introducing readers to writers since 1995

October 03, 2004

New York Is Book Country

by Ron Hogan

weiner.jpgSo Sarah Weinman and I were hanging out with Jennifer Weiner (that's her to the left) before her New York Is Book Country panel began, and she asked us whether we'd been to see A. J. Jacobs and lend him some moral support after the rough treatment at Joe Queenan's hands. We hadn't, but we all had some sympathy for the guy--and wondered if maybe Queenan, who's no stranger to books built on shaky premises, was trying to nip the next generation of competition in the bud. And though it was not stated outright, one felt that a man who's written for Movieline has some nerve making fun of a contributor to Entertainment Weekly; for a more sympathetic portrait of Jacobs and his project, check out his NPR interviews.

I then took the opportunity to introduce Jennifer to Stephanie Lehmann and show her the copy of Stephanie's second novel, Are You in the Mood?, that I was carrying in my backpack--along with Jennifer's Little Earthquakes--before we were all hustled into the NYU classroom where Jennifer would speak to several dozen women (and about five guys). Cathleen Schine was supposed to join her for a dialogue, but she didn't, so we got to hear Jennifer read a chapter from Little Earthquakes in which one of the protagonists "tries to resume relations" with her husband a few months after giving birth, interrupted halfway through for a story about her own hospital stay, and then a little later when the action heated up--"If my husband's at the reading," she quipped, "this is the point when he leaves." Then it was on to audience discussion, which took a detour into the walking adventures of several 17-month-olds before seguing into the usual author questions about process, revision, finding an agent, etc. The subject of the "chick lit" label generated a few sparks; Jennifer finds it useful shorthand as a marketing tool, but hates how the critical establishment has used it as a shortcut to ignore popular fiction aimed at women. "It's demeaning to women as readers and writers," she remarked, "to say you'd only read something that speaks specifically to what's going on in your life right this minute." She also revealed that she lets her family take a look at her manuscript before it sees print, while noting that Philip Roth, among others, says you should never do that since you're writing for posterity, not your relatives. "I don't know where he goes for Passover," she laughed, "but I have to go home, and who needs an uncomfortable seder?"

Afterwards, I asked Stephanie, whose novel (like Jennifer's) falls under the "momlit" rubric, what her impressions were, especially since she'd just finished Little Earthquakes. "She's great at creating real characters women relate to like crazy," she said. "The whole thing with 'chick lit' and 'momlit' is that it's like a dialogue between women. I think the reason it's so big right now is that it's so confusing to be a woman; we get so many conflicting messages about what we should be. In the '50s, we were told to be a good mom, then everything changed in the '60s. You were told you could go out and have a career, then you were told you could have it all, until people realized you can't. So now we all ask ourselves what can we do, and what is everybody else doing? What's it really like for them?" I recalled Jennifer's comment about reading outside one's immediate experiences, and Stephanie nodded, "You want to read what it's like for married women when you're single, and I think a lot of readers of momlit are women who don't have children yet and want to find out what it's going to be like. You want to know what's down the line, and you want to know about other people's experiences."

schnur2.gifLucky for me, my next Book Country panel was just four floors up (and running five minutes late). There were quite a few "emerging authors" panels this weekend, but I suspect I attended the only one where one of the authors was celebrating her 50th birthday: Leslie Schnur (that's her to the left, and as you can see, one certainly wouldn't have known about the birthday had she not mentioned it...). She started writing The Dog Walker after a 20-year career in publishing, including a stint as Dell's editor-in-chief, but other than that, it turned out she had plenty in common with the other panelists, Ann Napolitano and David Schickler, like studying under Helen Schulman and Dani Shapiro. Schickler told us how his writing career had really started as a teenager, when he would regale his parents at the dinner table with completely fabricated stories about fellow students at his private high school, while Napolitano explained how her British editor had wanted all sorts of changes made to Within Arm's Reach, but her American editor had been able to exert her influence to make the alterations minimal. I may end up going to KGB next week to see Schickler read from Sweet and Vicious, and will have more to report if I do. When the panel was over, I got to reintroduce myself to Napolitano's NYU classmate, Helen Ellis, who's currently shopping around her new novel, Cedarbark Circle, about "a group of 1950's housewives who become convinced that their neighbor is a witch." I loved Eating the Cheshire Cat, so I'll be looking forward to this one and expect it shouldn't have much trouble landing a publisher.


The Queenan review was shockingly harsh. Granted, my enjoyment of the take-down has dimmed quite a bit since I started publishing; it seems bad karma to delight in another writer's evisceration. But the review was uncharacteristically heavy-handed, too.

As for momlit or chicklit, or whatever one chooses to call it -- I think one thing its critics miss is just how hard it is to pull off. The WaPo review of Little Earthquakes cracked me up because the critic kept admitting the book had given her enormous pleasure, but, but, but -- it's not Cathleen Schine! Well, no. But you can love both. It's allowed.

Posted by: Laura at October 4, 2004 11:42 AM

Joe Queenan is awesome -- sure, the review was harsh, but from the examples he cites, this guy just didn't do his homework. Queenan also wrote for Movieline when it was a much different magazine than what it became.

Posted by: gigi montage at October 5, 2004 08:53 PM

Well, actually, the whole point of A. J. Jacobs' book is that he did do his homework--I mean, what is this but one huge book report--and found out things he didn't know before, although you and Queenan are right in that it sounds like he still made some pretty big goofs. I'd even go so far as to say that Queenan's right to the extent that the passages he quotes don't read very funny. But even then, you and I will find ourselves falling back into a basic disagreement over whether Queenan himself is just as unfunny.

Posted by: editor at October 5, 2004 11:32 PM
If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.