introducing readers to writers since 1995

March 09, 2005

Guest Author: Jennifer Weiner

by Ron Hogan

weiner.jpgWhen Jennifer Weiner read last week's Meg Wolitzer essay here at Beatrice, her first reaction prompted me to invite her to write a fuller response here. After all, I've known her since 2001, when she debuted with Good in Bed, and I've followed her career through to the latest novel, Little Earthquakes, which should also serve as your warning that I lack total objectivity on the subject of Jennifer. Will this turn into an ongoing literary controversy? I'm more than willing to present as many sides of this (or any other) literary issue as writers care to share with us, so we'll see.

Gray Ladies Up
by Jennifer Weiner

True confession: Once upon a time I was a bit of a smarty-pants.

I went off to Princeton with plans to be an English major and, of course, write the great American novel. "We expect great things from you," my professors said. I'm not sure, but I suspect that those great things did not include a debut novel featuring naked legs and cheesecake on a candy-pink cover. (One of my most persistent Princeton fantasies involves my world-renowned professors standing in a circle saying, "Good in Bed? Nope, she wasn't in my class!")

Clearly, something happened on my way to becoming Jonathan Franzen, and I think I know where.

All the way toward the back of the first floor of Firestone Library, the Dixon Collection is housed in a cozy, well-lit room with shelf after shelf of new releases in hardcover. Whenever my classwork was finished, I'd fill my backpack with Wally Lamb and Peter Straub, Terry McMillan and Gloria Naylor, Nicholas Christopher and Jonathan Kellerman. I loved those books. And I knew that if I ever became a writer, there'd be no question about where on the literary/commercial divide I would land. Nor would there be much of a question about the way the world would regard my work.

Writing funny, fast-moving fiction about young women finding their place in the world means your invitation to join the Beautiful Sentence Society will be permanently lost in the mail. The New York Times won't review you; the newsweeklies won't write profiles, and don't even get me started on what will happen when you query the New Yorker. Your books will sell in Target and Costco, but independent bookstore employees with advanced degrees and bad attitudes will be snotty when you drop in to sign stock.

Finally, your elders and betters will dismiss your work completely--or damn you with condescension disguised as compliments and praise so faint it's almost invisible. Exhibit A: Meg Wolitzer's "In Praise of Pink Ladies."

Chick lit, she blushingly confesses, is her guilty pleasure. She began, of course, with Bridget Jones, then "branched out, reading the Irish writer Marian Keyes and then Sophie Kinsella (whose Shopaholic novels are surprisingly funny) and a couple of the others whose names, to tell the truth, I never quite remember." This kind of writing, she concludes, "is not groundbreaking or powerful, but it speaks to many women, even, weirdly, a woman like me, a long-married feminist and novelist."

Thanks, I think. Wolitzer wins points for recognizing that grabbing the engagement ring isn't the goal of chick lit heroines. It's all about autonomy and identity; about finding out where you fit in the world. But when she dismisses the books as "entirely apolitical," I have to wonder how closely she's been reading the novels whose authors' names she can't quite remember.

There's a graduate thesis somewhere in the economics of so-called 'assistant lit,' where smart young women wind up as underpaid, underappreciated indentured servants to thinly-veiled versions of Wolitzer's Upper East Side neighbors. And if you're looking for an indictment of our body-obsessed, fat-phobic culture, look no further than Bridget Jones, who measures out her life not in coffee spoons but in calories ingested and cigarettes smoked. The best chick-lit books deal with race and class, gender wars and workplace dynamics, not just shoes and shopping…and they do it adroitly, with warmth and wit, for readers young and old, in blue states and red.

I should say here that even though I've stepped over to the dark side, I still enjoy Wolitzer and her colleagues, who fall into their own easily summarized sub-group of ladies whose short stories get published in the New Yorker and whose books are respectfully reviewed in the Times. For expediency's sake (and a Times reference), I'll call them the Gray Ladies.

Unlike chick lit, which typically arrives swathed in pink with a pair of high heels kicking up on the cover, Gray Lady lit immediately lets you know the gravity of its intentions: Austere fonts announce titles scourged of all whimsy, sometimes pared down to a single, portentous word (Unless, Almost). The covers are moody studies in murky blues and muddy greens, or they're the red and black and whites of ambulance bays or wartime photography. (When the trade paperback comes, though, it will be tricked out like a forty-year-old crammed into her niece's Limited tank top, in the hopes of duping readers into thinking that they're getting a light-hearted good time--I once mistook my former writing professor Joyce Carol Oates' I'll Take You There for a Red Dress Ink offering because it had a pair of flower-toting bridesmaids on the cover.) The first sentence will usually confirm all of your fears about what is to follow: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now." (Unless) "I lie in bed these days and watch home movies--a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can't stop myself." (Family History)

Heavy-duty issues of the day will be discussed, usually in the first person, and there will be death (often sudden), regret and disappointment (always permanent). At least one character will have cancer. In fact, cancer might comprise the biggest theme of Gray Lady lit. In Motherkind, Jayne Anne Phillip's heroine has a baby and takes in a mother dying of lung cancer. In She Is Me, both a mother and daughter are stricken, the mother with skin cancer that leaves a suppurating, bad-smelling, gaping hole in her cheek. (I spent seventy-five pages waiting for Cathleen Schine to tell me the family had grown up near Love Canal. No such luck.)

If you want Prince Charming, you've come to the wrong shelf, sister. The men of Gray Lady lit are, almost to a one, cads and dodgers, liars and cheats, plagiarists and philanderers. (Luckily, thanks to the death theme, they also have a convenient knack for keeling over.) And if you crave a happy ending, forget about that, too. The best you can get is ambiguity, perhaps tinged with the faint hope of things getting better.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy all of these books. I don't mind the similarity in tone and theme--the aging, dying parents, the patchy, parched soil of the middle-aged marriages, the tone of wry regret or rage served with a side of irony. It's a question of taste and of timing. Some days you want to read about how a great pair of shoes can brighten a bad mood and how Mr. Right might actually be waiting right around the corner. Other days you want a postmodern take on Madame Bovary where one of the heroines has a suppurating hole in her face.

It could be chick lit will end up as nothing more than fodder for time capsules while the more "groundbreaking" and "powerful" Gray Lady lit will enter the canon, and the meek--and the midlist--will inherit the earth. For now, though, I don't worry a lot about immortality. I think about a college girl who's set aside her work for the night, goes cruising through the shelf of new releases, and tucks one of my books into her backpack to take home.

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