By now, if you’re even peripherally aware of literary Twitter-land, you’re up to speed of the latest mess involving book blogger Ed Champion.
Last June, Champion published a vile, 11,000 word takedown of Emily Gould and the “middling Millenials,” which was less a review of Gould’s first novel, FRIENDSHIP, than a review of Gould herself.
It was not a good review. Champion reduced Gould to an animal, describing her as “a dim bulb,” “a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite,” and, most infamously, a “minx” with her “head so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.”
The response was loud and almost unanimous. Champion, the public agreed, had gone too far. He threatened suicide, pledged to go off-line, disappeared for a while, then came back and appeared to be on good behavior…until late last Thursday, when he unleashed a manic stream of tweets at author and former friend and supporter Porochista Khakpour, threatening to reveal the name of the man who’d allegedly taken nude photos of Khakpour without her consent.
Khakpour tweeted about the threats. Champion published, then quickly deleted the man’s name, and again threatened suicide. Twitter suspended his account. He hasn’t been heard from since …and, again, the Twitter response has been loud, and heartening, with dozens of people coming forward to share their stories, and trying to figure out how to keep this from happening again.
It’s a great illustration of social media doing exactly what social media at its best should do – defending the victims, punishing the wrongdoers, giving people a platform to talk about what they’d suffered and what steps should be taken.
But, while we look at the specifics and the individuals, let’s also consider the general, and the big picture. Ed Champion’s words and actions did not appear in a vacuum. They exist in the context of literary criticism as it is now.
I’m not defending what he wrote or what he did, because it’s indefensible. The minute you threaten someone with the release of personal, private images or information, the minute you start likening a woman to a thing – a bird, a bulb, a minx, whatever – any valid points you might be making are lost. They’re gone. You’re through.
However, Champion’s rants appeared in a continuum – in a climate, and at a moment, where it is acceptable for mainstream critics to conflate characters with their female creators, to review not just books but women, and to find them wanting.
We saw it when Alessandra Stanley clumsily tried to praise television producer Shonda Rhimes, first by calling her an angry black woman and then assuming that all of the characters that bore a superficial resemblance to Rhimes (that would be the black ones) were merely versions of their creator.
In his review of Caitlin Moran’s HOW TO BUILD A GIRL Dwight Garner assumed the book’s heroine was a version of Moran herself, an “uncool girl from the hinterlands” who used pluck and smarts to pull herself up and out. Even in a largely positive review, Garner couldn’t resist swiping at Moran for not being Jennifer Egan or Zadie Smith,the same way James Woods seems powerless to resist telling Donna Tartt that it’s not too late for her to put away her childish things and become "the very different writer she might still choose to become."
In a review of Anya Ulinich’s LENA FINKLE’S MAGIC BARREL, we get author = protagonist again, with Claudia la Rocca noting that Ulinich’s “life on paper bears a striking resemblance” to her heroine’s, and telling us that Finkle is “nothing if not a narcissist,” deluded enough to believe that there’s an audience for a 361-page illustrated exploration of her sex life. The book gets praised, faintly – “it’s a fast read but not a dumb one…pitched toward the same pop culture consumers who are drawn into the best serial shows.”
(Side note: there’s a dissertation, or at least a listicle, to be written about book critics who truly believe that comparing someone’s novel to TV is absolutely positively the most damning insult you could deliver).
Author-as-protagonist showed up again and again in reviews of Gould's FRIENDSHIP, where the working assumption was that the blogger heroine of the book was a slightly-altered version of Gould. This gave reviewers permission to write about Gould’s life, to quote from her blog posts and interviews, not the book, to make it all about her instead of about what she’d created.
And It Happened To Me. In a “close reading” of my work – the kind of critical attention that Salon book critic Laura Miller sneered I somehow believe I “demand” Miller wrote that an “obsession with prestige and exclusion haunts (my) characters” and is mirrored by my own “craving’ for the NYT’s “validation.” She wrote that she “found (her)self praying” that a character “portrayed with…cruelty” wasn’t based on anyone real. She slammed my “fictional alter ego” for “ingratitude and selfishness,” and wrote that Cannie Shapiro, “like Weiner herself” resents all the people they imagine to be looking down on them.” There’s not even a question that Cannie might be fictional. Nor is there any sense that the point of a book review is to review, you know, the book, instead of asking whether or not you’d enjoy hanging out with its heroine and whether you find her likable. Miller’s point wasn’t just that I write bad books and that they’re about bad people, but that I, myself, am ungrateful, selfish and cruel.…and, look out, because she’s got the nine-year-old blog posts to prove it!
If women aren’t really writers, just reporters; if their characters aren’t really characters, just lightly fictionalized version of themselves, it stands to reason that critics review not the books but the women themselves. Female authors cease to exist as people and become merely text, and, once they’re no longer people, they can be dissected, investigated, critiqued, picked over and pulled apart, without fear of consequence. They are fair game. They are things. Shonda Rhimes isn't Shonda Rhimes, she's the Angry Black Woman. Anya Ulinich isn't Anya Ulinich, she is a Great Female Narcissist, and I am a status-obsessed mean girl, and Emily Gould isn't Emily Gould, she is a “snarky little trollop” (this, from an anonymous blog comment quoted in Michiko Kakutani’s review of FRIENDSHIP).
A bad review is a review of a book. As scathing as it was, William Giraldi’s much-discussed review of Alix Ohlin confined itself to the work, not the woman.
Compare that piece to Giraldi’s attack on FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY, which was really a bad review not of the books but of EL James, and, to a lesser but still troubling extent, her readers. Romance as a genre is a “mind-stinging preponderance of crap,” and James is a “charlatan amorist” who doesn’t have a right to her nom de plume. “I’m made distinctly queasy by uttering the sacral American surname when referring to this empress of inanity,” sniffs Giraldi, “so let’s use her real name, Erika Leonard. She who has done so much to help debase our culture should stand revealed.”
Why do critics write book reviews?
John Updike believed that the critic and the writer share a role and social responsibility – “to life people up, not lower them down.” “Thoughtful criticism,” Updike wrote, “is in itself an art and a creative act.”
Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the modern era’s most respected critics, agreed. In “A Critic’s Manifesto,” he wrote that that the critics he read growing up were not “trying to persuade me to actually see this or that performance, buy this or that volume or take in this or that movie... all of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.”
Clearly, there’s a gap between what criticism is supposed to be and what it’s become. Whether it's Giraldi’s take on the “moronic craze” and “drooling enthusiasm” for the FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY books, Michiko Kakutani’s assessment of Gould's heroine as “narcissistic, entitled, self-dramatizing, snide, self-pitying and frequently petty, prideful and envious, “ Miller’s reading of me as resentful and ungrateful and my heroine as “obsessed with prestige and exclusion,” Champion’s calling Gould a “torrid hoyden hopped up on spite” – there’s something else going on.
These are not reviews as art. These are not reviews meant to enrich or enlighten, or steer readers toward or away from a purchase, or to demonstrate or reenact how the critic arrived at his judgment.
These are reviews meant to shame and silence. When William Giraldi writes that E.L. James “she should stand revealed” or Miller tweets her review at me to make sure I saw it, or Ed Champion threatens to release the name of the man who took nude pictures of Khakpour, the intent is the same – I see you for what you really are, and I will reveal you. I will expose you. I will shame you. I will shut you up.
And you know what? It works.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Tara Mohr described a study about performance reviews given to men and women. “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only two percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.”
The bottom line? “If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized – with comments not just about her work but also about herself,” Mohr wrote. Those comments can have a devastating impact. “Criticism stings for all of us, but women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable. By the time a girl reaches adolescence, she’ll most likely have watched hundreds of films, television shows and advertisements in which a woman’s destiny is determined not by her own choices but by how she is perceived by others. In those hundreds of stories, we get the message: What other people think and say about us matters, a lot.” In the Age of the Internet, where everyone with an Internet connection has a soap box, “this criticism often also becomes vulgar, sexualized and angry.”
Vulgar, sexualized and angry. Sound familiar?
What happens when a woman writes a book and finds not her work but herself on the reviewer’s chopping block? What happens when you get called a “torrid hoyden” or a big fat meanie, or when someone says, “apologize or I’m going to expose you?”
Porochista Khakpour spent a chunk of her weekend in a police station. She cancelled a class she was going to teach.
Emily Gould wrote, “I have a hard time even talking about how terrible the week that he published that rant was for me. A lot of people have tried to tell em that the net effect was positive for my book, but it put me in a position of talking about that rant instead of talking about the book. I hate that. I hate that that happened. I’ll never get that week or month or set of opportunities back; he poisoned them all. The worst part is that as cartoonishly evil and misogynistic and mentally ill as he is, there are still people are are like “well, it was a book review.” “Critics are allowed to call someone a bad writer.” Or worse, that it was a “subtweet war” or a “literary fued.” It was none of those things. It was an attack on women, meant to make us feel threatened and fundamentally unsafe in the online and physical spaces we inhabit. It is so bonkers that we even have to point that out or defend that point of view still, now, in 2014.
I felt fear doing events around publication. Not stage fright, fear for my physical safety. Instead of planning celebrations I was arranging with bookstores and my publisher for adequate security at events. I felt worried that the location of my apartment had been revealed in so many profiles. It’s not like I experienced physical trauma or was tortured but I felt under attack. This wasn’t something that “happened on the Internet” or something that could have been avoided by “just unplugging.” Talking to readers, doing events, and promoting books online is my job. I still haven’t sorted out what kind of damage was done.”
As for me? I wish I could tell you that I was savvy enough to recognize a review that was so clearly meant to shame and silence for what it was and thick-skinned enough to not take the bait, even as respected critics and writers gleefully retweeted the piece, and Miller accepted giddy Twitter high-fives for writing it. But I’d be lying.
I wasn't afraid that someone was going to show up at a reading and do me harm. I was ashamed. I felt awful. I felt like canceling my upcoming book tour.
I felt like every kind thing I’d ever done had been erased, swept away, like someone had slopped a bucket of sewage on a chalk drawing on the sidewalk; like none of the good stuff that happened last spring – the Philadelphia Inquirer calling ALL FALL DOWN the best book I’ve written, the New York Times giving it a positive review – ended up mattering, because everyone knew what an awful, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person I was.
In the months since Miller’s piece came out, I’ve written essays about meeting Jill Abramson three weeks before she lost her job, about the YA dust-up, and how our culture continues to devalue work about girls and women, about why anger remains off-limits to ladies.
I’ve written them and rewritten them, and had people read them, and edited them, and rewritten them and then eventually talked myself out of submitting them anywhere and deciding that I don't want to open myself up for more name-calling.
Not afraid. Ashamed. But the end result is the same. Whether it’s an enraged blogger likening you to an animal, or a well-connected book critic calling you a bitch, the story ends with another woman not giving the talk, not teaching the class, not hitting “publish” on the blog post.
There's no easy answer. Paying attention is a start. If you see something, say something. If you see a book review that veers into a review of the author, or a critique that seems intended not as art but as a steamy serving of shut-up juice, ask the critic what’s going on. Then ask her editor.
Believe that women have the ability to create characters distinct from themselves, not just publish gussied-up journals. Believe that women who use events from their own lives in fiction deserve to be treated with the exact degree of scrutiny and cynicism as men who do the same thing. Believe that women's books deserve to be evaluated as books, not as something that comes with a lock and a key and the words MY DIARY written in gilt on the cover. As as if women writers are people, not things, and deserve the same regard as their male counterparts, and maybe, someday, it'll actually be true.
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While this is, of course, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, it is also the time I typically spend counting and grumbling.
I count the number of books reviewed that were written by women, and the number of women writers profiled in the Times, and then I grumble when those numbers turn out to be significantly lower than the number of male authors whose works and selves got that consideration.
It's interesting that this willingness to count and to talk about the results means that I just might be, in the eyes of no less venerated an institution than The Nation, the "most aggrieved of the bestselling novelist" in all the land.
So, the breakdown: railing against social media and Amazon and name-checking fellow novelists for having "succumbed" to Twitter? A-okay! Pointing out that there are gaping inequities between the number of men and the number of women getting published and reviewed? Bitch, bitch, bitch.
In the three years since individuals and organizations have been doing the count-and-grumble, not much has improved. I’m sure I could run the numbers right now and come up with predictably grim tallies…but this was a year where a lot of things went right.
Under the leadership of Pamela Paul, who took over last April, the New York Times Book Review has become a more inclusive, more embracing, more interesting place.
Interspersed with the typical big-boy heavy hitters whose tastes are probed and recommendations sought in the “By the Book” feature are pop-culture figures from Penn, of Penn and Teller, to Sting. Popular writers like Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson alternate with Tom Perrotta and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Bestselling authors have gotten the cover treatment. Hey, there’s Stephen King! Look, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert!
Paul’s Book Review has even found room for the kind of commercial fiction whose presence has long been limited to the bestseller list. Each week, the Book Review publishes "The Short List," capsule reviews of books grouped by subject or genre…which means that if you’re a woman who writes genre fiction that isn’t mysteries (those are still covered by Marilyn Stasio’s column,) you’ve got a chance at getting some notice.
As a whole, 2013 was a good year for ladies at the Times. Women wrote big books, and they got the kind of two-reviews-and-a-profile attention that’s long been lavished on the Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran-Foer).
This year, Meg Wolitzer, Claire Messud, Kate Atkinson, Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt all joined the two-reviews-plus club. Of the paper’s five best novels of 2013, four were written by women.
Predictably, Paul’s revamp prompted a certain amount of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching literary quarters.
A woman whose debut novel got scads of press (and two NYT reviews) fretted that it just wasn’t fair that commercial fiction, which already gets all the readers, would “dominate” the book review section, too.
Other literary ladies sniffed that they simply couldn’t find the energy to get worked up over questions of who gets covered, and how, and where, while one book publicist memorably tweeting that she was too busy selling books to waste time on “literary fueds.”
Many of the got-no-time-for-it ladies, big surprise, are the ones who are currently reviewed by the Times, published in the New Yorker and, in one case, short-listed for the women-only Orange Prize (it takes a special kind of chutzpah to declare yourself above the gender fray while you’re happily collecting accolades and cash that are only available because other women pointed out inequities and fought for ways to address them).
Other defenders of the status quo worried that if commercial writers succeeded in getting coverage in the NYTBR, it would result in the total absence of gatekeepers, a lowering of the what-deserves-attention bar so radical that anything could clear it, resulting in a boring book review.
It's early days but, so far, none of the worst-case scenarios have come to pass.
Boring, of course, is in the eye of the beholder...but I'd submit that brilliant book plus smart reviewer does not always equal a great piece of criticism. Too often, what you end up with is lengthy, tendentious criticism in which the critic unloads every literary reference and four-syllable word in his or her arsenal in an attempt to prove that he or she is as smart as the author under consideration.
Nor has a page’s worth of capsule reviews once a week in the Times meant that serious writers of fiction are no longer getting their due. That worried debut novelist, for example, hasn't had any trouble getting the Times to publish her beer preferences in the Sunday Magazine.
As for the fear of a world without gatekeepers, at The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review have proved themselves more than capable of distinguishing between a big, important novel and a piece of self-published Wookie erotica.
The New Yorker is still publishing Lionel Shriver and Jeffrey Eugenides. The Paris Review is still publishing Lydia Davis and Rachel Cusk. The New York Times might do capsule reviews of best sellers, but it is still spending more of its resources calling attention to quieter, less accessible fare that might otherwise be overlooked.
None of this is new...and all of it's okay. Sure, the VIDA numbers at these publications are nothing short of appalling, and literary magazine could do a better job of actively seeking out and encouraging young women writers to submit their work...but, as long as People and Entertainment Weekly cover popular fiction, editors at The Paris Review and The New Yorker are welcome to confine their attention to highbrow books.
Three years after the start of a conversation about why the Times was writing so many stories about Jonathan Franzen while giving literary women writers short shrift, ignoring commercial women writers completely and implicitly telling readers of romance and chick lit that they weren't welcome, the Times has shown that it is, in fact, capable of changing.
Most readers make room on their shelves for a variety of books -- capital-L literature, graphic novels, science fiction, mysteries and beach reads and beloved childhood favorites. It's been great -- and gratifying -- to watch The New York Times make room on its pages for a similar bounty.
My third annual Halloween e-short story, "Disconnected," goes on sale Monday - it'll be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and wherever fine e-books are sold. (And if you don't have an e-reader? Buy it here, and read it on your laptop or your phone!)
Here's a little taste...
"Get a new phone number,” they had told her, along with “go to a meeting your first day out,” and “do ninety in ninety,” and “find a sponsor,” and “find a home group,” and “the only thing you have to change is everything.” Feeling as skinless as a peeled egg, Shannon vowed that this time, she’d follow directions. She was almost thirty years old, hardly a kid anymore, and she had been in and out of rehab six times already, not that anyone was counting.
Besides, this last time she’d almost died. They’d Narcanned her in the hospital. She’d come surging up and out of the darkness with tubes up her nose, a needle buried in the crook of her elbow, and a terrified-looking nurse leaning over her, saying, “God, we almost lost you!”
I’m done, Shannon had decided, lying on the narrow gurney in the ER while a homeless man vomited into his lap and two cops stood guard over a bloodied woman handcuffed to her bed. I am really and truly done. By then she had lost her dignity, her money, her job as an editorial assistant at Paragon Press. For the past three years she had supported herself writing blog posts for a site called Busted! that had started its life as an aggregator of celebrity mug shots. She had studied with Jane Smiley in graduate school, she'd once received a semi-encouraging rejection letter from The New Yorker (“This isn’t quite right for us, but please try again”). Now she spent her days scanning electronic police-department databases for the faces of the famous, the formerly famous, the almost famous, and the reality-TV famous, as well as scribbing snarky comments across the thighs and torsos of actors and singers who’d gained weight and then had the temerity to appear in public in spite of it.
Ten posts a day netted her five hundred dollars a week. She’d given up her apartment, the few pieces of non-Ikea furniture that she’d acquired. Busted! did not offer its employees health insurance, which meant that the hospital was eager to see her backside. After they’d moved her to a room, another nurse had come in with a rape kit. She and Shannon had had a quiet conversation, and then the nurse had left with the kit, still sealed in plastic, in her hands. What had happened to her wasn’t rape, Shannon had decided. It can’t be rape if they pay you when it’s over.
From the hospital she’d gone back into an overwarm October night and thence to rehab—a low-end one, a place where they sent people on welfare who had no money to go anyplace better. After twenty-eight days, she’d taken the Chinatown bus to Manhattan, then the subway to Brooklyn. There was a ten-thirty meeting in the basement of St. Patrick’s in Bay Ridge. She went there because she knew there was a T-Mobile store just down the street, and also that the meeting, which she’d found when she’d gone to meetings the year before, often had doughnuts or cookies—important if you had little money and no food. Ever since she’d left rehab, Shannon found that she was hungry all the time, craving processed flour and white sugar, big mouthfuls of cheap sweet stuff, food that could fill you and hold you in place like an anchor.
She arrived while the two dozen attendees were mumbling through the preamble, and dumped powdered creamer and sugar into a cup of coffee until she’d created what looked like a latte. There were cinnamon-dusted doughnuts, and she stuffed two into her pockets and devoured a third before taking a seat in a folding chair toward the back of the room. It was a speaker meeting. The woman behind the podium, a trembly sixtysomething with short brown hair and orthopedic sneakers with white laces tied in neat bows, told the story about how she’d been hooked on Vicodin. When her doctor wouldn’t renew her prescription, she began buying pills from a neighbor. Her habit had crept slowly from being once a week to once a day to all day, every day, until she had slept through the pickup at her grand- daughter’s preschool. That, she said, was her rock bottom. That was when she decided to get help. Shannon licked cinnamon off her fingers while the woman dug tissues out of her bag. She wondered what would happen if she told them the things that she’d done, the things that had been done to her. There was a line she’d read in a book somewhere, about how if a woman told the truth about her life, the world would crack open. She wasn’t sure about the world, but she suspected that such truth-telling could prove mightily disruptive at an AA meeting.
She was thinking about getting another doughnut when she saw a man with a spiderweb tattooed on his neck squinting through the dusty church light like he wasn’t quite sure he was seeing her or not. Shannon didn’t recognize him, but that meant nothing. He could have been someone she’d dated or someone she’d fucked for drugs, or maybe even someone she had known in college, the good old days when she’d been young and bright and full of promise, when her short stories had won prizes, when drugs were just something that showed up, or didn't, at a party on a Saturday night, and she didn’t think of them between one appearance and the next.
She dropped a dollar in the basket for the Seventh Tradition, and when she turned she was unsurprised to see the spiderweb guy sitting next to her. “You new?” he whispered. Shannon considered the question. New to the program? New to this meeting?
Of course, big surprise, the guy didn’t want to hear her story. He wanted to tell her his own, which was a variation on every junkie’s story that she’d heard. Shannon tuned it out as the guy recited the particulars: “. . . and then he’s like, ‘You aren’t gonna believe this stuff,’ and I was all, ‘Hey, wasn’t this on the news last week? Aren’t people dying from it?’ It was fucked up, I know, but all I thought was, okay, this is gonna be super-strong, so I’m gonna get super-high, and the next thing you know . . .” He pursed his lips, an endearing little-boy-ish gesture, and made a popping sound. “Next thing you know, you’re, like, flat-lining in the ambulance.”
Shannon gave him a distracted smile. “Yeah, they Narcanned me,” she said. The guy tipped an imaginary hat.
“Respect,” he said. Shannon smiled and tried not to think about how she’d once gotten an A plus in a class on modern British poets, how the professor had written her a letter of recommendation saying that in his decade of teaching, she’d been his most promising student.
At the center of the circle, the leader cleared his throat. Shannon bent her head and closed her eyes as the guy at her side finally subsided, then spoke the words of the Serenity Prayer. Add a Comment
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). Jodi and I wrote a letter to the editor of the campus paper, and I'm trying to let it go. Will let you know how that turns out. 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!
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!
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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 Add a Comment
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.
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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!
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The week before your book comes out is always equal parts excitement and stress…and this week’s been especially difficult.
On Monday, Tablet Magazine published a piece attacking my books and heroines for being insufficiently Jewish. Basically (and you have to understand, the article was so unkind -- it ended by comparing me to Alex Portnoy’s baton-twirling dim-bulb of a girlfriend -- that I kind of skimmed it with one eye open), the author’s assertion is that I’m whitewashing (goy-washing?) my characters to make them more palatable for a non-Jewish audience.
I don’t think that’s the case.
If I wanted to attract a mainstream, non-Jewish audience, why have Jewish characters and Jewish holidays and Jewish situations at all? Why include bat mitzvahs, Chanukah latkes and shiva calls? If I’m doing it on purpose, why not go all the way?
The characters I write are just as Jewish as I am. I was raised Reform, I consider myself observant, and I just cringe at the notion that I’m being a bad Jew by writing characters who aren’t Jewish enough for Tablet’s taste.
I can’t do anything but be true to myself, to my own experiences, and to the stories I want to tell and the women I want to talk about.
On Monday, I sulked. “Shiksa lit?” Seriously? (A shiksa, for the uninformed, is a more-than-slightly-derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman: as in, “Oy! Adam Sandler! I loved him, until he married that shiksa!”)
On Tuesday, I decided, in the grand Jewish tradition, to rap.
“I’m Jew-y as Bette Midler/Jew-ier than “Fiddler.”/ And if my books are “shiksa lit?”/Sandusky’s not a diddler.”
“’Shiksa lit/ What is that sh*t?/I’m a Jewish locavore, and when I make borscht/ My beets (and my beats) are all locally sourced.”
And now, I am offering you this deal.
Pre-order a copy of THE NEXT BEST THING. You can get it from Amazon! From Barnes & Noble! Indiebound will direct you to the independent bookseller of your choice.
Tell me you did so on Twitter or Facebook. (No receipts necessary; I’ll take your word for it).
Then, I will write you a Jewish rap, thus establishing my Tribe cred to the three people who were worried about it.
First, can I kvell?
There is an amazing billboard of my new book!
My book! On billboards! Hold me!
Thanks to @AmayaWritesNYC for the picture. When I’m in New York, the week of the 9th, I’ll for sure pose in front of it…but meanwhile, if any of you New Yorkers want to send me a shot of you doing the same, I’d love to post them!
Also, a reminder-- you can still win me for your book club! Details and contest rules here.
THE NEXT BEST THING comes out a week from today. The tour starts a week after that. You know what it’s time for? Praying for no horrible breakouts between now and then, making sure my Spanx and my shoes and my Sharpies are in order, and loading my e-reader with enough books to keep me happy as I make my way from New York City to Pasadena (you can find my tour dates here).
1. BETWEEN YOU AND ME by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
I picked this up (okay, snatched it off my editor’s shelf) expecting it to be delicious, dishy fun, a perfect poolside read. And it was…but it was so much deeper, so much darker, so much more than that. (It also has, hands-down, one of the best book trailers I’ve ever seen. I don’t normally believe that book trailers do squat for selling books, but this one? Is great.
Kelsey Wade is a child-star turned star-star, a singing, dancing, world-beating show-stopper of a girl. Logan is her cousin, struggling with the usual miseries of trying to make it in NYC (the bad first job, the guy who doesn’t call, then sends you thirty peonies. In January). She hasn’t seen cousin Kelsey in years, until she gets the call…and quickly gets sucked into the madhouse that is Kelsey’s world, standing by horrified and helpless as Kelsey slowly falls to pieces.
If you read the tabloids (and you bet I do), a lot of this will sound awfully familiar: the starlet who cheats on her former child-star boyfriend, marries one of her backup dancers, has (and loses custody) of a baby, and eventually ends up with her father as her conservator. But beyond the guess-who-don’t-sue element, there are the characters of Logan and Kelsey, who come alive on the page, existing as flesh-and-blood young women, each struggling with their own past, their own families, their own conflicted feelings about fame and love and what makes a good life.
2. YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE by Pamela Ribon
As long-time blog readers may remember, there was a day when I would go to any book club, coffee klatch, mah-johng club or compulsive-gambling support group that invited me. I was a single lady, with one book and no kids, and if you wanted me, I was there.
Times have changed. Now, I have two little ones, plus a serious addiction to reality TV. If I said yes to one club, I reasoned, I'd have to say yes to them all...and so, reluctantly, I decided that, at least until the kids got bigger, I'd have to refuse all invitations.
However! In preparation for the new book, and to boost the all-important pre-sales figures (Stacey Ballis does a better job of explaining why they matter than I ever could), I am giving myself away to one lucky book club.
Here's the deal. You pre-order THE NEXT BEST THING.
You email your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with your name and address and an email address where we can reach you.
On July 1, some random name-picking computer program chooses one lucky winner, and I will visit the winner's book club on a mutually agreed-upon date within the next 12 months.
The winner has to be in the continental US (I figure, if the winner was in Hawaii, people would figure I was cheating). In addition five runners-up (runner-ups?) will receive tote bags loaded with signed copies of my backlist and some extra, fun Philadelphia-centric treats. The full rules, complete with legal language that I barely understand, are right here.
Q: But I ordered the book weeks ago!
A: No worries! Just dig up your receipt and send it in! (And if you can't find it, the honor system applies -- I am prepared to take your word that you have, in fact, ordered THE NEXT BEST THING).
Q: Do e-books count?
A: But of course! Order a hardcover, order an e-book, order the audio version (do you know that Olivia Thirlby, from "Juno," is reading it?). Whatever you prefer -- it all counts.
Q: But I don't belong to a book club!
A: No worries! Enter anyhow, and if you win,just round up five of your friends. We'll go out to dinner at a mutually agreed-upon restaurant and drink wine and talk about "The Bachelorette."
Q: But I'm broke!
A: I hear you. There is a "no purchase necessary" option, which means you can enter the sweepstakes by sending your name without a receipt to email@example.com. You can also email me a copy of your name on your local library's waiting list, and not only will you be entered, I'll ship your library a few extra copies of THE NEXT BEST THING after it's published.
Q: Is there anything I can do to increase my chances of winning? (In other words, can you be bribed?)
A: It's the random-picking computer, not me, that you'd be bribing...so sending delicious baked goods or attaching flattering Amazon reviews won't help. However, if you want to send a picture of your book club with your entry, I'd love to see it, and I'll post all the shots on a Pinterest board. Fun!
Q: Is this book even any good?
A: I'm very proud of it. It's the story of Ruth Saunders, star of the short story "Swim" (you may remember it, and her, from "The Guy Not Taken.") Ruth is twenty-eight when the show she's written gets the green-light, and she gets to cast, shoot, and, eventually, run her own sit-com before It All Goes Horribly Wrong. Plus, Ruth has a crush on her boss to contend with, her grandmother's impending nuptials to consider, and a cute little dog named Pocket. I think it's a return to GOOD IN BED form -- in both cases, the heroines are bright, damaged, smart-mouthed young women, dealing with physical issues (weight in Canine's case, a badly-scarred face in Ruth's), cripplin
MY BOOK EXPO AMERICA BLOGGER CONVENTION KEYNOTE ADDRESS
Let me start by saying that I know I’m kind of an odd choice to give this presentation.
While I’ve been happily published by Atria Books for twelve years and ten books, I’m not a publisher…although I’m happy to share whatever insights I can give you about that part of the world.
While I’ve been blogging since 2002, I’m not exactly a book blogger the way most of you are. My blog is as likely to talk about “The Bachelor” as it is the latest publishing news.
So…why me? Who am I, and why am I here?
I think what I bring to the table is my own success in the world social media. I think – I hope – that I’ve figured out a way to use my blog, and Facebook, and Twitter and Pinterest to have an ongoing conversation with my readers, not deliver a “buy my book” monologue.
When I sold my first book in 2000, there was no such thing as social media. Stephen King’s e-novella RIDING THE BULLET, which I remember downloading for 99 cents and reading on my desktop at work, was presumed to be future of e-books….and there were only the most primitive e-readers available.
Websites, weblogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kindles, Nooks and iPads…all of these have emerged in the last decade, and publishers, authors and readers have all been scrambling to figure out how to use these new technologies to connect books with readers.
Let’s start with the good news: there has never been a more exciting time to be part of the conversation about books and reading than right now.
Once upon a time, when I was a young reader, there was no conversation at all. There was instead a series of occasionally overlapping monologues, with critics, authors and readers, each in their separate spheres.
The critics would issue their edicts from on high.
The readers would discuss them, in real life and usually in private.
(That’s my mom’s book club, by the way. Notice what book they're NOT reading.
True story – when my first book was published, I took my mom with me on part of my book tour. I’d be in the store, introducing myself to the manager and the sales staff, signing stock, being friendly, doing my thing, and I’d hear my mother talking to other bookstore patrons. “I just read the best book!” she’d gush…and I’d smile, proudly. “It had everything – amazing writing, great plot, and it was funny.” Here it comes, I would think…and I’d turn around just in time to hear my mother say, “Richard Russo! Empire Falls! Hang on, I’ll help you find it!” I finally had to tell my mother that, unless she discovered that Mrs. Russo was up in Maine, pimping GOOD IN BED, she had to at least try to hand-sell one copy of my book for every one of his).
So: critics talked to readers. Readers talked to each other. And authors – well, authors were largely silent and voiceless between books. Presumably, they were holed up in their garrets or their New Hampshire compounds, working on their next opus.
Aside from a letter to the editor, a book tour or reading, visit a book club, or, if you were Norman Mailer or Richard Ford, spitting on a critic at a party, authors really didn’t have an avenue for responding to criticism or interacting with readers. If an author had something to say, she said it in her next book.
We had three separate spheres – critics, authors, and readers. All of them were talking. None of them could talk to each other.
And then along came the Internet.
Suddenly, readers could talk to authors.
First things first: it’s “Bachelorette” time!
If you’ve followed my live tweets of the show, I wanted to tell you that I’m moving my critique over to Entertainment Weekly’s live-blog site, where I will make new friends and not to blow up your timeline (although I will continue to tweet the occasional observation…).
Watch as a few dozen improbably handsome dudes with made-up sounding names and jobs profess that they’ve found a magical connection! Marvel as sweet blond Emily searches for true love, or at least a gig on “Dancing with the Stars!” Drink every time one of the suitors says “journey,” “fairy tale” or accuses another guy of “not being there for Emily!"
Will our girl find true love?
Will Bentley show up to ruin the fun?
Will we ever find out what a “luxury brand consultant” actually does to earn a paycheck?
I have no idea! But I hope you’ll join me tonight to find out.
Then, on Wednesday night, I’m going to be at the Free Library of Philadelphia, talking to Buzz Bissinger about his new memoir, Father’s Day.
Every once in a while, you read a book that’s so wrenching, so gorgeously written and so hard to read that you know that it will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
FATHER’S DAY is one of those.
On an August day in 1983, Bissinger, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, author of A PRAYER FOR THE CITY and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, rushed to the hospital where his wife, who'd been on bed rest for two months, had just given birth to premature twins, born just three minutes apart.
Gerry, the oldest, was premature but fine, and is now a fourth-grade teacher with a degree from Penn, working toward a PhD.
Zach, oxygen-deprived and brain-damaged, is not fine.
“He will never drive a car, or kiss a girl, or live by himself,” Bissinger writes, with characteristic candor. While Gerry studies for his degree, Zach bags groceries. He is, in short, not the kid Bissinger, himself a hard-charging, success-oriented Ivy League graduate, signed up for…and he’s ashamed of his own shame. “The promise of a new Brooks Brothers wardrobe is just an illusion,” Bissinger writes, of a post-Christmas shopping trip. “What I experienced with my father I will not experience as a father with my son. He is not a hedge fund trader. I should have known that by now. I will never know that by now. I can’t.”
In telling the story of his son’s life, and the two-week road trip they took together, pinballing across America to revisit the places they’d lived, Bissinger turns his reportorial gaze on himself – his ambition and disappointments, his hopes and insecurities.
Nothing is sugar-coated. There are no platitudes about God never giving you more than you can handle, no suggestion that Zach was a kind of ennobling care package sent to teach his driven dad a lesson, to grant him the gift of perspective.
But, along the way, as Buzz loses his camera and his temper, as he clings to his son on amusement-park bungee cords, confesses that the New York Times best-seller list sends him into a day-long sulk, and takes stock of his own life, and how he defines success, that is what happens.
FATHER’s DAY is a searingly honest account about what it’s like to be the parent of a special-needs child, a story that doesn’t gloss over the disappointments – however petty – that go along with knowing that the trajectory of achievement you’d mapped out and hoped for is going to end not with a college degree and a shiny future but a job in a grocery store where Zach learns, with the help of a job coach, that eggs need to be bagged separately.
If you’ve seen Buzz fulminating on Twitter or on TV, or if you know him as the chronicler of athletes and politicians, this book
Oh, happy day! "The Bachelorette" premiere is still a little ways off (May 14!), but ABC has "released" the men who will be vying for Emily's hand and heart (I see the word 'release' and picture the men milling around in a cattle holding pen while producers watch over them, with whips and cattle prods).
I'll be live-blogging the fun for the good folks at Entertainment Weekly, but let's warm up with a look at the contenders.
First impressions: the producers have presented us with a delectable assortment of the good, the bad, and the intriguingly coiffed, a fine crop of guys who want to find true love, or at least the guarantee of being on a few tabloid covers and maybe – just maybe – “Dancing with the Stars.” There’s a heavy emphasis on the International Male (hey, who else is old enough to remember that catalogue?) – and guys with jobs we’ve never heard of. (Hello, Brazilian grain merchant!)
Bonus points for whoever's running the show for not bothering/offering to proofread any of the bachelors’ responses. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then bad grammar, iffy spelling, and odd capitalization are a window into…something else.
So who’ve we got?
Arie is a race-car driver. Hey, just like poor Emily’s late fiancée, and father of her child! Oh, producers, you wonderful, lovable sadists.
Alejandro is a mushroom farmer from Medellin. First reaction: sure he is. Second reaction: I’d keep him around for a while, just because I enjoy saying “mushroom farmer from Medellin.”
Here’s Michael. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: never date a guy you’re going to have to fight for the flat-iron.
Kyle’s favorite movies are “Zoolander,” “Point Break” and “The Notebook.” Translation: I’m funny, I’m hip, and if we start dating, our schedules will sync!
So you want to be a novelist?
Well, there's no one path to take. Novelists come in all shapes and sizes. They're men and women, wunderkinds and retirees. Some of them are very attractive. The rest of us resent them horribly. And if there was a single magic bullet, or a list of steps to follow that would guarantee publication, believe me, someone would have published it by now. What follows is just my take on the question - a completely idiosyncratic, opinionated, flawed and somewhat sassy take on some of the steps you can take to get published. Important caveat: I have only written two books, and I'm thirty-two, which, as my mother would hasten to point out, means I am probably not qualified to give advice to anyone about anything. (Update: Add ten years, eight books, one book-to-film adaptation, and one short-lived television series that I co-wrote and co-ran). If you're looking for lessons from the life masters - people who've made long careers in the world of fiction - then run, do not walk, to your local bookshop and buy Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's indispensable Bird by Bird, and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings and Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft. If you want my advice, read on (and if you've already written your book and just want to figure out how to get it published, skip ahead to Step 8).
1. The Unhappy Childhood
The big joke in the publishing community is that smart editors shouldn't waste their time at lunches or conferences, but should instead proceed directly to the local elementary schools. There, they will carefully note the boys picked last in gym class, the girls sitting alone in the cafeteria - all of the outcasts, misfits, geeks, dweebs and weirdos - and give them some kind of small identifying tag (much like wildlife services will tag animals to follow their progress through the years). Twenty years later, the editors should track down the kids they've tagged, now hopefully grown to more successful adulthood, and say, "Okay, where's the novel?"
Why do unhappy kids grow up to be writers? I think because being an outsider - a geek, a dweeb, a weirdo, a smart, mouthy girl or boy who just doesn't fit in - means that you're naturally equipped for observing life carefully. You're not on the inside, you're on the outside - and nobody's a more careful, dedicated observer of life than a kid or teenager who's trying to figure out how to finally fit in with the in-crowd.
Also (and this is totally my own take on things, unproven by any kind of study or research), but I think that kids whose parents are divorced, separated, single, or otherwise un-Cleaver-ish might have a slight edge over those who grew up in happily-married homes. For kids, divorce is a mystery, a puzzle that begs to be put back together - what went wrong? Was it my fault? Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? All of these questions reinforce the powers of observation, the questioning spirit, the impulse to try to make sense of life that can lead to becoming a writer. Or a mass murderer, I guess, but hopefully a writer instead. So if you're a would-be writer whose parents are divorced, be happy. If you're married, and a parent, and trying to turn your kid into a writer, please don't break up just because I said so. Because by the time our theoretical young writer has figured out that fitting in with the in-crowd isn't a consummation devoutly to be wished, and has given up trying to make sense of Why Daddy Doesn't Live Here Anymore, it will be time to…..
2. Have a Miserable Love Life
Again, a crucial ingredient for the formation of a novelist - romantic humiliation and heartbreak. The unhappy childhood gives you the tools of observation. Unrequited crushes, romantic despair, a few memorable break-ups, will give you something to write about, an understanding of grief. No prospect of heartbreak in sight? I can provide phone numbers upon request. (Updated: I now know no single people. At all.
I turned in the final draft of THE NEXT BEST THING on Wednesday, and planned a girlie "treat yo'self" day on Thursday -- a trip to New York, lunch with my editor, shopping for some pretty new dresses for my spring tour dates, and Ricki Lake's reading on the Upper East Side.So there I was, happily ensconced in the quiet car (aka "heaven" to moms of small children), clicking through my Twitter feed, when I came across an interview with Lena Dunham, creator of the film "Tiny Furniture," and the new HBO show "Girls."The interview was all about Dunham’s reading habits. In it, she in which she praised the movie "Clueless" and the adventures of Eloise, admitted to never having finished THE GREAT GATSBY…and, sigh, took a shot at chick lit.Asked "Have you ever read a book about girls or women that made you angry or disappointed or just extremely annoyed?" (a looking-for-trouble question if I've ever heard one), Dunham replied, "I don’t have a taste for airport chick-lit, even in a guilty-pleasure way. Any book that is motored by the search for a husband and/or a good pair of heels makes me want to move to the outback. If there is a cartoon woman’s torso on the front or a stroller with a diamond on it, I just can’t."Cue my sigh.Here’s the thing: those books Dunham is railing against? They're pretty hard, if not impossible, to find. They’re not for sale in airports, they’re not available in bookstores; they’re not around any more now they were last summer, when Brooklynite-of-the-moment Thessaly La Salle bitched about "mind-numbing titles boast(ing) pink covers with stick figure women swinging purses and walking little dogs; in The Paris Review. You can read all about it in whatever gloating “Chick Lit: She is Dead! And We're All Pissing On Her Grave!” story’s been published in the ten minutes since I started writing this blog post. Start with this one, or this one here!Here is what happened: back in the day, Bridget Jones and her sisters were a huge success. Publishers, like the let's-make-some-money business-runners that they are, saw those books selling and began demanding more, more, more! More funny stories of single girls fretting over their hips! More tales of twentysomethings with meddling moms and gay BFFs trying to make it in the big city!New imprints were born. Shelves overflowed with tomes with pink covers decorated with handbags and high heels. Business was booming. For a while, it felt like any young woman with a laptop and a bad breakup had a book deal.Then, the marketplace got saturated with those single-in-the-city stories, some of which were fantastic, some of which were not great. Readers demonstrated that they could discern between the good and the copycats. Publishers pulled back. The strong survived. Candace Bushnell, Jane Green, Emily Giffin, along with newer voices like Sarah Pekkanen and Amy Hatvany and Liza Palmer and Caprice Crane, continue to have their work printed. Meanwhile, publishers started screaming for more sparkly vampires and dystopian YA, because that’s what’s selling right now.So those shoes ‘n’ husband-hunting books Dunham’s railing against? They are a straw (wo)man. Maybe Dunham took a glance at the cover of Shopaholic book, or, eek, the circa-2002 cover of IN HER SHOES, thought, “Ugh,” and then, when the Times reporter asked her “what books don’t you read,” instead of demurring with a ladylike (and infinitely kinder), “I’d rather talk about the books I DO like,” she went after the tired target of chick lit – specifically, a brand of chick lit that isn’t even around to bug her any more.When IAdd a Comment
Years ago, I was invited back to Princeton to give a reading at the creative writing department. (Yes, for those who don’t know, I graduated from Princeton, which I imagine is a subject of great shame among its stellar writing facility. I like to imagine Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison and John McPhee standing around, leafing dubiously through a copy of GOOD IN BED, saying, “Jennifer Weiner?....nope, don’t remember her at all!")
So I came, I read, I fielded questions, and then I went out to dinner at a beautiful restaurant near campus along with other current members of the creative-writing staff, whose numbers currently include Jeffrey Eugenides.
I love Jeffrey Eugenides…especially MIDDLESEX. I thought it was everything a novel should be – big, and sprawling and smart and engaging, with an immediately relatable hero/ine, a book that took on family and romance history and love and did it all in a way that made you say, “No, no, you go ahead, I’m just going to read a few more pages.
I also get extremely shy and tongue-tied around big-deal literary authors I respect. This comes in part from my personality, in part from being told for ten years that I’m not a real writer and I don’t write real books, just entertaining girlie fluff (and if you think it’s easy to write “just” entertaining girlie fluff, I urge you to give it a try. It’s actually harder than you’d think.
So there we were, a party of ten or so, sharing a delicious post-reading feast. Jeffrey Eugenides was seated a few spots down the table. I had to talk to him. I had to. There was no way I was going back to Philadelphia without telling this man how much his book had meant to me. But I couldn’t work up the courage to say anything besides “please pass the salt.”
Wine, I decided, would help.
I had a glass. Then another. Then a third, putting me two and a half glasses over my limit (I’m not much of a drinker). Finally, I touched his forearm and said (or possibly slurred) “I loooooved MIDDLESEX.”
He smiled politely. “Thank you.”
I bared my purplish-stained teeth at him in a grin that was meant to be friendly but probably looked feral.
“I read it right after it came out. Right after my first daughter was born.”
This factoid was greeted with another polite smile. Please, said the look on his face, please let the poet start talking to me again. But I was undeterred. (Also, possibly, drunk).
“And, you know, even though I’d had amnio, and I knew she was a girl, I made the doctor look extra-close to be sure.” (MIDDLESEX readers will remember that much of the book’s plot hinges on an aged pediatrician’s failure to properly recognize male genitalia when presented with it. “Because,” I concluded triumphantly, in a whisper that could probably be heard in West Windsor, “nobody wants to be the mom who missed the penis!”
At that point, Jeffrey Eugenides was looking at me with an expression on his face that could only be characterized as unmitigated horror, with a soupçon of disgust. I took another gulp from my wineglass.
“Oh, c’mon,” I said. “I can’t be the only mom who’s ever done that!”
Yes, said the look on Jeffrey Eugenides’ face. Yes, you can.
So there you have it: my evening with Jeffrey Eugenides. Which, if I’m remembering right, ended with a cordial conversation about Princeton’s best cupcake shop.
And I’ll be back
In which two New York Times Book Review editors discuss their female trouble....
Editor One: So, you’re not going to like this, but I really think we need to talk about the sexism situation.
Editor Two (whining): Didn’t we talk about some lady book last week?
One: No, last week we talked about Mark Leyner.
Two: Oh. (Happily). I like Mark Leyner.
One: So do we all. But here’s the deal: there’s this evidence, and it’s pretty overwhelming, that women’s literary work is perceived, reviewed, purchased and read much differently than similar work by men.
Two: And this is our problem because….?
One: Because people are talking. And noticing. And counting how many women’s books the Times reviews and how many women reviewers we hire. It’s making us look bad. It might even be making people not read us. So the next time we write about Chad Harbach, or Mark Leyner's sugar-frosted nut sack, or one of the Jonathans….
Two: Please. We’re the only game in town. People are going to read what we say, no matter what.
One: You do this, or I’m telling everyone how long you spent in the bathroom with that Wall Street Journal piece about James Patterson's Palm Beach estate.
Two (shocked): You wouldn’t!
One: I would. And this won’t be so bad. Here’s my plan: we find some Times-approved woman writer and let her write an essay about the problem.
Two: Not one of those icky commercial writers? The ones who were making all that fuss about Franzen?
One: No, no, no. Don’t be silly. You know we don’t mention those ladies except on the bestseller list. We’ll find an acceptable lady writer. Someone who’s sophisticated. Genteel. Someone who writes about families and marriages and relationships and motherhood, preferably as experienced by wealthy New Yorkers.
Two: I don’t know. That still kind of sounds like chick lit. Or women’s fiction.
One: Can't be chick lit if it’s written by a critically-respected midlist author whose books the Times reviews.
Two: Ah! Gotcha. Okay, so Elinor Lipman? Kathryn Harrison? Cathleen Schine?
One: I was thinking Meg Wolitzer.
Two: Huh. Didn’t she once write an essay about reading a Sophie Kinsella book and not finding it completely odious?
One: That was a long time ago. Probably no one remembers.
Two: I don’t know. She had a scene in THE TEN YEAR NAP where a lady breast-fed another woman’s baby. (Shudders). I don’t like breast-feeding. Or babies. Or books about mothers who breast-feed their babies. That would never happen in a Jonathan Franzen book.
One: I know.
Two: In a Jonathan Franzen book, the character would have to dig through a turd to find a wedding r
By now, people who follow publishing news are familiar with the headlines from last week’s Fridayreads brouhaha: popular hashtag revealed as a business, too! Proprietors apologize for not properly labeling promotional tweets! “We may have made mistakes, but we’ve got ethics!” they claim.
When it began, #Fridayreads was a popular hashtag that was billed by its founder Bethanne Patrick, who tweets as @thebookmaven, as a “global community of people who come together each week to share whatever they’re reading.” Last week, Patrick admitted that Fridayreads is a hashtag and a business both, a business that charges publishers fees from $750 to $2,000 to host giveaways, author Q and A’s, “twitter tours,” and post positive tweets about their books.
Now that the business aspect is out in the open, there’s another question to consider, one that’s bigger than the issue of why Patrick and her colleagues chose to disclose the moneymaking component of a Twitter hashtag on a website few would have occasion to see, and whether they really believed that disclosure was sufficient: namely, why does any of this matter to readers and writers?
My own full disclosure: I found out that Fridayreads was selling services after a new online literary magazine called Book Riot ran a story that criticized me and Jodi Picoult for the crime of being insufficiently pissed about the coverage novelist Jeffrey Eugenides received (yes, this is the life I lead). A few of the Riot’s employees were kind enough to tweet the link at me, just to be sure that I saw.
I read the story. Then I went to the masthead to figure out who was in charge of this new magazine, and was surprised to learn that Patrick, who I’ve met once and who has always been friendly to me on Twitter, was the Riot’s new executive editor.
I went to Patrick’s Twitter page, to see whether her new job was mentioned. It wasn’t, but her Twitter page led me to the Fridayreads home page (which also failed to mention Patrick’s new affiliation). The home page led me to a link to the FAQ page, and, deep on the FAQ page was the news that the Fridayreads services were for sale (the page also revealed that two of Fridayreads’ three employees also have positions at Book Riot).
How many casual readers and tweeters would follow such a serpentine path, figure out how Fridayreads worked, and make an informed decision about whether they wanted to participate and be counted not just as a reader but as a potential consumer of the books Patrick was selling? My guess: not many.
In addition to posting their disclosure on a website, while most of #fridayreads happens on Twitter and Facebook, the people running the hashtag failed to clearly label promoted tweets as promoted. This is a problem, too. As others have noted, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection has rules spelling out how bloggers and Twitter users must disclose when they’re paid to endorse or mention a product.
The rules make it clear that “a single disclosure doesn’t really do it because people visiting your site might read individual reviews or watch individual videos without seeing the disclosure on your home page," and that promoted tweets have to labeled as such, with an #ad or #sponsored or #promoted hashtag.
I won’t speculate about whether the disclosure-on-a-website and subsequent failure to label promotional tweets correctly was deliberately deceptive or merely clueless.
But I do want to talk about why disclosure and transparency matter.
On Monday, Patrick issued an explanation/apology on her website. In the com
Remember that old Andre Agassi campaign where he finger-combed his mullet and told us that “image is everything?”
Take that and triple it when it comes to ethics in book reviewing.
Readers deserve a critic’s honest take on a book, an opinion that hasn't been influenced by the critic’s relationship with the author or her publisher. Because the community of critics and writers is small and incestuous, with plenty of connections and lots of overlap, editors are meticulous about making sure that the reviews they run are beyond reproach.
A reviewer cannot share a blood relation or a bed with the author of the book she’ll be considering. She can’t have written a blurb or be thanked in the acknowledgments of the book under consideration, or have blurbed or thanked its author.
Critics can’t review the work of a friend, or an enemy.
Generally, reviewers are required to disclose any relationship – any at all – that they have with the author. Did you ever work at the same university? Judge a contest together? Win the same fellowship, sit on the same panel, attend a writers’ conference at the same time? The editors want to know, because they want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, of log-rolling or score-settling or a review that is, or even seems to be, ethically tainted. They want their reviews to be fair, and to look that way.
Among the list of thou-shalt-nots is a rule that’s so basic that editors could be forgiven for not even mentioning it: thou shalt not take money from the publisher to promote the book you’re reviewing.
That's why it was surprising to find the Minneapolis Star-Tribune publishing Bethanne Patrick's review of Joyce Carol Oates’ book THE CORN MAIDEN…the same book that Patrick, wearing her #fridayreads hat, had done a paid giveaway of the month before. (Full disclosure: Joyce Carol Oates was one of my creative writing professors in college, some twenty years ago).
Patrick was assigned the review in August. She turned in her review in October. At some point between October and November, she negotiated the promotion with Oates’ publisher.
Star-Tribune Senior Editor Laurie Hertzel said in an email interview that at no point did Patrick disclose that she was doing a paid promotion for the book she’d reviewed. Hertzel said she “did not know about the financial relationship (between Patrick and Oates’ publisher) before the review was published.”
In fact, Hertzel said didn’t even know that there was a paid component to Fridayreads.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the Fridayreads saga, and who know that Patrick, who has been doing paid promotions ranging from $750 to $2,000 since March of this year, chose to disclose that fact that Fridayreads is “a hashtag and a business both” halfway down a FAQ page on a website, as opposed to on Twitter and Facebook, as FTC regulations require, and did not label promoted tweets as such.
When all of this was pointed out, by me and other writers, Patrick essentially threw up her hands and pleaded ignorance. Things moved fast, steps were skipped, the Internet’s a big, confusing place. Maybe she didn’t do everything right, but she didn’t mean to mislead anyone and she’s sorry if she did.
Which is the same line she’s repeating now that the book review-promo conflict has come to light. "I'm in new territory here," she
Why isn't this woman smiling?
Back in the summer of 2010, some female writers (including me) used the occasion of the orgy of coverage around Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM to make a point that seemed obvious to anyone paying attention: the New York Times does not do a very good job at covering women writers.
After a tsunami of indignation swelled across the Internet – a tsunami that, unfortunately, was directed not at the Times, but at the female writers who dared to complain about its policies -- Slate.com confirmed the problem: of the 545 books reviewed between July 2008 and August, 2010, 62 percent were by men, 38 percent were by women…and of the 101 books that were reviewed twice in that time period, 71 percent were by men.
Did the Times do any better a year after FREEDOM?
To quote Reverend Lovejoy of Simpsons fame, short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but. No male writer received the kind of saturation-level combination of reviews, profiles, think-pieces and mentions that surrounded Franzen's new book...but if you're hoping for equality, the paper's got a long way to go.
I counted the number of novels and short-story collections that were written up in the Times, mostly because fiction is what I write, and what I read. Numbers first, analysis at the end.
In 2011, the Times reviewed 254 works of fiction. 104, or 40.9 percent, were by women, and 150, or 59.1 percent, were by men.
Of the works of fiction that got two full reviews, 21 were by women, 22 were by men.
Of the works that received one full review plus a mention in a round-up, 5 were by women, 11 were by men. (This can be largely explained by Marilyn Stasio’s weekly round-up of crime novels).
Finally, of the works of fiction whose authors were reviewed twice (either with two full reviews, or review plus roundup) and profiled, one was a woman and ten were men.
The men who received two reviews plus a profile were David Foster Wallace, Albert Brooks, Julian Barnes, Kevin Wilson, Nicholson Baker, Tom Perrotta, Russell Banks, Jeffrey Eugenides, Haruki Murakami and Allan Hollinghurst.
The only woman who received two reviews plus a profile was Tea Obreht (who also received a mention in the TBR column).
J. Courtney Sullivan (a former Times employee), received a full review and a round-up mention, and was featured in the “Sunday Routine” column, where she discussed her preferred brunch, her work habits, and her favorite dog park.
Sullivan also appeared in the "Inside the List" column, wrote a book review, and published a piece on her hobby -- dollhouses.
Ann Patchett was reviewed twice, and was
Every once in a while, you read a book with such well-written, memorable characters that you know you’re going to remember them forever.
Macon Leary in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, Dolores Price in SHE’S COME UNDONE, Olympia Binewski from GEEK LOVE…all of them have their own specific voices, and their own unforgettable journeys.
To that list, add Arthur Opp, the unlikely protagonist of Liz Moore’s first novel HEFT, about a lonely man and a teenage boy making their way out of the wreckage of their lives..and toward one another.
HEFT is a wonderful oddball of a book. I loved it, and I think you will, too…and if you buy the book before or on Monday, February 20, I will send you a signed copy of one of my books for free.
Here’s the deal: treat yourself to a copy of HEFT, which is available at your favorite independent bookstore, online retailer, and wherever books are sold. Yes, e-books count. Yes, foreign readers are welcome (it'll just take a little longer for your books to arrive).
On Monday, tweet a picture of you and the book, or your receipt, or the title page on your e-reader, under the hashtag #HEFT. Not on Twitter? Post the picture to your Facebook page, or post it on mine.
Then, send an email to jen AT jenniferweiner.com with your name, which book you want, to whom you’d like it inscribed, if at all, and where you’d like us to send it. I’ll send books until we run out, which won’t be for a while! You can ask for a book for yourself, or for a friend, or you can donate it to your local library, school, prison, hospital, shelter, wherever.
And come back tomorrow, where I’ll have an interview with Liz Moore.
The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat,” Arthur Opp confesses in the story’s very first line. Arthur estimates his weight as somewhere between five and six hundred pounds, and confesses that he eats “whatever and whenever he wants,” feasts of “Chinese food, the greased and glowing kind, unnaturally orange chicken with sesame seeds nestled in its crevices, white rice in buttery clumps that come apart wonderfully in the mouth; potstickers, ridged and hard at the seam and soft at the belly; crab rangoons, a crunch followed by lush bland creaminess; chocolate cake – nothing Chinese about it, but the best dessert for a meal of this kind, the sweet bitterness an antidote & a compliment to all that salt.”.
When we meet him, Arthur hasn't been out of the house in a decade -- not since 9-11. The lovely Brooklyn brownstone he inherited was once “very lovely inside and out, decorated very nicely, O this when I was a small boy. But now I fear I have allowed it to fall into a sort of haunted disrepair.” He’s a disgraced former professor, hopelessly longing for a former student whom he dated a handful of times decades ago. His word is confined to the first floor of his house, his television set, and the deliverymen who bring him whatever he needs from the outside world. “I made sure to choose the after 5 p.m option when I joined, which pleases me I like to think the deliveryman might believe I work all day and am just getting home. I’m very silly in this way!”
Arthur’s carefully-constructed life starts to crack open when he makes his first human connections in years. He meets Yolanda, the housekeeper he hires to get his house in order in the belief that Charlene might come back, and, eventually, the reader meets a teenage baseball prodigy Kel Keller, Charlene’s son. Kel, handsome and athletically gifted, is also a misfit, also trapped, imprisoned by poverty, by place and circumstance and the burdens of an ill and addicted mother. He lives in a rough part of Yonkers, attends school in a posh neighboring suburb, and keeps his mother’s secrets, caring for her even as he’s furious with her for failing him so profoundly.
Liz Moore is neither a six-hundred-pound professor or an unhappy, too-cool teenage jock. Tall and willowy, with a thoughtful manner and Julia Roberts masses of wavy brown hair, Moore grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, the oldest of two sisters, in a “very happy family.” Her mother was an English professor, her father was a research physicist who specialized in nuclear medicine, and Moore was an avid reader of everything from Beverly Cleary to Madeline L’Engle to “The Babysitters Club, which my mom was not happy about.”
Living in a soccer-mad suburb, Moore recalled wishing that her mother spoke with more of a Boston accent. “All I wanted to do was be like all the other kids I knew. I remember trying to be someone I wasn’t.”
She played soccer: “Not well. And I would have traded everythin
Last week Vida, an organization for women in the arts, released its second annual survey of highbrow publications and how many women they’re publishing and reviewing.
The news, predictably, was not good: The Atlantic reviewed 12 books by women, 24 by men. Harper's reviewed 19 women, 53 men. The New Yorker published work by 242 women, 613 men.
The typical hand-wringing, apologizing, defensiveness and search for solutions quickly began.
I wrote a piece for the Guardian’s blog, arguing that, for anything to change, women are going to have to speak up for ourselves, and one another.
And then, with my work done, I downloaded the latest popular piece of erotica that everyone’s talking about and settled in for what I hoped would be a fun read.
I love a good, fast-paced sexy book. I read Judith Krantz when I was just a lass, and kept the A.N. Roquelaure books under my mattress, and can still recite more of Shirley Conran’s LACE than you’d believe. I’m not looking for prose on the level of James or Proust every time I start a novel. Sometimes, I just want entertainment.
This book -- for a variety of reasons -- did not deliver.
On Sunday night, I dashed off a few snarky tweets, rolled my eyes, bit my lip, recommended a few other books, and went off to innocent slumber.
And woke up to a bit of a kerfuffle
I wanted to write back, You know who I am? I am a reader, who paid $6.99 for this book, and has a right to an opinion about it.
But other, more thoughtful responses kept coming. You threw another woman under the bus. You’re being a bitch. You, with all your talk of equality and fairness. How could you!
My first reaction was to get defensive. There is, I pointed out, a difference between calling a book an unreadable piece of trash that should never have been published and taking issue with specific pieces of a story -- a story that I've paid for, and taken time to read and think about.
I never said it shouldn’t have seen the light of day, or that readers don’t have a right to enjoy it. I certainly didn’t hunt the author down on Twitter and make sure she knew exactly how I felt about her book.
Did that make me a mean girl? Did that mean I was chucking another female author – and a first-time one, at that – under the bus?
Does standing up for women’s equality, fo
I have no idea how the New York Times editors decide what to cover in the INSIDE THE LIST column...but I like to imagine the discussion going something like this.
Editor one: Looks like Jodi Picoult’s new book is going to debut at number one.
Editor two: (Blank look): Jodi Who?
One: You know. Jodi Picoult. The lady who writes books about real people facing ethical dilemmas?
Two: Real what?
One: Never mind. Look, it’s a huge best-seller, and we really should say something. I mean, her readers, Times readers…lots of overlap there.
Two: Didn’t we just write about some lady-book bestseller? That mommy-porn thing? Shouldn’t that buy us, like, a month? And at least two more profiles of Nicholson Baker?
One: (Placating). Look, it’s not like I’m saying we have to review the book or anything crazy. But this column’s called Inside the List. Which means that maybe we should actually mention the books that are on the bestseller list. Every once in a while.
Two (Sulking): I don’t like writing about popular fiction, unless I get to make fun of it. That’s why I’m an editor at a mainstream newspaper with a diverse readership which nevertheless permits – nay, encourages – its publishing reporters to ignore most of the books people actually enjoy, especially if they’re written and enjoyed by women.
Two: Oops. Sorry. (Whispering) Forgot I’m not supposed to talk about that in public. (Then) Look, can’t we just write about Chad Harbach some more? He was on the list!
One: He doesn’t have a book on the bestseller list right now.
Two: Yeah, but he did. Remember?
One: I do. But, given that it took him nine years to write the first one, we might not get to talk about him for a bit. Now, this Picoult book. It deals with organ donation, end-of-life decisions, complex family dramas. Oh, and it’s got a protagonist who lived with a wolf pack. She did a lot of research. Maybe we can talk about that?
Two (brightening): Hey, wait a minute! Wasn’t she one of those lady writers who hates Jonathan Franzen?
One: Well, technically, those lady writers weren’t complaining about Franzen, per se, but, rather, the disparate amounts of attention given to men versus women, and literary versus commercial fiction in mainstream...
Two: Yeah, yeah. Probably Josie was just jealous of Franzen. Can we write about Franzen?
One (Slowly): So, instead of writing about Jodi Picoult and her number-one bestselling book, you want to write about Jonathan Franzen.
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