“You have a voice that is worth hearing. You have something to say that the world needs to hear,” writer Jennifer Weiner told over 450 women at CJP Women’s Philanthropy’s annual Pomegranate Society & Friends event this past week. The best-selling novelist launched a mini revolution on how women are portrayed in literature with her plus-sized heroine Cannie Shapiro. Weiner’s first novel, “Good in Bed,” became a New York Times best-seller and was followed by a series of other novels, one of which was made into a movie with Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine.
Weiner delighted her audience with stories of growing up in a non-Jewish Connecticut suburb. She shared the trajectory of her writing career, in which she went from journalist to fiction writer in her mid-20s. She also shared her struggle in defending her choice to have a woman protagonist who was not only large, but had a fulfilling sex life. She recounted her mother’s coming out, her grandmother’s senior life in Century Village in Florida and her wish to be the No. 1 grandchild in hilarious, poignant detail.
But most of all, Weiner wanted to leave her audience with an exhortation. She said that Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the presidency “was a call to action—a warning against complacency. We were done pretending. We had stories to tell—those stories mattered, and we were going to tell them. …We as Jews are called to tikkun olam; to repair the broken world. Think about telling your story and standing in your truth. …Think about the world we want to leave our daughters and their daughters, and, yes, our sons and their sons. What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? It’s time for all of us to speak up and find out.”
Before the event, Weiner answered questions over email about her work, her trailblazing protagonist Cannie and “women who dare.”
I’ve read that you created the first plus-size protagonist in what has been described as “chick lit.” Did Cannie Shapiro feel trailblazing to you?
Cannie Shapiro did have some fiction forbearers, including Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine of “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York” fame. But Cannie was one of the first of a generation of heroines whose happy ending was not contingent on a magical transformation, where a woman loses half her body weight in three months or 50 pages, thanks to a diet that could only exist in fiction and only then lands Prince Charming and lives happily ever after.
Toni Morrison is famous for telling writers, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” As a young woman, I very much needed a story like Cannie’s, about a woman who has to learn to live with, and love, her non-traditional family and her non-traditional beauty, and who eventually finds a way.
How do you feel about the term “chick lit?”
The whole time I was writing, I foolishly believed I was just writing a novel. I didn’t really understand the world’s impulse to label women’s work, to put it in its own little diminishing box. In 2001, the term “chick lit” was just becoming popular. I hated the label, of course. I thought it was dismissive and diminishing and sexist, sexist, sexist—even though I understood its effectiveness in terms of marketing. I’m very glad we are moving away from that term, and from its equally offensive big sister, “women’s fiction.” I dream of a day when women, like men, will simply write “books.”
You grew up in central Connecticut—Simsbury, to be precise. What was your Jewish life like there as a child and young adult?
There weren’t a ton of Jewish people in Simsbury. We were the only non-Christian family on our block, and at some point in the 1980s, the neighbors started putting luminaires, those brown paper bags with votive candles, along the perimeters of their lawns, to light the way for Santa’s sleigh. There were six houses in a row with luminaires, then our house, with nothing, then the lights picked up again. My younger brother was very distressed—not only would we be blamed for the death of Jesus, we’d also be in trouble for causing Santa to crash.
But I also came to cherish my Jewish identity. I spent a lot of time at the JCC, and in Hebrew school, reading the stories and singing the prayers. I loved the Jewish holidays, especially the Passover traditions, and how the idea that as long as people are enslaved, none of us are free, which tied in to my growing understanding of feminism and my commitment to social justice. Being Jewish became, and remains, an important part of my identity. I belong to a wonderful synagogue in Philadelphia, I celebrate Shabbat with my family each week, and I hosted 18 people at the seder last year—and made gefilte fish from scratch!
You are an advocate for women writers, citing bias in who’s reviewed and who isn’t reviewed in places like The New York Times. What impact has your advocacy had?
If you look at who the Times reviewed 10 years ago when Jodi Picoult and I and other “commercial writers” started making noise, and making lists, and compare it to who gets reviewed now, in the Times and elsewhere, you can see a slow but steady trend toward parity. There’s still a long way to go—a few years ago, The New Republic reviewed 17 books by men and one book by a woman. When Donna Tartt’s book “The Goldfinch” won the Pulitzer Prize, it was still the subject of a “yes, but is it really literature” interrogation in Vanity Fair, where a number of critics complained that a book that became that popular couldn’t really be that good.
And, of course, the world of publishing hasn’t been immune from #metoo moments. Last year, the literary editor of The New Republic resigned in the wake of allegations that he’d groped, kissed and harassed female colleagues. The editor-in-chief of the prestigious Paris Review quit before he could be fired for mistreating female subordinates and interns. One of the allegations was that he would champion women and publish their work if he was pursuing them romantically and that, once the relationship ended, so did their shot at appearing in The Paris Review—and my guess is that we’ll be hearing more and more stories like that come out.
But there’s been progress. The New York Times Book Review and The Paris Review are now helmed by women. Publications have been put on notice that if they’re reviewing tons of men and a handful of women, they’re going to be called out and will have to justify their ratios. I think that women writers are having to do less of the “no, really, I am literary” dance than was previously required. But the fight is far from over.
The theme of CJP’s annual Pomegranate Society celebration is “Women Who Dare.” What are some of the issues for which you still want to advocate?
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” I think that’s what is happening. Women are telling the truth, they are refusing to be shamed or to believe that their mistreatment or abuse was something they brought on themselves, and the world is cracking open. Powerful men are being exposed or losing their jobs or even going to jail. As women are speaking their truth, the world is starting to change and, hopefully, the world our daughters will inhabit will be more kind and fairer than the world we have now.