Alice Gregory’s article today in Tablet magazine, named “Jennifer Weiner’s Shiksa Lit,” again brings the author into a debate about “chick lit,” which Weiner has historically done battle with many times. Gregory focuses on Weiner’s novels as a means of discussing the greater “chick lit” genre and, to a lesser degree, Weiner’s own comments about the problems with “chick lit.” In essence, Gregory claims the genre, as a derogatory underling of serious fiction, revolves around heroines who always overcome “improbable odds” and “presumably, our premade pity,” and that Weiner always uses her protagonists’ Jewishness as a part of their hurdles. In claiming the heroine’s “flaws are easy ones to forgive, because they’re never really her fault in the first place,” Gregory underlines her perception of the weakness of the genre, implying that naturally readers are ready to forgive, and perhaps identify with, a heroine who is only a victim of circumstance rather than one who owns her otherness.
The “chick lit” question, as I’ve come to think about this debate, boils down to a question of separating fiction by women and about women from fiction in general. As in, there is fiction and chick lit, real books and books for women, and as we should all understand, dividing women (and in this case their fiction) from humans (or fiction as an umbrella term) is discriminatory and useless. Because Weiner’s books all have female protagonists and scrutinize female relationships, like sisterhood and mother/daughter bonds in many ways, without making a larger, explicit political or cultural statement buried in thematic guises, her works are generally termed “chick lit.” This type of fiction is perennially lambasted for being mindless, empty, thematically dry, and formulaic. Despite Weiner and others, myself included, pointing out that there is no similar discussion around formulaic, empty fiction written by men with a larger percentage of male than female readers, “chick lit” and its writers and readers continue to be damned by others, as Gregory does here, specifically criticizing a lack of “character development” as evidence of why “chick lit is ‘worse’ than anything else.”
“Chick lit” novels may follow a certain type of formula, but separating out ‘women’s fiction’ is bad enough and further terming it “worse than everything else” stems, at least in part, from a culturally embedded perspective of women’s problems as being fluffy ones about wardrobe and dating, while men’s formula fiction concerns crime, maybe national secrets being leaked, and daredevil stunts. “Dick lit,” as I’m now calling men’s fiction by men, is no more culturally sensitive or postmodernly aware of itself as fiction than the novels classified as “chick lit,” and the always-attached negativity posing as intellectualism is damning to women as authors, readers, and members of the critical audience.
At the heart of Gregory’s specific claims about Weiner’s books, and the topic that attracted the most attention in Weiner’s twitter feed today, was the inclusion of the protagonist’s Jewishness with the problems the character eventually overcomes. Specifically, Gregory discusses Ruth Saunders, the main character in Weiner’s 10th novel The Next Best Thing, noting the character’s scarred face, Jewishness, and general unattractiveness as hindrances in the character’s goal of being a successful screenwriter in Hollywood. As Gregory notes, however, Ruth fits a model of Weiner protagonists, all of whom are women, somewhat lax Jews, and have problems that stand in the way of achieving their dreams. If you subtract the religious attribute, the characters just sound like women in general, women characters at the heart of almost any novel about women. And really, that is what the novels are about: characters who, in dealing with a problem, either exhibit growth or leave the reader to find some meaning in the struggle.
Gregory’s final criticism is of Weiner herself as a Jewish author who luridly performs for her non-Jewish audience with the same wanton abandon as Alice Dembosky in Phillip Roth’s Portney’s Complaint, indicating that Weiner’s use of Jewish main characters is self-deprecating in a harmful manner for all Jewish people. Though Gregory views the characters’ Jewishness as being a part of the crosses these women characters have to throw off, having read almost all of Weiner’s novels, I would argue that it is instead a type of personal infusion from author to work, an aspect of her own life which Weiner must interact with and consider a great deal, since it makes its way into all her work. Further, I have to question being offended at using a character’s racial and religious background to signal otherness, since oppressors have almost always used those two categories, along with sex and gender, to discriminate against entire groups of people throughout history. It seems ridiculous to object to an author who consistently puts Jewish protagonists into a mainstream that is quite obviously lacking in Jewish characters who lead the action.
Gregory’s claims hinge on Weiner’s novel, as representative of all her works, being undeserving of serious reflection because it is not serious itself, largely through being “chick lit” and failing to be a “Jewish novel.” This stance, however, unfairly positions the author as a type of spokeswoman for Jewish Authors while simultaneously demeaning her as a woman author. Gregory ignores the merits of Weiner’s works: her exploration of female relationships and growth, ability to translate realistic scenarios from women’s lives onto the page, and the witty, articulate prose that manages a quick pace equally through exposition and three hundred pages of plot. She also dismisses Weiner as an author, despite her place at the forefront of sexism in literature since becoming published, and undermines her readers as presumably unable to differentiate between real fiction and fiction for women. Ultimately, Gregory fails to recognize novels that consistently have a strong female lead who is able to break through her problems, including identifications that are habitually used to belittle and discriminate against people, in order to realize her potential and actively pursue her own ends.
*I know I’ve written a lot about JW here since beginning this site a couple of weeks ago. I blame my excitement at having a break in grad school, during which I like to catch up on my favorite books NOT by dead white men. I have one more post on JW coming up, as I’m going to her reading in Princeton, NJ on July 11th. After that I’ll totally stop. Kidding! I will do what I always do, which is write about what I want to write about.