Jennifer Weiner — novelist, critic, television producer — knows when everything changed. Having just graduated from Princeton in 1991, the native of suburban Connecticut applied for an internship at The New Republic. As she relayed to me during a phone conversation on Thursday afternoon, she was one of two finalists for the spot. She didn't get it. So she never moved to Washington. Never worked under the tutelage of Leon Wieseltier.
Weiner today lives in Philadelphia, where she writes what she calls "commercial fiction," including novels like Good in Bed and In Her Shoes. "There are people who care about books who don't live in Brooklyn," Weiner said. Recently reading Adelle Waldman's much-praised The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Weiner found herself disgusted at the city's insular literary culture. "I can count on one hand the book parties I've been to," she said. But don't confuse those statements with jealousy or bitterness, or a feeling of having been spurned. "I could have been one of those people," she said. And that's probably true.
But if Weiner, a bestselling author and, as her official bio notes, "a frequent public speaker who has appeared on The Today Show, The CBS Early Show, The Martha Stewart Show, The Rachael Ray Show," is not an insider, then she just may be the literary world's most influential outsider. A fierce critic of The New York Times Book Review, she constantly assails the publication for what she sees as its elitism and sexism. The Book Review's culture, she tells me, is "prescriptive instead of reflective," telling people what to read instead of talking about what they are reading, reviewing a 600-page biography of Calvin Coolidge while largely ignoring E.L. James. To many of her nearly 74,000 Twitter followers, she offers a refreshingly honest, uncompromisingly feminist critique of publishing.
But as I found out earlier this week, coming into Weiner's crosshairs on Twitter can be a harrowing experience. After writing about her Twitter critique of a new Book Review feature, I stood accused — in unrelenting 140 character bursts — of various sins of journalism. Some of these charges were fair. Some, I think, were not. But they all attested to the power Weiner now wields in discussions about the direction of publishing and literary journalism.
I slept on it. I'm kind of appalled. Men with opinions -- even sharply-worded ones -- don't get treated like this. http://t.co/QC88m8b4SL— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) September 5, 2013
One of the accusations Weiner made against me was that I referenced publishing world criticisms of her without providing the names of these critics. I went back to the writers and editors (all women whose names Weiner would recognize, if it matters) to whom I'd recently spoken about Weiner; not one of them wanted to talk about her on the record. The reason they all gave me: they feared being castigated by Weiner and thought there would be nothing to gain from getting into an exchange with her. One said she was "afraid" of Weiner. And, frankly, I don't blame them.
When we spoke yesterday, in the immediate wake of our Bookends brouhaha, I posed a question that has surely crossed many a publishing world mind: why does she invest so much energy in lambasting The New York Times? If the paper's book coverage is male-dominated and cloistered, why not simply read another publication?
Weiner was clearly prepared for this question. "The Times is all we've got," she said somewhat ruefully of the paper she grew up reading in Simsbury, Conn., noting that book sections across the nation have either been altogether scrapped or drastically diminished. In other words, The New York Times has a responsibility to cover a wider range of books — and not just the books being read in between Brooklyn and Cambridge. Weiner does make a distinction between the weekend Book Review and the paper's daily reviewers (Janet Maslin, Dwight Garner and Michiko Kakutani), who do sometimes cover popular authors like, say, James Patterson. It is the former for which she reserves the vast majority of her criticism, describing the attitude of the Book Review as "there are books that matter, and there are books that don't." As for so-called "commercial" writers like Weiner, the ones who may sell thousands of copies but never earn comparison to the Atwoods and Franzens of this world? "We write in invisible ink to them," Weiner said with an edge in her voice.
She is, however, conflicted about her own role. At one point during out conversation, Weiner, who has frequently called for gender equity at the Book Review, claimed a measure of responsibility for the elevation of Pamela Paul, only the second woman to edit the Book Review. "I'd like to take credit for [her] being hired," Weiner said before admitting she can't be sure that was the case. [Update: Weiner has emailed The Atlantic Wire to clarify that she did not ever seriously think she influenced Paul's hiring to any great extent.] But when I ask Weiner if she'd ever actually spoken to Paul directly, she said, "I don't feel like it's my place."
In the end, Weiner's recommendations for The Times are actually quite modest: give space to reviews of popular fiction, including the romance/chick-lit being written by and for women — sort of the way Marilyn Stasio's column serves to cover crime fiction (mostly, still a male genre). She also says that Gregory Cowles — who writes the "Inside the List" column — treats the bestsellers he is mandated with covering with contempt, "typing with one hand, holding his nose with the other."
Which brings us to another point: Weiner's indisputably caustic tone. I mean only on Twitter; on the phone, she was perfectly pleasant. It is on Twitter, however, where the tone and volume of Weiner's opinions — often echoed and magnified by her followers — that may make some reluctant to engage with her in the first place.
However, the Book Review did respond to the Weiner criticism of their new Bookends column. In a statement, Jennifer McDonald, an editor at the Book Review, said, "We're excited by the conversation Bookends has already generated, and we look forward to seeing even more discussion in the coming weeks and months. We encourage readers of the columns to weigh in not only on Twitter — which after all leaves space for only 140 characters — but also on the Bookends pages themselves. These are open to comments, and we're hoping they'll play host to some lively, stimulating and considerate discussion."
That isn't likely to satisfy Weiner. "I'd like to see it be more inclusive," she said of the Book Review. Later, she added, "I hope devoutly they do better."
That also applies to me and my original story about her. She writes in a response, posted on The Atlantic Wire, that she wants journalists like myself to "do better" in how we talk about women, which books we talk about, and whom we let into this cloistered little world. That is a high standard, but not an impossible one.