September 13, 2013

Jennifer Weiner’s fight to change the NYTBR


Give this woman a high five.

On September 6, The New York Times announced that it would include a short list in each issue of the book review, “close-ups of new books of interest grouped each week according to subject, theme or genre.” The first category was difficult women, including the latest from author Terry McMillan. Jennifer Weiner called this announcement “exactly what I’ve been hoping for.”

We’ve written about Weiner’s advocacy for genre writers (especially female writers) here before; she’s been a big proponent of McMillan, Tayari Jones, and many other talented novelists who are underrepresented in the Times’ pages. On Tuesday, somewhat puzzlingly, she apologized in a Slate article for “going too far” with her fight to get chick lit and genre fiction reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and other publications.

Some of this apology could be rooted in Alexander Nazaryan’s coverage of what he calls Weiner’s “public war.” After Weiner criticized the Times for adding “Bookends,” calling the new column “toothless, tepid, engineered not to offend or provoke,” Nazarayan wrote an article titled, “Jennifer Weiner Is Mad at the New York Times Book Review Again.” He called the author “strident,” a word she said was sexist (and it was later removed from the article). She and Nazarayan spoke over the phone, and then she published “The Wrong Way to Talk about Women in the Book World.”

No one would contest that Weiner has taken a lot of public heat as she’s fought for this kind of review coverage. Her Twitter correspondence with Andrew Goldman last year got him suspended from the Times for four weeks, though Weiner did not ask the Times to take action against him. She’s had public back-and-forth with John Cook from Gawker over Twitter as well.

But I was surprised to see an apology in Slate this week, especially after the other battles she’s fought on this same turf. Was she changing her tone because she’d changed the Times? Or had her correspondence with Nazarayan convinced her readers and writers were afraid to talk about her? Even if you don’t agree with what she’s saying, why would she need to apologize for being having strong convictions and stating her opinion publicly?

Author Christopher Beha essentially said the same thing:As their chat continued, Beha promised to gather his thoughts about this and who should be reviewed in the NYTBR, and finally posted them yesterday on his personal blog. Weiner posted a link to his piece and said, “Some points I agree with, some I don’t. But I am grateful to @chrisbeha for making such a thoughtful, thorough case.” His article was republished by Slate. Beha says if he chose the books reviewed in the Times, they would be:

Books that one doesn’t know how to read, books that challenge our ideas about what fiction is supposed to be doing, are more interesting to talk and think about… I like to think about individual books [as opposed to those labeled “literary fiction”]. If I have to think about genres I suppose it could be said that the genre of fiction I find most interesting to talk and write and read about—the one I think the TBR should be reviewing—is the genre that has the genre specification “does not conform to any genre specifications.” For our purposes I would call this genre “Holy Crap fiction.”

He addresses the question Weiner has been asking all along: How do we define the kind of books that get into the Times? Is there a way to define this that includes more diversity in subject, race, gender, and readership?

On September 10, Michelle Dean tried to define Weiner’s argument in her Flavorwire article, “Who’s afraid of Jennifer Weiner?”

In fact, the only real distinction Weiner has identified in her three-plus years of making this complaint is that she’s a commercial — here’s a nicer and frankly more accurate word I’d propose by the way: “popular” — writer, and the others are “literary.” Her real mistake was underestimating the degree to which the “literary” would protect their turf. The monetary rewards of literariness are so notoriously slim that the stakes for preserving the book review space they have is strong. Anyway: you can’t blame these folks for clinging to what little status they do have.

“Popular” fiction or even “Holy Crap” fiction doesn’t feel like the right term yet. But Weiner’s inciting an ongoing discussion of who reviews are for, and who reviews should be about.

If authors and publications are listening and participating in this discussion—and if five more books are represented in the Times each week, at a moment book coverage is almost universally shriking—an apology should be the last thing we’re expecting from Weiner. The first should be a victory lap. With the writers newly represented in the NYTBR on both sides of the track there to each give her a high five.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.