I Like Jennifer Weiner; I Like Her Books. Now Can I Have One Quibble?
By giving her characters perfect endings, the wildly popular writer may actually undermine them
It’s like the happy ending of one of her own novels: Jennifer Weiner, the wildly prolific and popular author, and equally prolific if somewhat less popular Internet gadfly, is profiled in this week’s New Yorker. If there’s a better example of the kind of exposure Weiner has made a second career of—protesting that writers of her ilk are rarely afforded a lengthy feature in arguably the country’s most prestigious (for people who keep track of such things) publication—I’m hard-pressed to think what it could be.
Whether the piece will meet with Weiner’s approval is another story. One the one hand, it’s a fair and insightful interrogation of her work, pointing out her strengths—the sharp wit, her effortless pacing—and undeniable weaknesses. And it does so with the seriousness that Weiner, in her frequent complaints about her work’s lack of critical attention, has always professed to welcome. On the other, it does make reference to her shiny hair and expensive handbag (an orange Givenchy tote, the mention of which, much like a character in one of Weiner’s books, filled me with a sudden and unreasonable longing, despite the fact that I don’t like to carry a purse and don’t generally wear a lot of color) and features an endearingly exuberant photograph of her holding an adorable dog. It’s hard to imagine the famously dour and presumably handbag-adverse Jonathan Franzen being given the same kind of glamour treatment.
I bring up the even-handedness of Rebecca Mead, the writer of the piece, because the issue of fairness may be properly considered the great unifying theme of Weiner’s persona. To her great credit (I like you, Jennifer Weiner! I like your work! Please know that all of this is meant with love!), she is a person who seems to be acutely—even outlandishly—aware of even the smallest lack of parity and consistently determined to do something about it. Her crusades against a literary establishment that can be elitist, cliquey, and dismissive of work that lies outside the boundaries of its already established prejudices may not always hit the right targets, but the reasoning behind them is generally sound: the New York Times Book Review really should cover more genre fiction and review more books by women; women’s writing is often devalued and trivialized, particularly in comparison with men who write about the same subjects; there really are hundreds of writers who could have used just one of Jonathan Franzen’s approximately 572 mentions in the national press in 2010 (and we could probably all live without his periodic snide comments about writers who actually have to, for the sake of their livelihood and often on condition of publication, engage in the dirty business of self-promotion on Twitter).
These are all issues that Weiner has rightly, if imperfectly, called attention to. And this preoccupation with fairness is a constant in Weiner’s books as well, alluring (if sadly unreal) universes where good, likable women in the end are lavishly rewarded for the goodness and likability. Her heroines are funny, friendly, smart, and deserving of all the good fortune that she, a benevolent deity, will bestow on them at the end as a reward for enduring the terrible hardships that come from neglect and emotional abuse and broken homes, but mostly from the terrible misfortune of being fat and Jewish.
A fat Jewish girl. We all know exactly what that’s supposed to mean, don’t we? The pitying looks from the designer-clad ladies when you show up to Yom Kippur with your parents yet again; the blind date with the balding son of your mother’s former bridge partner, whose face falls as soon as he sees you; the well-meaning aunt or cousin or mother who claims not to understand why a nice girl like you is having so much trouble finding somebody, then watches everything you put into your mouth with a beady eye that says she actually does understand, she’s just too kind/passive-aggressive to say it out loud. Jewish girls have made great strides in becoming desirable in the culture—or at least, Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen have gone a long way toward neutralizing the received wisdom of our undesirability—but fat Jewish girls? Let’s just say we haven’t quite found our Melissa McCarthy yet. Is it harder to be fat and Jewish than just fat? Who knows? But it certainly seems like it, doesn’t it? A heavy gentile can lose some weight if she wants to. With a fat Jewish girl, the entire damn community seems to take it upon themselves to judge, to offer advice, to help. Because don’t you want to look pretty, honey? Don’t you want to be happy?
Perhaps no writer working today portrays the small and particular sadness of this unfairness better than Weiner, and great novels are often made of just this kind of small particularity, these tiny injustices that add up to more than the sum of their parts. The problem is that in her understandable wish to make everything turn out all right for her characters, she writes away a good deal of their power—their bitter humor, their raw anger. If you could summarize the entire theme of all of Western literature—hell, all of literature—it would be something like this: Life isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair for Job or Jean Valjean. It wasn’t fair for Sethe or Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Huckleberry Finn. Even the characters in Jane Austen, the high priestess of the modern happy ending, are really just doing the best they can under the circumstances—no one offered Elizabeth Bennet a six-figure deal for her screenplay in addition to her landing the man of her dreams, or gave Emma Woodhouse a television platform from which to launch her world-conquering lifestyle brand.
Life isn’t fair. Nobody—be they thin or fat, rich or poor, married or single, Jewish or gentile—gets to “have it all.” But Weiner seems determined to try, for all of us, and in so doing she has tantalizingly made herself into her own most complex character, rich and full of contradiction—a vastly successful woman, at once breezily confident and desperately insecure, professionally and personally fulfilled yet restlessly sure she’s missing out, that whatever she achieves will never be enough, that she’ll always be the person the other kids are whispering mean things about at Hebrew school. That’s a novel I would love to read, if Weiner would deign to allow her heroines enough believable disappointment to write it.
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