felt like a review that was designed to shut someone up … I think it behooves certain critics to never have me say anything again because then nobody’s ever going to question their choices and they get to have the power that they’ve always had to maintain and reinforce the heirarchies. They get to be the ones saying it — but when I’m the one saying it or readers are the ones saying it, it gets really problematic for them. So, yes, I think there’s an increased resistance to books like mine — and to me specifically. Which stinks.

Presuming that most books fall on the literary or commercial line and that few are those unicorn books that straddle the divide, is an editor ultimately responsible for pushing a writer to one side or the other, or is a marketing department?

So many people have a spoon in that pot. A writer can have a vision as to where she falls, and an editor can certainly have a sense of that. I remember years and years ago hearing a conversation with a writer talking to an agent and [the writer] had just had a meeting with publishers and she said, “They asked me, ‘Do you think you’re literary or commercial?’” and the agent said, “Just tell me you said commercial, please tell me you said commercial” and the writer is like, “Yeah, I did,” and the agent is like, “Oh, thank God” because commercial is what sells. So, I think that agents have a stake in it, editors have a stake in it, certainly the marketing department has a huge stake in it because they ultimately don’t care as much whether somebody’s book is going to get a great review in the Times or get longlisted for the Booker Prize or something. They just want to sell a zillion copies at Target.

Speaking of Target, you said that Target made you change your cover for your new book, All Fall Down. It’s funny — I was researching a little bit, and when I Googled, I actually found an image of the old cover.

Wasn’t it pretty?

It was, yeah. It’s odd — based on what you said at BEA, I expected a much less feminized cover since Target made you change it to something that they considered to be more overtly feminine. I thought it was plenty “feminine.”

I think they thought it was too “quiet.” That was the the report that I got. Maybe because there’s been blue in some of my other covers that they wanted that consistency. I’m not a great visual thinker — I always have the dumbest ideas for my covers — but maybe they were trying to signal more explicitly that this was one of my books. They wanted it to look like some of the other ones.

It’s so tough. I feel like ultimately it’s my job to write the best book that I can and let other people worry about the marketing and the positioning and the cover and what it’s going to look like, and I have to trust their expertise. It’s their job, so I have to let job and let it be their choice.

Does it make you feel like a bit of a… pawn at all?

Well… ultimately, I am selling a product in the marketplace and as much as I love writing and as much as I tend to romanticize the power of storytelling and my mission, I’m selling a product in the marketplace, and I have to be realistic about that and realistic about the demands of the marketplace and what is required. I just sort of tell myself, Look, I might not love every single cover, I might not love every single decision that goes into how my books are sold but the story is the story and I have to ultimately have faith that the story is going to find its audience.

As much as I love writing and as much as I tend to romanticize the power of storytelling and my mission, I’m selling a product in the marketplace.

Do you think this is a mentality you have because you’ve been in the market for so long, or because you’re a “commercial writer” and you’re just conditioned to approach writing in the market in a certain way?

I think it has to do with that before I was a novelist, I was a newspaper writer reporter and one of the things that I covered was publishing … Being a journalist and knowing something about how publishing worked — both of those things made me more pragmatic than I would have been about the way things work and about what it takes to have a book succeed in the marketplace.

I think there’s a certain humility that goes into it, too. As authors, no one’s going to root harder for your book than you are. But that doesn't mean that you know best about marketing, about covers, about book tours, about all the pieces of the puzzle that go into making a book a success. I tell this to other writers all the time: You do the best you can, you bring all of your ideas to the table, and you don’t get upset if your ideas get shot down or if your marketing and publicity people look at you like you’ve got two heads. You have to be realistic and you have to be humble.

How do you reconcile the feelings of both being an underdog and being a bestseller? Because you’ve got flashes of both in a way.

I know — it’s very strange because I have to remind myself that nobody is out there going, Oh poor, poor Jen Weiner. Even though I feel that way sometimes, nobody roots for Goliath.

I have to remind myself that nobody is out there going, Oh poor, poor Jen Weiner.

And you get flak for that for sure.

Uh-huh. But I still think that there is a real quantifiable inequity where men can write genre fiction — they can write mysteries, they can write thrillers, they can write horror, they can write legal novels — and they are able to participate both in the economy of prestige and the economy of economy. You can be a bestseller and get reviewed in the Times. That is much harder to pull off as a woman in genre fiction. Like I said in the panel, I think men get to have that cake and eat it, too, and write a great, smart, funny beach book and get a review in the New York Times, whereas if you’re a woman, either you can write a beach book or you can get a Times review. It is very, very rare to see a woman who gets both. Yes, I am a bestseller, and yes, I am 100 percent with all of my heart grateful that I have readers and that my readers appreciate what I am doing and that my readers understand what I am doing, but that doesn’t mean that the world is perfect.

If you’re a woman, either you can write a beach book or you can get a Times review. It is very, very rare to see a woman who gets both.

The other thing is all the noise I make about reviews and coverage — it’s really, really, really, really not just about me. I’d be thrilled if the Times reviewed my books, but I’d honestly be really happy if they just started reviewing books like mine. That would be A-OK.

I suppose, though, that the men who are doing genre fiction aren’t winning PEN/Faulkner awards and they’re not getting Yaddo fellowships and there is inequity in terms of reviews, but there isn’t in terms of level of prestige.

It just comes back to that New York Times review — that’s the big piece of it. You’re right — nobody is inviting John Grisham to Yaddo, and I don’t think John Grisham feels bad he’s not getting invited. I know I don’t feel bad that I’ve never been invited. But I think the Times sort of has last, free-standing book review of any paper in the United States and they set the tone for a lot of other places’ coverage. When they decide that a category of stories isn’t worth any of their attention, that has meaning and that has impact, and that has a ripple effect down the road. It matters.

On that idea of the signals and representations, I know you’re very concerned about representations of women in the media and it’s always been something that’s close to you. I’m curious — are you happy with the way women are represented in commercial fiction?

That’s a great question. Certainly, I can pick up bestselling books by men and see women described as body parts and faces and not much more than that and see women objectified and treated as “rest stops” for the hero as opposed to actual characters. But I can see that in literary fiction, as well. I think that Philip Roth is sort of notorious for portraying women less as rounded, nuanced characters and more as “types” and cardboard cut-outs. I think there’s work to be done.

I can pick up bestselling books by men and see women described as body parts and faces.

What about commercial fiction written by women?

As with any genre, there are books that do it well, and there are books that do it less well. The thing I’m seeing lately that is a little bit dismaying is Gillian Flynn talked about the “cool girl” in Gone Girl where it was the character who was down with porn, and she eats wings and drinks beer and burps and wears sweatpants — you know, is this very down with the guys, not a feminist, not a killjoy, is not someone who is going to say, Hey, that’s not funny. The “cool girl” is kind of a male fantasy — she’s a guy’s dream of what a girl would be like, and I see her popping up a lot in books by men but also books by women. I’ve got daughters — I’ve got an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old… but I think a lot about my older daughter, and what is she going to think when she picks up a book and the heroine is this kind of cool girl who conforms to a man’s dream of what a woman is like and isn’t behaving the way I’d want my daughter to behave?

Why was it important to you to represent a woman struggling with addiction in All Fall Down?

What I wanted to do was not tell the story of a woman struggling specifically with addiction, but of a woman struggling with the question of authentic happiness, and I think that so many of us are taught: This is what a happy ending looks like. You get the guy, you get the ring on your finger, you get the big house, you get the cute kid, you get the job that you can talk about at parties so you can sound like you’ve got something going on, and that’s it — boom, done, happy ending. I think that there are women for whom that feels fantastic … and then there are women who get all that who say, Wait a minute, this doesn’t feel the way I thought it would, and then the question becomes, Well, what is authentic happiness and how do I get there? Addiction is very much in the news and I know people who’ve dealt with it — a lot of people know people who’ve dealt with it — I wanted to talk about that as a way of making the story personal and relatable and specific, but I also wanted it to be in a more general way about happiness and authenticity.

Early in the book, there’s a brief mention of a nurse, who’s male — was his gender a deliberate choice?

I do think about that. My impulse is always, The doctor’s a guy and the nurse is a lady and I really forced myself to try to mix things up and not in any overt, I’m going to slam you over the head with political correctness way, but just to get people thinking about possibilities. I like to shake things up and get people thinking.

If there were one institutionalized piece of publishing you could change, be it within pre-production or aftermarket strategy, or even within the media, what would it be and why?

If I could really change something, I’d change the New York Times. I’d have every single one of those critics commit to reviewing as many women as men, then at least trying to get a little closer. And I’d have them say that for every mystery or thriller or piece of science fiction or horror that we review, we’re going to review a piece of commercial women’s fiction, too.

If I could really change something, I’d change the New York Times.

Do you think that would bring different readers to the Times?

I think it would make their current readers feel more welcome. Pamela Paul at the panel was talking about demographics, and she was saying, I’ve got different demographics than People or Glamour and I’ve got to answer to a different audience and I started thinking, Okay, who is her audience? and I was really surprised — the New York Times is very close to 50/50 [male female split]. What I think is that there are a lot of women who read book like mine or Nora Roberts or Debbie Macomber who read romance or chick lit or commercial women’s fiction who also read the New York Times who’ve just gotten used to having to get their book information someplace else. I think those women would feel much more welcome at the Times if they would see a book that they were reading reviewed there.

You go to the movie section and you see the new Adam Sandler movie, and you know it’s not because it’s because the critics believe it’s “high-art” or a lasting piece of cinematic excellence. They’re reviewing it because it’s there, and it’s popular, and a ton of New York Times readers are going to go see it. And I think the dining people cover $25 and under restaurants, and the guy who writes about wine covers inexpensive bottles every once in a while, and I think there’s a recognition among the editors of the paper that their readers are interested in a range of things. Their music critics review opera, and Drake, and Chris Brown, and Gaga, and Nelly, and all of that, and I wish there was a similar recognition among the book critics. When I point that out, the response that I usually get is, Well, the film critics can cover every move that goes into wide-release but there are so many books there’s no way they could cover all of them so they have to make some choices. I still think, though, that even within the realm of making choices, you can still be representative — enough to make the women who read [the Times] feel like they’ve got a place at the table.

Image: Andrea Cipriani Mecchi

This article has been updated.