|A Moment of Jen|
posted by Jen at 2/13/2015 12:42:00 PM
Great American Novelist Jonathan Franzen – the best writer of our time, y’all -- did a Q and A with a Butler University MFA candidate – perhaps you’ve seen it? – where he dismisses my quest for respect and reviews for genre women’s fiction by saying, that I “rub him the wrong way,” that I’m “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias,” and I’m an “unfortunate” person to be a spokesperson for fairness and equity in the World of Letters…and, oh yeah, he’s never read my books, because his friends don’t think they’re any good.
He thinks I’m hijacking a legitimate debate and making it All About Me. Except it’s not even a legitimate debate, because I’ve never written an essay about it -- an essay, of course, being the only permissible place for debate in Franzenlandia.
“She has no case, so she just tweets.”
I'm bewildered by Franzen's continued attacks. He's on the cover of Time, he's got the Times writing curtain-raisers about his new book a year before it's published, he's been Oprah-anointed not once but twice, and is the subject of an upcoming biography. He is respected -- nay, revered - in all the places that matter...and he's calling me names? Does he think that the Times devoting two paragraphs to books like mine takes away from books like his? Is he angry that I've got a bunch of Twitter followers, even though he doesn't think I should have an audience at all because I'm not on his approved list?
Anyhow. In terms of "just tweeting," it turns out I've written many essays about my case. Links below...but, before the links, I’d argue that Twitter is a lovely and appropriate medium for voices that have traditionally been shouted down, shut out or ignored by the places that court the Franzens of the world. There’s a long history – maybe Franzen doesn’t know it? – of women using the materials at hand, whatever’s available to them to make art or make a case. I’d argue that feminist Twitter, women writers advocating for their work, one hundred and forty characters at a time, is a part of that history.
So I've used Twitter, and blogs, and Facebook, which are what you've got when you don't necessarily have the New York Times. But there's a longer case to be made about why ignoring genre fiction by women while covering mysteries and thrillers and sci-fi and horror is sexist and short-sighted and bad business, and I’ve been making it for years.
There was this piece in the Guardian.
This interview in the Huffington Post.
Here is an NPR interview!
Here's a Salon Q and A, where I discuss Franzen's dealings with Oprah, and the damage it did to women writers.
A New Republic response to Franzen's latest run at me, explaining that Twitter is not just a place for self-promotion -- that, in fact, self-promotion is the last thing smart writers do there.
This blog post, back in 2010, when the Times turned itself into Franzen’s personal PR machine, running an easy dozen pieces before FREEDOM had even been published, sending a reporter to cover a cocktail party in his honor.
So what should a book review do? Should it be a mirror, reflecting back popular tastes? Is it a stern uncle waving a scolding finger, dragging us away from Harry Potter by the ear and insisting that we read Philip Roth instead, or a nanny telling us we have to eat our spinach before we're allowed dessert? Is it possible to be some combination?...
Disdaining romance while reviewing mysteries and thrillers; speaking about quote-unquote chick lit from a position of monumental ignorance while heaping praise on men who write about relationships and romance; maintaining the sexist double standard that puts Mary Gaitskill and Caitlin Macy in the Style section and puts Charles Bock or Jonathan Safran Foer in the magazine…all of these are symptoms of a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.
For those who don’t feel like clicking, here is the short version of my credo, my This I Believe.
I believe that genre fiction by women deserves the same treatment and respect as genre fiction by men. If an outlet like the Times is going to review mysteries and science fiction, either because it believes that the readers of those books are important enough to acknowledge, or because it thinks those books have something to say about the world and the way we live now, then it darn well better review romance and “chick lit.”
Declining to cover the books that women read is another way of making women invisible – women writers, women readers. It silences voices, erases an audience, sends the message that women’s stories don’t matter (or matter only enough to show up in the Style section).
I believe that literary fiction by women deserves the same treatment and respect as literary fiction by men. There is no reason I can fathom for a place like Harper’s or The Atlantic or The New Yorker to run three times as many stories by men as by women, or review three times as many books by men as by women.
I believe that these two beliefs are different.
I do not believe that genre fiction is the same as literary fiction.
I don’t think that what I’m doing and what Franzen’s doing are the same thing.
I do not weep bitter tears when The Paris Review ignores my books, because The Paris Review does not review John Grisham or Dan Brown or Stephen King.
However! The New York Times does review those guys. It should review books like mine. And now it does!
As upsetting as it was to know that our Great American Novelist and his pals have such a low opinion of me, as painful as I find it to picture Franzen on a stage dismissing the work I’ve done with a snide “good for her,” it’s nothing surprising or new. The smart set’s never had much use for my books, even if it’s been happy to capitalize on the gains that writers like me, and Jodi Picoult, and every other popular writer who’s spoken out for gender equity have achieved.
Luckily, the smart set doesn’t dictate readers’ choices (luckily, there are lots of people who like my books, even if Franzen's never met them).
Nor does the smart set tell New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul how to do business. Under Paul’s leadership, the Times had gotten more diverse, more welcoming, more interesting, I’d argue, and I don’t think they’ve had to sacrifice quality to do it.
The Times’ tent has gotten bigger. There’s room for books like mine, which is all I’ve ever wanted for myself. There are more women writing reviews, more women's books being reviewed, which is exactly what I've wanted for my fellow women writers.
There is Vida, and its yearly count, putting editors on notice, forcing them to defend their abysmal ratios and, with any luck, seek to improve them, which is good news for women writers, and, I think for all readers.
The Times has changed, and the times will continue to change. All of this undoubtedly causes Franzen great dismay, and longing for a time before Twitter, where he and his friends were the ones who decided whose books mattered, whose voices merited an audience, who deserved to be part of the conversation, who got to move the bar.
Franzen can call me a freeloader and a self-promoter, whine about which way I rub him, turn up his nose at my books. It won't turn back the clock, un-invent Twitter, erase the Internet, or take back the power it's given those of us who are not Jonathan Franzen.
Women writers – even the ones whose work Franzen disdains – have a platform, and a place at the table. Our voices are being heard, and the world -- at least the tiny corner of it that cares about books, and book reviews -- is changing.
There’s no going back.
Monday, September 29, 2014
posted by Jen at 9/29/2014 04:03:00 PM
In a story in yesterday's New York Times, Tara Mohr wrote about how women handle criticism that began with an anecdote about performance reviews. “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 a phone or a laptop has a soap box, “this criticism often also becomes vulgar, sexualized and angry.”
Vulgar, sexualized and angry. All of that should sound familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to literary criticism and the latest Internet explosion.
On Thursday night, literary blogger Ed Champion unleashed a series of tweets at the novelist Porochista Khakpour, saying that unless she apologized for removing his post from her Facebook page, he'd publish the name of a man who'd allegedly taken nude photos of her, without her permission.
If Champion's name sounds familiar, that's because in June, Champion published an 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, in both cases, was loud and almost unanimous. Champion, the public agreed, had gone too far. In June, 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. This time, Twitter suspended his account, and Champion hasn't been heard from since.
It’s a great illustration of social media doing exactly what social media at its best should do – defending the victims, putting wrongdoers on notice, 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, it's also worth considering the general, and the big picture. Ed Champion’s words and actions did not appear in a vacuum. They happened in the context of literary criticism as it is now; in a climate where it is acceptable and commonplace 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 her failure to be 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 old 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 “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.” Miller 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 she imagines to be looking down on (her).” There’s not even a question that Cannie might be fictional; not even a hint of doubt that Cannie is me. Nor is there any sense that a book review should review the book, instead of asking whether or not you’d enjoy hanging out with its heroine and whether you find her likable -- even though Miller has previously been quite insistent that likability is not the criterion by which a critic should judge a woman's work. 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. 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 is a “snarky little trollop” (that's not from Ed Champion's piece, but from an anonymous blog comment quoted in Michiko Kakutani’s review of FRIENDSHIP in the New York Times).
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, 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.
These are reviews meant to shame and silence. When William Giraldi writes that E.L. James “she should stand revealed” or a critic tweets her review at its subject to make sure she sees it, or a book blogger threatens to release the name of the man who took nude photos of a novelist, 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.
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 that I was getting trolled with a piece of click-bait that was so clearly meant to shame me and to shut me up for what it was and thick-skinned enough to ignore it, 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.
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.
Tara Mohr believes that women need to learn to handle criticism, to unhook themselves from the ingrained need to please. But if we've got to learn how to take it, maybe it's time for critics to learn to do a better, or at least less sexist job of dishing it out.
Friday, December 13, 2013
posted by Jen at 12/13/2013 10:26:00 AM
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.
Friday, October 25, 2013
posted by Jen at 10/25/2013 11:03:00 AM
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. | #
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
posted by Jen at 10/03/2012 10:39:00 PM
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).
Over at NPR, Linda Holmes wrote a piece called "Women, Men and Fiction: On How Not To Answer Hard Questions," which brilliantly explained all of the reasons why who gets reviewed, and where, and how often, continues to be an issue, and how many ways, in a few short paragraphs, Eugenides misses so much of the point (as Holmes writes, when you say that you've "heard about" an issue, "That's a red flag. You usually don't want to ask anyone to respond in any depth to an argument he's "heard about."")
Jodi and I wrote a letter to the editor of the campus paper trying, again, to explain where we stand, and why... and I'm trying to let it go. Will let you know how that turns out, to let this serve as the universe's reminder that authors are not their books, and some perfectly wonderful work's been written by people who were bigots, anti-Semites, and just jerks in general in their day. 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!
Sunday, July 08, 2012
posted by Jen at 7/08/2012 02:21:00 PM
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!
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
posted by Jen at 7/04/2012 05:11:00 PM
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 made me believe that, maybe, someday, I, too, could be a writer: Erica Jong's FEAR OF FLYING, and the late, great Nora Ephron's CRAZY SALAD: SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT WOMEN.
When I made my picks, months ago, I had no idea that Ephron was unwell...and while I am heartbroken that we won't get to read any more of her sharp, trenchant essays, I'm glad I got a chance to mention her book and let the world know how much she meant to me, and to the generation of female writers and bloggers who would follow in her footsteps, taking on Nora's kind of topics: cooking, body anxiety, being so in love that you talk in a tiny little hamster-voice to your beloved (who, of course, hamster-answers you right back).
So! After the NPR taping I'll be zipping back home to remind my kids that they have an actual, breathing mother instead of just a Skype image on a screen, and then the book tour starts in NYC on Monday night. All my dates are right here, there will be yummy cupcakes from local bakeries at each event, and I hope to see lots of you out there...and remember, wear a vest, go home with a cute tote bag or towel!
(And yes, I know that many of you live too far away from the readings to show up in a vest. I'm busily trying to think of some kind of contest or giveaway, so please check back!)
I hope you're all having a wonderful Fourth. Happy Independence Day, happy picnicking and barbecuing, and happy reading.