I’m feeling pretty exercised about Rebecca Mead’s piece in this week’s New Yorker. The article, “Written Off”, which is, ostensibly, a profile of reigning commercial fiction queen Jennifer Weiner clearly has an underlying agenda: to subtly discredit the notion that the publishing industry is guilty of sexism.
Lit world insiders will already know that over the last several years Weiner has become the de facto spokesperson for a growing group of writers looking to address the institutional sexism of the literary world. She has been a vocal critic of the industry, strategically wielding her influence on social media to bring attention to instances when she believes female writers are getting short shrift. The most famous example of this occurred in 2010 when both she and writer Jodi Picoult took to Twitter to denounce the torrent of coverage directed at Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Both Weiner and Picoult pointed out that white male literary darlings, such as Franzen, were getting bombarded with attention while many of their female counterparts were getting all but ignored by critics. While not everyone agreed with Weiner’s assertion that commercial fiction such as hers deserved a better seat at the table, many of us recognized the truth of her basic premise: that the literary world was rigged in favor of male writers of a certain ilk.
I, for one, admired Weiner’s very public stand, which effectively forced people to confront some of the entrenched assumptions about women’s work. This is an issue I feel passionately about both as a writer and a reader. Too often I’ve seen the female authors I admire shunted off to the margins while middlebrow work by their male counterparts gets star treatment. Of course, it’s complicated. Attempting to objectively evaluate literature is a pretty fraught business and there will always be someone who disagrees with you about the merits of a given work. But organizations, like VIDA, dedicated to collecting information about the treatment of women writers by mainstream outlets have born out the idea that women are still, largely, treated as second class citizens in this arena. And, as far as I’m concerned, it was high time that someone with a captive audience shined a light on this issue.
All that said, in the years since Weiner has stepped up to the podium I’ve found myself wincing over and over again at the way this argument is being framed in the press. Rather than dealing with the real issue head on, too many conversations about sexism in the industry seem to devolve into a kind of pissing contest between Franzen and Weiner. People are encouraged to be either Team Franzen or Team Weiner. Those on the first team are characterized as old guard elitists who uniformly agree that the industry is a meritocracy and that the women crying sexism are simply being bad sports. Those on Team Weiner are populists who believe that the distinction between high brow and low brow is totally artificial and that Franzen, and those like him, are puffed up hacks.
Obviously this is pure nonsense.
You can believe that Franzen is an extraordinarily gifted writer and still recognize that talented women are getting marginalized. You can understand that literary work deserves a different level of critical scrutiny than mass market fiction and still think Weiner has a point about the devaluation of women’s work. But thanks in part to Weiner’s rather relentless self promotion and the feud-happy mainstream media, this false dichotomy keeps getting trotted out, obscuring the central issues and reducing both writers to caricatures of themselves. The New Yorker did nothing to unmuddy the argument.
Few people familiar with the backstory would dispute that The New Yorker’s decision to run a profile of Weiner had very little to do with her work and very much to do with her vocal criticism of the cultural establishment. The question underpinning Mead’s piece is not “Who is Jennifer Weiner?,” as is the case with most profiles, but “Who does Jennifer Weiner think she is?” This is Olympic-level undermining, which will leave many readers cringing whether or not they are Weiner fans. The entire enterprise–from the ridiculous portrait of Weiner dandling her dog, mouth agape as if caught mid-sentence, to the snide dismissal of her work (which Mead characterizes as uneven, uninteresting and unsavory in its attention to its audience), to the repeated anecdotes designed to reveal the “strident” and “aggressive” aspect of Weiner’s humor–seems calculated to steal Weiner’s credibility as a cultural authority. Mead’s article sets up Weiner as a strawman and then cleverly dispatches her by making her–and, by extention, the cause she’s associated with–look like a joke. In Mead’s world, discrediting Weiner is enough to discredit all of our complaints about sexism. She can’t be bothered to expend more than a couple of paragraphs on delineating the criticisms leveled by Weiner and other female writers, dismissing the entire issue thusly:
A novel that tells of the coming of age of a young woman can command as much respect from the literary establishment as any other story. In 2013, Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her hard-edged exploration of this theme, “The Flamethrowers,: and the previous year Sheila Heti won accolades for her book “How Should a Person Be?,” even though it included both shopping and fucking. The novel, and the critical consensus around what is valued in a novel, has never excluded the emotional lives of women as proper subject matter. It could be argued that the exploration of the emotional lives of women has been the novel’s prime subject. Some of the most admired novels in the canon center on a plain, marginalized girl who achieves happiness through the discovery of romantic love and the realization of her worth. “My bride is here,” Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre, “because my equal is here, my likeness.”
You don’t have to be an admirer of Weiner’s work to recognize the high-handed, reductive tilt of this passage. Mead is guilty here of employing a series of logical fallacies, cherry picking evidence to buttress her point. Two well-reviewed novels by women and a classic published in1847 are enough to banish all arguments of bias? Spend two minutes on VIDA’s website and you will have a mountain of data demonstrating otherwise. Read Francine Prose’ stellar Harper’s article “Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” Take a second to check out The New Yorker’s own stats, because Mead isn’t about to list them here. They don’t fit with the picture of pure meritocracy she’s trying to paint for us. (Then there’s the lazy reporting: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs is not, as Mead states, about a protagonist who becomes “obsessively involved with her neighbors.” The couple are the parents of a child in her class). This is a takedown, pure and simple. I don’t happen to be a reader of Weiner’s, but Mead’s blatant snobbery made me want to run out to Barnes and Noble and stock up. If this is how the other side behaves, Team Weiner is looking pretty good.
Rebecca Mead is one of the lucky, talented writers who has managed to secure a perch at the nation’s foremost culture magazine. This is a position of privilege, and like all such positions, it brings with it certain dangers–one of which is assuming that because you, as a woman, have managed to achieve prominence in the literary world that you are the rule, not the exception–that there are no real barriers to entry for the truly deserving. But if you take the time to look at the numbers you’ll see that the vast underrepresentation of women’s voices in critical outlets, both as writers and reviewers, makes this explanation hard to accept. Yes, there are women who rise to the top. There are Rachel Kushners and Sheila Hetis and Rebecca Meads, but ask the average reader who these people are and they will give you a blank stare. Ask them who Claire Messud and Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis and Adelle Waldman and Kate Christensen and Jamie Attenberg are, and they very likely won’t have a clue. But they will all know Jonathan Franzen; they will all know Jeffrey Eugenides and Malcolm Gladwell and, probably, John McPhee. Chalking this difference up to talent alone is impossible. Until more prominent women writers are willing to wrestle with the complexities of this issue, until they are willing to countenance the idea that they may be the beneficiaries of luck as much as talent, the vast majority of women will continue to be marginalized by the critical establishment. You can believe this without being a Weiner disciple, just as you can acknowledge the limited goals of commercial fiction while still respecting the people who write it.