As a Princeton undergraduate, novelist Jennifer Weiner ’91 spent many hours leading picket lines, holding vigils, and chanting “2-4-6-8, why won’t you co-educate?” to pressure the last two all-male eating clubs to admit women. The student group she helped found brought in alumni to picket the clubs, solicited professors to wear pins championing the cause, and held a rally that drew 500 people. “We wanted to get current students to believe this was the right thing to do — not that a court was going to force it, but that they themselves were going to decide the right thing to do was to open the doors to all Princeton students,” Weiner recalls. She was a member of the sign-in club Terrace for one semester, but the fight, she says, wasn’t on her own behalf: “It wasn’t that I wanted to be in Tiger Inn or Ivy. It’s that I wanted them to be fair.” Finally, in February of her senior year, she could celebrate, though it did require the involvement of a court: Ending an 11-year battle initiated by Sally Frank ’80, Tiger Inn became co-ed. Ivy had accepted women a few months before.
These days, Weiner (pronounced WHY-ner) has taken on another battle, and once again it is on behalf of women. The best-selling novelist, who has been called “the queen of chick lit,” wants the books that she writes — and the many others dubbed “women’s fiction” — not to be dismissed or pigeonholed with such labels. In the last several years, she repeatedly has criticized book reviewers for ignoring great swaths of women’s writing and rallied her 95,000 Twitter followers by pointing out what she sees as sexism in book coverage and disdain for popular entertainment. So this summa cum laude English major mixes critiques of The New York Times Book Review with live-tweeting about the lowbrow TV show The Bachelor, both delivered with her sharp wit. (“Clare wants a man she can laugh with,” she tweeted this summer about the Bachelor spinoff Bachelor in Paradise. “I, personally, enjoy a man I can laugh at.”)
Why is this successful author — whose books have spent a total of more than 250 weeks on the Times best-seller list — getting involved? It’s the same reason she fought for women’s admission to Princeton’s eating clubs all those years ago: “There’s a through line,” she says. “If you see something that’s not fair, if you see discrimination, if you see people being shut out, you speak up. And you do something about it.”
Weiner’s novels feature modern women coping with the struggles of contemporary family life — a difficult sister, a cheating spouse, infertility, the stresses of motherhood — who overcome these hurdles to find their happy ending. They are “real-life fairy tales,” Weiner says, each infused with the author’s laugh-out-loud observations. She draws on personal experiences — an unhappy childhood, an absent father, a struggle with weight — but mines them for comedy.
Weiner already was getting recognition for her writing at Princeton. She won an award for her poetry and studied fiction with Toni Morrison, who, after reading Weiner’s work, said to her, “There’s a lot of sex in these stories; have you had any?” It was John McPhee ’53 who gave her the most valuable advice, suggesting she get a job at a small newspaper. At The Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., and at later newspaper jobs, she picked up skills that she says have proved essential to her fiction — paying attention to detail, listening closely to how people talk, and, most importantly, understanding that being a writer is not about waiting for inspiration, but “just the ability to put your butt in the chair and do the work.”
In 1998, Weiner was a feature writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer when she began writing a semiautobiographical novel about Cannie, a full-figured newspaper reporter whose ex-boyfriend pens a column about “loving a larger woman.” Cannie is in for another shock when she learns her mother is dating a woman. (This is another detail Weiner borrowed from her own life.) Weiner sent the novel to 25 agents and got one nibble from an agent who wanted changes to the manuscript. “She didn’t want Cannie being genuinely plus-size,” Weiner recalls, but more like “a size eight.” Though Weiner was just 29, she stuck to her guns, found another agent, and sold the book to Simon & Schuster for a six-figure advance, she says. Good in Bed was an immediate hit. Today, more than 1.6 million copies are in print.
Over the next 13 years, Weiner published 10 more books — all of them best-sellers, and most casting larger women as the protagonists. “I wanted plus-size women to be the heroes, not the goofy sidekicks,” she has said. Her heroines “get the guy, the funny lines, the great clothes, the happy endings, without magically losing weight.” As the mother of girls who are 6 and 11, she feels a particular responsibility to create characters who accept their bodies, she says. “In so many books, including the ones I read when I was growing up, the big girl was the punch line, or she would get Prince Charming and everything that came with it only after she lost a lot of weight,” she told USA Today. “My books are always going to have at least one fuller-figured character who’s not agonizing, who’s not obsessing, who’s not miserable, who’s just living a really happy life at whatever size she is.”
She also has written about her own struggles with weight. In Allure magazine she recalled traveling on a teen tour with five girls named Jennifer and being called “the fat Jennifer,” and hearing from the Princeton crew coach that she needed to lose weight (she was on the team for a year). “I’ve made as much peace as a plus-size woman can make with her body,” she wrote. But despite all her achievements, “when the world sees me, they don’t see any of [that]. They see fat.”
Her latest novel, All Fall Down, which came out in June, shot to No. 3 on the Times best-seller list. The novel is about a suburban mom who seems to have it all — the big house, the picture-perfect family, the successful writing career — but secretly is popping Vicodin and other prescription painkillers to cope with the stresses of modern life. When her escalating drug use causes her to put her daughter at risk, she ends up in rehab. The storyline was inspired in part by Weiner’s father, a psychiatrist who left the family when Weiner was 15, telling her and her three younger siblings that they should think of him as “less like a father, more like an uncle,” a line she later used in Good in Bed. She mostly fell out of touch with him after her parents divorced, though she says he turned up at a reading after she became well known and asked her for money. When he died six years ago, Weiner learned he had been addicted to heroin and cocaine and had died of an overdose.
“I would not have guessed drugs in a million, million years,” Weiner says. “Because you just don’t think about crack and a psychiatrist who lives in a fancy suburb in Connecticut in a house with a swimming pool.” She wanted to explore the life of a high-functioning addict, a theme in the news with the deaths of celebrities such as actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Her early embrace of blogging and, later, social media, has forged a strong bond between the author and her readers. At a sold-out luncheon in June organized by the Princeton Public Library to celebrate the release of All Fall Down, Weiner went from table to table before her talk, posing for photos and chatting about her daughters, with whom she lives in an expansive two-story brick house in Philadelphia that used to be a small school. (She and her husband split up in 2010.) Her talk to the all-female crowd veered between stand-up comedy and support-group pep talk and proceeded to touch on her daughter’s reaching puberty, her relationship with food, her family history of mental illness, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with only a few references to her new novel.
“For a crowd of this size, we usually allow 30 minutes for the book-signing, but for Jennifer it’s an hour,” says Janie Hermann, who directs public programming for the library. “People picture her as their best friend.” Weiner personalized each book and dispensed hugs. On Twitter, she has asked her fans to suggest names for the characters in her novels and offered to advise one woman about Philadelphia schools for her children.
Weiner’s celebrity has gotten her invitations to appear on NBC’s The Today Show and other TV programs, an enviable opportunity for a novelist. She also created a TV show, State of Georgia, on ABC Family, which was canceled after one season. Her second novel, In Her Shoes, was made into a movie starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. She trumpets the work of longtime favorite authors Susan Isaacs and Anne Tyler, who also write character-driven novels that are funny and poignant, and uses her fame to plug not just her own books, but those of up-and-coming female writers. And she gets results. In 2010, for example, she offered to send a free autographed copy of one of her books to anyone who bought Sarah Pekkanen’s first novel. That day, Pekkanen’s book, The Opposite of Me, made the top-10 best-seller list on Amazon, Weiner says. Weiner enjoys using her success “to help others up the ladder,” she says. “When I have something to say, people listen.”
Recently, they’ve been listening to her complaints about the way books by women are treated. The drumbeat began in 2010, when Jodi Picoult ’87, in a tweet about a Times review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, wrote, “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” Weiner chimed in with the term “Franzenfreude” to describe what other writers felt about the media’s worship of Franzen, whose novel, Freedom, would have been treated differently had it been written by “Jane Franzen,” according to Weiner. “When a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance or a beach book,” she said at the time. Weiner pointed out that none of her books had been reviewed by the Times.
A debate was ignited about how gender affects the way books are marketed and reviewed. Weiner critiqued publishers for positioning certain novels as serious literature — a non-smiling author photo and a text-heavy cover tend to do the trick, she says — while illustrating the covers of many women’s novels with pastel colors and female figures. Crime fiction and mysteries — with a strong male readership — regularly get reviewed, while so-called chick lit and romance novels get far less attention. Though a majority of the people who read books are female, VIDA, an organization that monitors women in the literary arts, found that in several top publications, about 75 percent of the books reviewed were written by men. (No gender breakdown of the authors of the 300,000 books published annually in the United States is available.)
The cover art on Weiner’s books puts them squarely in the “women’s novel” category, with plenty of pastel colors and images of women, children, and flowers. Though Weiner may prefer other images, “you are selling a product in the marketplace, and ultimately you have to accept that,” she says. But it frustrates her that marketing to a female readership turns off male readers: “The bargain that you’re making is that no man will ever [read it] — well, maybe he’ll read it on an e-reader where nobody can see his shame.”
Weiner points out that women’s books also get labeled in ways that men’s books don’t: “There are novels, and then there are ‘women’s novels.’ There’s no male equivalent for chick lit.” Weiner doesn’t shirk the often maligned chick-lit label, which generally signals a breezy read about a youngish woman’s travails. “I see my books as entertaining,” she says. “I don’t think they’re schlock, I don’t think they’re embarrassing. I want people to enjoy reading my books, to not feel like they’re pushing a heavy dictionary up the hill.” But there is disdain among critics, she says, for books that are entertaining and popular with readers, which is why many books that make the Times best-seller list are not reviewed in the Times. “Women authors, much more than men, are put in the explicit position of having to decide, ‘Do I want respect and reviews, or do I want readers?’” Weiner said in May at a publishing event. She has criticized several authors whom she perceived as disparaging women’s fiction, including some respected — and reviewed — female authors: She took issue when Adelle Waldman put down “unserious” books and when Claire Messud dismissed the notion of reading to “find friends.” So “if you’re reading to find friends, then you’re doing it wrong?” asks Weiner. “Well, I didn’t know there was a rule book.” The relatable protagonists in her books, says Weiner, may just help some of her readers “feel a little less alone.”
Weiner has been mocked in some quarters — The Nation called her one of “the most aggrieved” best-selling novelists on the planet, while a headline on The Wire said, “Jennifer Weiner Is Mad at The New York Times Book Review Again.” Some have said she was using the crusade as a tool for self-promotion. Not so, says her agent, Joanna Pulcini: “This is Jen seeing an underdog and saying, ‘I want to support them.’” Others questioned why a best-selling author like Weiner — with 15 million copies of her books in print in 36 countries — would even care about getting reviewed in the Times. (During the Franzen flap, she joked about going “to weep into my royalty checks.”) But as a lifelong Times reader, she seemed to crave one newspaper’s respect most of all.
Finally, on June 22, it came — a 201-word Times review that called All Fall Down “compulsively readable ... There’s no doubt she knows how to deliver a certain kind of story, and well.” The review was published about a year after Pamela Paul was appointed editor of the book-review section and began to broaden the selection of books covered. Weiner was thrilled, and not only for herself. The Times reviewed All Fall Down in its new “Shortlist” feature with four other women’s novels, two of which were debuts — providing, Weiner points out, a significant boost to two little-known writers.
Weiner responded to the changes at the Times (before her review appeared) with an apology of sorts in Salon headlined, “I’m glad the NYT is finally covering commercial fiction, and sorry if I went too far.” She wrote: “Everyone wants to believe he or she is the hero of his or her own story. I’m no exception. I never thought I was being obnoxious or pushy or shrill — just determined, and fighting for something that mattered. For every complaint about the Times, I tried to tweet or blog about a book that I loved, preferably one the Times was ignoring. Were there things I could have said more thoughtfully? ... Yes. Were there times I went for the joke instead of the truth, or forgot that there are real people behind the monolith I perceive as the Great and Mighty Times, or conflated the fight for inclusion with the fight against disrespect for books like mine, or me, personally? No doubt.”
Now that her work has been anointed, after a fashion, by the Times, will it get more respect? Will people be reading Jennifer Weiner novels 50 years from now? She has some thoughts about that, too. Many Pulitzer Prize-winning books are forgotten today, she points out, and some authors who were the popular writers of their day — notably Jane Austen and Charles Dickens — now are considered literary giants. But what she wants, she says, is “to write for my readers. And if the books end up mattering in some profound and lasting way, that’s fantastic. But I’m also planning on being dead, so I’m not really going to know what the final judgment was.”
Jennifer Altmann is an associate editor at PAW. Additional research was provided by Katharine Boyer ’16.