Earlier this week, The Atlantic Wire ran a post about Bookends, a new feature of The New York Times Book Review and a follow-up by Alexander Nazaryan chronicling the displeasure author Jennifer Weiner expressed about it. Throughout Thursday, Weiner criticized the piece and Nazaryan on Twitter. We asked Weiner if she would like to submit a response and she agreed. The two also spoke yesterday afternoon, and Alex has written about their conversation, which you can read here.
On Tuesday, The New York Times unveiled the line-up of columnists for its new “Bookends” column, where writers will take on “pressing and provocative questions about the world of books.” I wasn’t impressed with the diversity among the novelists they picked. While there were men and women, and a range of ethnicities and locations, all of the writers tapped were literary writers, as opposed to popular or commercial writers. The debut column was predictably bland, with both conversationalists making identical points.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, I tweeted about my disappointment.
On Wednesday evening, Alexander Nazaryan, the culture editor of The Atlantic Write, wrote a piece called “Jennifer Weiner Is Mad at The New York Times Book Review Again.” The piece quoted my tweets, described me as “strident” (a word Nazaryan later removed), “combative” and “polarizing,” and quoted “some within the book world” musing (anonymously) about how best to “quiet” me.
Nazaryan and I had a long talk this afternoon. He was smart and thoughtful and grew up in the Connecticut suburb right next to mine, which means that we have a JCC in common. He was generous enough to ask me to respond to his piece. Here goes.
Shooting the Messenger
In my tweets, I took issue with the new Bookends columnists, and the inaugural column. Nazaryan’s piece ignored the arguments and went after the argue-er. He described me as the paper's self-appointed ombudsman, and failed to say that I was a novelist. He quoted my tweets, but did not respond to their content by saying, “They picked a great line-up of writers,” or “The Times has no mandate to hire popular novelists,” or, “that first piece was scintillating,” or even, “Let’s reserve judgment until a few more columns have run.” There are valid responses to the points I made. Instead of engaging with the message, he chose to shoot the messenger.
After Twitter gave Nazaryan an earful about the baggage the word “strident” carries when it’s applied to women, he removed that description. However, words like "strident," alongside its friends "polarizing" and "combative," and the phrase “took to Twitter," are not neutral descriptions. They add up, taking nuance and shading from one another, combining to creative a dismissive, “won’t someone shut this lady up?” tone.
“Some within the book world say…”
According to the Associated Press, a journalist will “always strive to identify all the sources of our information, shielding them with anonymity only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information – not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when we know the source is knowledgeable and reliable.”
Nazaryan’s assertion that “some within the book world privately complain that Weiner’s strong criticisms are starting to backfire” contains two separate points: that people used to listen to my criticism, but now they don’t. For this to be plausible, he needed to demonstrate that there has been a direct relationship between what I’ve said and what The New York Times has done. Ideally, someone at The Times would say so, and give numbers to back it up. Not only did his piece not quote anyone at The Times, or offer any statistics, apparently Nazaryan could not find anyone anywhere in publishing willing to attach his or her name to the theory…which means it’s gossip, and should have no place in a story published by a reputable organization.
“One book blogger suggested to me that the easiest way for the Book Review to quiet Weiner is by hiring her.”
But why is silencing me, or any critic, the goal?
Last month, Anna North wrote a piece in Salon wondering why there is no female Nate Silver. Her conclusion – the Internet is a bruising, rough-and-tumble place where opinionated women can expect to get rape threats, or “be told that they are too fat or ugly to have a valid opinion on anything. (And that’s if you’re a straight, white, cis-gender woman. Any deviation there and you’ll want to automatically double down on the hate.)
This has been my experience.
I wrote about a Times columnist’s propensity for suggesting that his female subjects slept their way to the top; the columnist tweeted “sensing pattern. Little Freud in my thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top.” I took issue with that and the columnist’s BFF called me “bonkers” and “stupid.”
I disagreed with Claire Messud’s dismissal of likable characters in literature, and, suddenly, the two of us are locked in a feud.
I weighed in on what I saw as The Times’s safe and predictable choices of columnists, and instead of saying, “No, those were great picks,” what Nazaryan essentially did was roll his eyes and say, Ronald Reagan style, “there she goes again.”
I wonder how many women saw his story — or Andrew Goldman’s tweets, or John Cook’s piece in Gawker — and thought twice about saying whatever smart, trenchant, provocative, interesting, useful thing they had to say, deciding it was easier to keep quiet instead, lest “some within the book world” call them strident, or jealous, or nuts. I worry about how many voices we’re losing when women – particularly the ones just starting out, dipping that first toe into the waters of online debate – see what happens to the writers who are willing to put themselves out there. Make a point, and you’re “combative” or “polarizing.”
Disagree with someone, and it’s not a “debate” or a “discussion,” but a “cat fight” or a “feud.” Speak up, and someone will slap you down – not on the merits of your argument, but simply because you’re willing to argue.
It’s ironic. According to The Times’s Jennifer McDonald, the point of Bookends is for writers to wrestle with the big questions, to offer their opinions, to talk it out. Bookends columnists Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch both wrote that it is critical for novelists to be willing to argue, to write bad reviews, to take stands, to define themselves in the world of ideas, even if it makes for uncomfortable moments at parties. In the face of editors and novelists reminding us that debate and discussion and disagreement aren’t just nice, but essential in the world of words and ideas The Atlantic Wire published a piece telling a woman with an opinion to shut up and go away. Writers and readers, men and women, deserve better than this…and, after talking with Nazaryan, I believe he can, and will, do better.