|A Moment of Jen|
posted by Jen at 4/16/2013 03:26:00 PM
While we all wait patiently for the New York Times book review to acknowledge Meg Wolitzer, Elizabeth Strout and Kate Atkinson, here are my spring tour dates! I'll be joined for all three events by Sarah Pekkanen, whose THE BEST OF US is out right now, and in Philadelphia and NYC (and maybe Lexington, too) by Elizabeth LaBan, whose YA debut THE TRAGEDY PAPER is also on shelves.
Come on down!
Tuesday, April 30
St. Peter's School
319 Lombard Street
Wednesday, May 1
New York, NY
6:00 PM EST
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
222 East 79th Street (Between 2nd and 3rd)
New York, NY
Tuesday, May 7
161 Lexington Green Circle
Lexington, KY 40503
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
posted by Jen at 4/10/2013 05:02:00 PM
Last month, the third annual VIDA count of how often major publications review work by women or publish reviews by women came out.
The results were predictably dismal. With a few exceptions, not only have things not gotten significantly better since Vida started counting, they’ve actually gotten worse. Which begs the question – when “raising awareness” (or “public shaming”) aren’t getting the job done, when the editors who once responded to the tallies with concern now greet the count with silence, and the male writers who continue to be well-served by the status quo come back with charges that best-selling women aren't allowed to point out that there's a problem, or the bizarre insistence that they're the ones with the real complaints, what can readers and writers do to urge their favorite publications to do better?
It's an especially timely question, given the past few days' events.
Just yesterday, the New York Times announced that Sam Tanenhaus, who's run the Book Review for nine years and has famously insisted that the publication owes nothing to women writers of popular fiction because "we cover literature" (and also John Grisham, Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson and Stephen King -- but who's counting?) is stepping down. Pamela Paul, currently editor of the children's books section, will take his place.
That's big news in the book world. Having a woman in charge doesn't guarantee great treatment for the ladies -- Harper's, one of the magazines that's actually gone backwards in the VIDA count, is helmed by a woman -- but there's some suggestion that Paul might see the literary world differently than the man who hired her.
For one thing, if you write about children's books,it suggests that you have a more encompassing view of the kind of books that deserve attention in the Times' pages than your boss. Paul's description of "barreling through" the third book in THE HUNGER GAMES while in the hospital after giving birth to your third should thrill of anyone who loves YA or sci-fi. The "By the Book" feature which she launched has been wonderfully inclusive. Besides the usual suspects, representatives from television (Lena Dunham, Chris Colfer) and popular fiction (Mary Higgins Clark) and Jackie Collins have appeared in the paper's pages to talk about their reading and writing lives.
If Paul's appointment was exciting news, Deborah Copaken Kagen's essay in The Nation, published today, reminds us how far women writers still have to go.
The essay, "My So-Called Feminist Life in Arts and Letters" describes the memoirist and novelist's battles over titles and covers ("The cover that the publisher designs (for her first book, a memoir of her work as a war-zone photographer, SHUTTERBABE) has a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. I tell them it's usually my eye behind the camera, not my vagina. I fight—hard—to change the cover"). It describes her struggle to get booked on "Fresh Air" (Terry Gross liked the "shutter" part of her first book's title, but not the "babe"), the way she's described as a "stay-at-home mom" by reporters who interview her after SHUTTERBABE is published (and after she's left her television producing job to write the book), the writer who called her "Battlefield Barbie," her failure to interest the New York Times Book Review in her books, and the impact that lack of attention has had on her career: on a trip to sign stock in local stores, "Was it reviewed in the Times?" one bookseller asks me, searching his computer for any sign of the novel, which he was unable to locate on the shelves. I tell him no. "Then we probably don't stock it." I hear the same story from three more booksellers before heading home with my pristine Sharpie."
Can a woman write a big book -- a book that gets the kind of breathless attention and guaranteed saturation-level coverage from the Times that's typically given to the Franzens and Eugenides of the world, a book where the publishers would never dream of putting "babe" in the title or pastel hues on the cover?
Novelist Wolitzer asked the question in “The Second Shelf,” a 2012 essay in the New York Times Book Review, and came to the conclusion that it’s still very, very hard for a woman to be seen as writing big, or to nab the “genius” label. "The truth is, women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world," Wolitzer wrote.
Too often, her book will arrive with a soft-focus cover, with pastel shades or images of "laundry hanging on a line.. (a) little girl in a field of wildflowers...(a) pair of shoes on a beach:" in other words, covers that say, explicitly, “book clubs welcome; men, not so much.” Her book will be called “spare” if it’s short, "self-indulgent" and "undisciplined" if it's long, and dismissed as “domestic fiction” if it deals with marriage and motherhood, or is set in the suburbs. The title of Great American novel, and the attention that goes with it, still largely belongs to men.
This month, Wolitzer and three other women have written books that could all be called big. Wolitzer and her editor have taken pains to position her latest, THE INTERESTINGS, as a contender for the big book title. The book follows a half-dozen summer-camp friends through forty years and over 468 pages, examining what the real world and the passage of time do to ambition, creativity and relationships.
It comes with a blurb from Eugenides, a cover hand-crafted to not scream “ladies only,” and strong early reviews. NPR calls it "an epic exploration of friendship, coming-of-age, talent and success," while Entertainment Weekly flat out says that the book “secure(s) Wolitzer’s place among the best novelists of her generation.”
It also comes, I'm sorry to say, with its author taking pains to position her work as capital-L literature and distance it from commercial fiction by women. Writing in Salon, Wolitzer complains about the "kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel “comfortable” around – what I call slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends." (She's also down on "‘dreamy’ covers – "many with women in water, floating or swimming, as though what’s contained within is a kind of dreamy inessential thing." I have no idea whose books she could be talking about.)
Wolitzer is, of course, free to like and dislike whatever books she pleases -- just like Lena Dunham, who trashed "airport chick-lit" in her Times interview -- but it's disappointing that a serious woman writer's efforts to be taken seriously seem to inevitably have her turning up her nose at other women's work. It's especially sad in Wolitzer's case because it's almost a guarantee that, when paperback publication comes around and the focus is less on getting reviews and attention than on getting readers, THE INTERESTINGS will be repackaged with the kind of soft-focus, "book clubs welcome" cover that those slumber-party books she disdains wear with pride.
It's also worth noting that many of those slumber-party authors go out of their way to champion women's literary fiction, with the hopes that our tweets and blurbs and praise might make up for the lack of Franzen/Eugenides/Nicholson Baker/Charles Bock coverage literary ladies might have received if they'd been born Mark or David instead of Meg and Deborah.
Next on the Big Book roster: Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE. Its premise sounds like science fiction: a woman is born, and dies before she draws her first breath. A few pages later, she’s born again….only this time, she lives. Over and over, through two world wars, Ursula Todd lives and dies – of a fall, of the flu, by her own hand, at the hands of an abusive spouse – with Atkinson holding out the tantalizing hope that she will learn from her mistakes and not only survive, but alter history profoundly. Janet Maslin called LIFE AFTER LIFE “a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author’s fully untethered imagination.”
Elizabeth Strout's THE BURGESS BOYS is her first book since her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kittredge. It's about a family full of lawyers, a shocking crime, and the way it echoes through the generations. In the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote "the broad social and political range of The Burgess Boys shows just how impressively this extraordinary writer continues to develop.”
Finally, there's Claire Messud’s THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, which sounds a little like Zoe Heller’s WHAT WAS SHE THINKING, another tale of toxic friendship with an untrustworthy narrator at its center. Single schoolteacher Nora Eldridge has shelved her artistic ambitions and leads a quiet, constrained life, until her world becomes intimately entwined with a family of glamorous immigrants and their bullied child. In a starred review, Kirkus wrote that “Messud persuasively plunges us into the tortured psyche of a conflicted soul…brilliant and terrifying,” while Daphne Merkin said that Messud’s got the stuff “to write very good fiction, perhaps even a novel that defined our times.”
We know what kind of treatment Big Books get from the New York Times. Two reviews and a profile is the minimum. Beyond that, the author will be quoted approvingly whenever the subject of literature comes up. The paper will print his essays or op-ed pieces, taking the opportunity of the tag line to remind readers once again of the title of his latest opus. Look for news stories about the book’s reception, "Inside the List" mentions of the author’s writing quirks or reading lists, and, in general, for the Grey Lady to abandon all pretense of objectivity and function for a few weeks as the author’s personal PR agency.
Are any of these ambitious books getting the Big Book treatment?
So far, none of them have managed the two-reviews-and-a-profile trifecta. LIFE AFTER LIFE received a daily review, and Atkinson got a (rare for a lady writer) Sunday Magazine profile…but, so far, no Sunday book review. (Updated: a Twitter friend says that the Atkinson Sunday review has been assigned, but not published. Which is great. Not as great for building awareness and sales as a pre-publication rave might have been, but I'll take it).
Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS has also been reviewed once in the daily paper. No profile, no Sunday review. Same with Strout, whose first post-Pulitzer book has gotten just one review so far.
Messud, whose book comes out on April 30, might stand the best chance of being treated like the big boys. Unlike Atkinson, who writes mysteries, critics can’t dismiss her as less than serious for slumming in the land of genre. Unlike Wolitzer, who publishes a book every year or two, she’s not handicapped by being prolific: THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS will be her fourth novel, and her first since 2006's THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN. That’s not quite the book-every-decade pace that seems to signify genius to the Times, she’s no Joyce Carol Oates.
None of the books’ covers read as particularly female (although Atkinson’s does feature a rose, and Wolitzer might be handicapped by a cover so carefully crafted to appeal to everyone that it ends up appealing to no one).
But the biggest obstacles are not the book’s covers, or the author’s pace, or her dalliances in lesser genres – it’s the female trouble that's still pervasive at the Times, the double standards that seem to make it impossible for the paper to conceive that a little lady might have written a big book.
You don't have to look hard to find evidence of institutional sexism at the Times. It shows up when the lede of an obituary for a female rocket scientist mentions her beef stroganoff before her groundbreaking scientific work.
It’s there when a critic suggests that a biography of the Obamas – one written by one of the Times’ staff writers – be characterized as “chick non-fic.”
Or when a reporter, on the subject of an eleven-year-old girl’s rape, writes about how some residents claimed “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at the playground, some said,” and quotes residents fretting over how the accused boys’ lives had been ruined.
Three years of Vida have shown that simply pointing out how publications continue to give women’s work short shrift isn’t enough to make them change. Essays like Kogan's vividly demonstrate the impact that sexism has on a woman's career: no Times review, and readers might not even get a chance to buy your book, because their local store won't carry it.
We can continue to count; to praise the publications that are doing well and tell the ones that aren't that we expect better.
We can get specific, publishing lists of women whose work should be in places like Harper's and The Atlantic.
We can even cancel our subscriptions.
Or, while we're waiting for Pamela Paul to take charge, we can use these specific examples to put the New York Times on notice, saying that these are big, important, ambitious books, and that attention must be paid. Treat Atkinson and Wolitzer and Strout and Messud the same way you treat Franzen and Eugenides and Shteyngart and Perrotta. Review them. Profile them. Quote them. Publish their essays and op-eds and book reviews. Mention their books wherever you can. Ask for their Oscar picks and their playlists. Take them bird-watching, and write about what they eat for breakfast. Publish "random" tweets about how great their books are, which turn out to have been written by their editors. Okay, maybe don't do that.
Tell your readers that big books are big news, no matter who writes them.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
posted by Jen at 10/03/2012 10:39:00 PM
My goodness! October already!
It's been a busy few months around here, right?
My kids started school. Then they both got lice. I feel like my life has been an endless cycle of combing, rinsing, washing, and calling the professional nit-pickers.
I went on "The Today Show," where I talked about un-kosher chickens and sanitary napkins and why women are so hard on each other about baby weight, and how that really needs to stop. Missed it? Here's the link!
Jeffrey Eugenides, who teaches Creative Writing at my alma mater, told Salon that he didn't know why Jodi Picoult would be the one "bellyaching" about the disparity between the ways men's and women's books were treated. I emailed him to try to explain why, sending him a link to the VIDA count, explaining that the women he was teaching would likely graduate into a world where their work was less likely to be published and reviewed than that of their male peers.
After Eugenides said he wasn't presented with the Vida stats -- that, essentially, the reporter slipped in a question about gender and genre at the end of an interview, than made it the centerpiece of the interview -- I suggested that he might want to say so, in as public a place as he made the "bellyaching" remark. Not "Say you were wrong!" like I'm the Feminist Crusader Thought Police (now meeting at my house, after "30 Rock") and he's a goatee'd desperado, but just "maybe say you didn't have all of the information when you answered the question." At which point, Professor Eugenides, who'd proposed getting together for a beer so he could explain why he said what he said, stopped returning my emails...and the head of the Creative Writing department, which I've supported, with my gratitude and my yearly contributions, said, "We can't make him listen to you, now bug off and go away." (I'm paraphrasing).
Over at NPR, Linda Holmes wrote a piece called "Women, Men and Fiction: On How Not To Answer Hard Questions," which brilliantly explained all of the reasons why who gets reviewed, and where, and how often, continues to be an issue, and how many ways, in a few short paragraphs, Eugenides misses so much of the point (as Holmes writes, when you say that you've "heard about" an issue, "That's a red flag. You usually don't want to ask anyone to respond in any depth to an argument he's "heard about."")
Jodi and I wrote a letter to the editor of the campus paper trying, again, to explain where we stand, and why... and I'm trying to let it go. Will let you know how that turns out, to let this serve as the universe's reminder that authors are not their books, and some perfectly wonderful work's been written by people who were bigots, anti-Semites, and just jerks in general in their day. Maybe some day I'll have better luck changing the mind of a man at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, or at least getting him to think about who gets covered, and where, and how.
What else? I wrote piece for Allure about "The F-Word," about growing up fat, and being prepared with a speech for a kid who got taunted for her weight...but being completely un-prepared when that same kid used the f-word to describe another girl.
It was a hard piece to write, because it meant thinking about a hard part of my life. You can read all about it right here...and it looks like next week I might be taping a talk show about it. Of course, I got the email, and the first thing Mrs. Love Your Body As It Is thinks is, 'How much weight can I lose between now and next week?" Some things never change. Oh, and I'm working on another spooky short story that'll be available in e-form just in time for Halloween. It does not involve lice. It does involve a woman who hits the bestseller list after her husband, a Great Man of American Letters, dies, and she writes a memoir about their life together. Everything's fine...until her agent starts asking about her next book.
Stay tuned for details, and stay away from lice!
Sunday, July 08, 2012
posted by Jen at 7/08/2012 02:21:00 PM
THE NEXT BEST THING -- which I am quite proud of -- came out on Tuesday.
On Friday, I showed up on "The Today Show," dishing about the book, "The Bachelor," and my summer reading list with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford.
No, I was not offered booze.
No, I'm not bitter.
Then, this morning, I was on NPR, talking gender imbalance in book reviews, why it's tough for women in writers' rooms, and how to cast a goat for your sit-com (turns out, in Hollywood, the goats have head shots).
Here's a link to the audio:
Thanks to the helpful "Bachelorette" producers, I have figured out a way to BEND TIME ITSELF, so I can tweet "The Bachelorette" while I'm at my reading at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble, at 150 East 86th Street, at 7 p.m. tomorrow night.
The rest of my tour dates are all right here. Cupcakes will be provided, and I hope to see lots of you there. In vests. Wear a vest, win a prize!
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
posted by Jen at 7/04/2012 05:11:00 PM
Lots of exciting stuff happening with THE NEXT VEST -- er, BEST THING! (Have you bought it yet? You totally should! The first chapter's right here, and here is a lovely Kirkus review!)
I taped "The Today Show" yesterday,and got to dish about "The Bachelorette," hot summer reads, and what it's like to tell your mom that your first book is going to be published, only it's called GOOD IN BED.
The way it happened was kind of amazing...turns out, Hoda Kotb is on Twitter is a fan of my "Bachelorette" tweets! So a few Mondays ago, when Em and the boys were having their Scottish games in Croatia, she tweeted "everyone must follow the funny Jennifer Weiner," and my sister, who's also on Twitter -- and have you seen her video "Eye of the Cougar" yet? -- said, "Hoda Kotb just tweeted at you!"
So I wrote back something along the lines of "OMG! You follow me!," and shamelessly begged her to allow me on her show "And vwolla!" as my four-year-old likes to say.
The segment is scheduled to air in the ten o'clock hour on Friday, July 6, but for all I know, Brad and Angie could decide to make their union legal tonight, and I could end up in Bumpsville, population, Me. But I'll keep you posted.
Also, I am wearing a LOT of fake hair in the segment. Like, Lady Godiva-length extensions. It was fun!
Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to tape "CBS Sunday Morning," where I'll be recommending five great books for summer. If you follow me on Twitter, you can probably guess a few of them already, but a few are surprises. I hope you'll enjoy the books, and that I'll keep it together on camera (no wardrobe malfunctions, no mispronouncing authors' names, spitting while talking, etc).
Then I'm zipping over to NPR's studios to tape "Weekend Edition," where I'll talk about THE NEXT BEST THING and maybe what it feels like to don the Vest of Literary Legitimacy, which my assistant found on the clearance rack of Men's Wearhouse in Philadelphia.
What else? I'm in Philadelphia Magazine, complaining about men spitting on the sidewalk (so not okay!), and how I met Bill Clinton when I was a nubile eighteen-year-old college freshman (all I did was shake his hand). The title of the book is slightly wrong -- it's THE NEXT BEST THING, not THE NEXT BIG THING -- but you knew that already, right?
Finally, because I have the most amazing publicist in the world, I am also in the August issue of O Magazine, talking about the five books that made a difference to me. There's girlhood favorites, A WRINKLE IN TIME and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, the wonderfully weird GEEK LOVE, and the two books I picked up as a young woman that were frank and funny and honest and sexy and made me believe that, maybe, someday, I, too, could be a writer: Erica Jong's FEAR OF FLYING, and the late, great Nora Ephron's CRAZY SALAD: SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT WOMEN.
When I made my picks, months ago, I had no idea that Ephron was unwell...and while I am heartbroken that we won't get to read any more of her sharp, trenchant essays, I'm glad I got a chance to mention her book and let the world know how much she meant to me, and to the generation of female writers and bloggers who would follow in her footsteps, taking on Nora's kind of topics: cooking, body anxiety, being so in love that you talk in a tiny little hamster-voice to your beloved (who, of course, hamster-answers you right back).
So! After the NPR taping I'll be zipping back home to remind my kids that they have an actual, breathing mother instead of just a Skype image on a screen, and then the book tour starts in NYC on Monday night. All my dates are right here, there will be yummy cupcakes from local bakeries at each event, and I hope to see lots of you out there...and remember, wear a vest, go home with a cute tote bag or towel!
(And yes, I know that many of you live too far away from the readings to show up in a vest. I'm busily trying to think of some kind of contest or giveaway, so please check back!)
I hope you're all having a wonderful Fourth. Happy Independence Day, happy picnicking and barbecuing, and happy reading.
Saturday, June 30, 2012
posted by Jen at 6/30/2012 09:19:00 AM
Wow! Who knew that all you needed to do to get noticed by The New York Times was wear a silly vest?
Don't forget, today's the last day to enter the win-a-book-club-visit contest (scroll down for details). We'll be picking the winner tomorrow night.
And! When one of my Twitter followers volunteered to wear a vest to my reading, I thought,"That's worth a prize! So! If you wear a vest to one of my readings -- the schedule's listed here -- you will get a cute tote bag or beach towel (also pictured below).
Have a wonderful weekend. Keep cool. And remember the point of all these funny ads and fun contests: THE NEXT BEST THING goes on sale on Tuesday. I'm really, really proud of it...and I'd be really, really grateful if you got yourself a copy.
Time Magazine says it's "utterly engaging." Kirkus says it's unsparing in "exposing Hollywood’s sexism, ageism and incurable penchant for extravagant silliness." Library Journal raves "full of warm and interesting characters as well as a wealth of insider industry detail (Weiner was a cocreator of an ABC Family sitcom), this is a must-read for Weiner’s many fans and anyone who enjoys smart, funny fiction.
You can read the first chapter of THE NEXT BEST THING here...and you can order it anywhere books are sold.
Friday, June 29, 2012
posted by Jen at 6/29/2012 01:34:00 PM
So, what if you were a novelist, hoping and praying for your new book to take off?
Why, you'd don Jeffrey Eugenides' billboard-famous vest...
And then you'd make your own billboards....
You'd buy ads on literary websites....
And hope that people would notice! And that it would go viral -- or, as your mother says, "virile!"
By golly, it's The Next Vest Thing!
When a smart reader suggested showing up in a vest to one of my readings, I thought, well, that deserves a prize!
Like, perhaps, a cute tote bag!
Or an adorable beach towel!
My tour dates are all right here...and, of course, you can pre-order your copy of THE NEXT BEST THING!