Jennifer Weiner’s Shiksa Lit
Her heroines are Jewish, but the best-selling novelist is working—despite her protests—in a goyish genre
Back in 2007, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic “cruised” through a Border’s with Maureen Dowd, who later penned a column about their stroll. They were searching for a copy of Nostromo but found instead nothing but pink-covered novels emblazoned with “a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos.” “These books,” Wieseltier disdainfully pronounced, “do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels.”
Among the leading voices of this suspect genre is Jennifer Weiner, who has spent the last few years tentatively re-appropriating the term “chick lit,” defending her fellow female authors in op-eds and railing against the critical stonewalling of a genre whose male counterparts—fantasy, horror—are not only financially successful but also reviewed. In 2010 the Huffington Post interviewed her, along with Jodi Picoult, about the much-logrolled “Franzen Feud,” over whether the male writer’s Time magazine cover and lavish critical attention indicated bias against “women’s fiction”; Weiner’s answers were acerbic in ways her protagonists never are, and her demands were realistic, righteous, and self-aware. She admits that she doesn’t write literary fiction but thinks she should be taken “at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby,” both of whom she later includes in a list of male authors who “would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls.”
Weiner’s body of work, which includes, along with the books, a television producing/writing credit (State of Georgia) and a movie based on one of her novels (In Her Shoes), epitomizes the chick lit market: financially robust, but critically shunned. Good in Bed, her debut novel, has sold more than 1.6 million copies to date and is now in its 56th reprinting. When it was released in 2001, it stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year, but it was never reviewed. A decade later, advice columnist Susan Quilliam wrote in the Journal of Family Planning that readers of chick lit “suspend reality” and apply its standards to real life—with disappointing results. Chick lit fans, we can extrapolate, are considered too dumb to know even their own motivations for indulging in the cheap pleasures of their favorite novels.
In a few weeks, bookstores and airport kiosks nationwide will prominently display Weiner’s soon-to-be-published 10th novel. The Next Best Thing is the story of Ruth Saunders, a 28-year-old Hollywood screenwriter who has just sold her first sitcom. The TV show, based on a semiautobiographical script, takes liberties with Ruth’s own experiences while preserving some of its most salient details. Her alter ego, Daphne, is a chef, not a production assistant, but like Ruth has a boy-crazy, best-friend-of-a-grandmother, whose love life often serves as a foil to her own. A green light from production, exciting though it is, promises little more than the guarantee of more hard work. As showrunner, Ruth is met with a bevy of daily struggles: rewrites, unreliable actresses, ratings-obsessed execs. Ruth’s backstory ensures from the start that we’ll tag along cheering: A car crash killed her mother and father when she was just a baby and left her with a half-scarred face. She’s set up as an underdog, physically maimed and ready to be rooted for.
Weiner’s prose style is cheery and friction-free: She gives us female protagonists that readers can identify with in uncomplicated ways. It’s not their bold actions or lithe minds that win our sympathies. Rather, the grim details of their biographies are supposed to compel us to like them in spite of their flaws. In many ways, one of the better clues to understanding the mystery of chick lit’s unique combination of fierce mass appeal and equally intense critical hostility is to look to Weiner’s use of Judaism. She endows her Jewish characters with a sort of all-purpose self-loathing—and her non-Jewish ones fare no better, ironically mazel tov-ing and bandying about terms like shiksa. The screwball slur connotes a gauzy head and the willingness to eat garbage—which is, not coincidentally, exactly how detractors like Wieseltier and Dowd think of chick lit and its readers: intellectually worthless, indiscriminate, both feared and dismissed.
For the 10th anniversary edition of Good in Bed, Weiner wrote a confessional first-person introduction that reads much like her fiction. The writing is snappy and fluent; she uses familiar, prefabricated phrases to describe her childhood (“picture-perfect suburb of Connecticut,” “a house full of books”) and then piles on the pathos-drenched particulars of her father’s eventual desertion and mental illness (he vanishes, he rants, he slurs). We get a chronicle of her professional ascent, first as a journalist and then as a novelist, as well as some details about a failed, though formative, relationship. When a prospective agent asks Weiner if the heroine of Good in Bed really needs to be fat (bad for movie deals), she holds her ground: “Yes, I said, the heroine needs to be fat, because if she’s not, then this is basically Bridget Jones with a bat mitzvah, not that I even read that.” Within the course of a few Roman-numerated pages, Weiner is, in effect, novelizing her own life. The swiftness with which her autobiography is conveyed reads like background she gives to her characters, who are spirited and self-deprecating, once-wounded but now healed—ready to make charisma out of their quirks.
Weiner understands the game she has chosen to play, and she plays it well, abiding by all the familiar conventions that her readers have come to expect—from not just her books, but also from others like them. The chick lit heroine learns how to manage a hostile world, upgrading her standing in it while at the same time remaining true to whatever establishing eccentricities she’s been dealt. She is marginalized for some reason or other (not skinny enough in an office full of size-2 assistants, not rich enough for parties on Nantucket), and she is almost always “bookish”—which is a sympathetic shortcut if there ever was one, since her audience is, necessarily, made up of book-readers. True to form, Ruth Saunders winds up perfectly poised to succeed in Hollywood, her disfigured face, workhorse attitude, and geriatric confidante being the very qualities that immunize her against the destructive expectations of a notoriously vapid industry.
The one thing all Weiner’s heroines share is Judaism. In The Next Best Thing, Ruth Saunders, in the classic Weiner mold, is a lapsed Jew, her religion sprinkled like a mild seasoning throughout the book—dashes here and there—who hasn’t been to synagogue in half a decade, barely remembers to fast on Yom Kippur, and witnesses her grandmother brining a kosher turkey in a hot tub. Judaism is just another way for Weiner to handicap her protagonists and establish their outsider status, which is necessary if they’re going to observe their world and report back to us. The only conversations about Jewishness in the book that threaten to get at all serious concern Daphne, who is played by a “distinctly non-Semitic” actress whose heart-shaped face and strawberry blond hair make her look “about as Jewish as a ham sandwich.” When Ruth’s agent broaches the topic of renaming Daphne, she does so cryptically, but Ruth is able to read between the ellipses and understands that what’s wanted is a “less Jewish” name, and in turn main character. These oblique discussions (there’s another about cutting a line that hinges on Hadassah) end in compromise, but it looks an awful lot like concession. Weiner doesn’t freight these scenes with heavy-handed histrionics, which is a relief, but a more serious writer would imbue Ruth’s acquiescence with a more undignified constellation of emotions, and in turn we’d respect her more, but like her less.
In Fly Away Home, her 2010 novel about the wife of a philandering senator, Weiner persistently snarls together Jewishness and ambient exclusion. Sylvie Woodruff is a “fifty-seven-year-old professional dieter, a woman whose only real job … [is] staying twenty pounds thinner than she’d been in law school.” Weiner catalogs Sylvie’s “joyless meals” and describes the way she used to look, pre-D.C.-makeover: “big-busted, heavy-hipped,” tangled jewelry, tunics, fringed scarves. We’re meant to imagine the old Sylvie—the “real” Sylvie—as exotic and unruly; in the intervening years she’s had to assimilate—shrink her body, tame her hair. Though in the early days of her marriage, Sylvie’s young husband referred to her alternately as “My First Jew” and a “wild child,” both have learned that what Washington really wants is a WASP. Sylvie gives up her own career for the sake of her husband’s and trades real work for calorie-counting, but still her ethnicity isn’t ignored; her best friend and college roommate, after all, is a woman named Ceil, who Sylvie’s parents called “the shiksa princess.”
Weiner’s books are ahistorical, and they resist close reading. Though her heroines are Jewish, her books are not. Jewishness, in Weiner’s hands, is a token characteristic, one of many features meant to signal a protagonist’s difference. Ruth Saunders is Jewish, but she’s also physically unattractive (“lank, brown, unwashed” hair) and seldom seen without her elderly relative. Jewishness is not, for Weiner, a source of either reverence or anguish, pride or pain—she uses it, instead, to advance her goals as a genre writer.
Why exactly chick lit is “worse” than anything else isn’t always self-evident. Sure, there are sassy parentheticals, but chick lit, already a specious category, doesn’t usually telegraph its unseriousness on the sentence level. Instead, the clues come by way of character development. Best friends seem to exist only so they can pick up frantic phone calls; our narrator is never unreliable, and her intentions are always good. “I was a woman who’d lost her parents,” says Ruth at her story’s beginning, “who’d survived a dozen surgeries and emerged with metal implants in my jaw, the right side of my face sunken and scarred, and an eye that dropped. In my twenty-eight years, I hadn’t gotten much. I deserved this.” Like her chick lit templates, Ruth has earned her victory, despite improbable odds and, presumably, our premade pity. When she triumphs we applaud her and ourselves for being on the side of someone so obviously imperfect. Never mind that her flaws are easy ones to forgive, because they’re never really her fault in the first place.
Despite her protestations, Weiner’s talents and critical reputation are like those of Alice Dembosky, Heshie’s love interest in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. A drum majorette adored by the local community, Alice’s physical “genius” consists of suggestive baton-twirling; impressive leap-landing; and, ultimately, accidental bosom-burning. Both share a populist appeal, summed up in the words of Alex Portnoy as “precisely the kind of talent that only a goy would think to develop in the first place.”
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