Does this look like chick lit to you?
  • Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Does this look like chick lit to you?

The war between Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen has been going on for nearly four and a half years, since the fall of 2010 when Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, and hostilities show no sign of abating, largely because of Weiner’s immense capacity for taking offense and Franzen’s equally large capacity for giving it. (This is, remember, the man who became famous by asking Oprah if he had to take part in her book club.)

Mostly the war boils down to the fact that Weiner resents that male writers, like Franzen, who write about families and social issues get so much more critical attention and respect than female writers, like herself, who write about the same, and Franzen thinks that Weiner is just a big old crybaby who doesn’t get attention and respect because she’s a shitty, formulaic writer who doesn’t deserve it.

The fact is, Weiner does have a point. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts took a tally that shows that books by women get reviewed far less frequently than those by men. Still, the war continues.

The latest salvo was fired by Franzen in an interview that ran last Friday on the website of Booth, a literary journal published by Butler University. Franzen accused Weiner of “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically,” and said that if Weiner truly had a case to make about women being underrepresented, she would do it an essay instead of on Twitter. (In response, Weiner published a blog post pointing out that she has already written several essays on the subject.) When his interviewer suggested that perhaps Weiner is merely acting as a spokeswoman for other neglected woman writers, Franzen responded, “That’s unfortunate, because it’s an important issue and she’s an unfortunate person to have as a spokesperson,” and then vehemently denied reading any of her books.

The interview prompted a spirited discussion on Jezebel, where commenters mostly agreed that Franzen is a dick, but debated the quality of Weiner’s novels and where to draw the line between “chick lit” and “literary fiction written by women” and if there should even be a distinction between the two, since there is none for books written by men, or at least no comparable term for “chick lit.”

  • Andrea Cipriani Mecchi/Chicago Sun-Times
  • Weiner

I am a fan of neither Weiner’s nor Franzen’s work: I have read multiple books by both and disliked them equally. (In a way, they kind of balance each other because her books are relentlessly saccharine while his are relentlessly sour.) I do, however, agree with Weiner’s main point: more books by women should be more widely reviewed, and commercial fiction by women should be taken more seriously, or at least just as seriously as commercial fiction by men. Franzen reminds me of the guys I met in writing workshops and in journalism school who rolled their eyes and looked bored whenever anyone submitted for discussion a dispatch from Girl World. (This is a term a male professor used to describe a series of stories a friend wrote for her MFA thesis.) The Jezebel discussion reminds me of the meetings my fellow female students and I would have in the bathroom during break, during which we would try to plot revenge. We could never think of a good plan because it’s very hard to undermine that kind of superiority, which has probably been ingrained since birth, or maybe even the first ultrasound.

But what is the difference between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? It can’t be sales, because Franzen’s two most recent novels, Freedom and The Corrections, were classified as “literary” and yet sold a shit ton of copies. It can’t be humor, because plenty of literary writers have been cited in reviews as funny (whether they actually are depends on your point of view). It could be sheer pretentiousness, as measured by vocabulary, or allusions to Classical or modern French or German philosophers, but, you know, the Harry Potter books (scourge of snobs everywhere) have those, too.

Franzen himself says in the Booth interview that the distinguishing factor between commercial fiction and Literature is “moral complexity,” which is a “luxury” a lot of common folk don’t have time for because their lives are so hard and exhausting. (He actually said, “The last thing [people] want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day.” I think it must be a long time since Jonathan Franzen had any sort of job besides writing.) So does that mean literary fiction is less fun to read but good for you, like the biblio equivalent of kale? I don’t believe that either. Sure reading some writers—like Franzen, say—can feel like an act of conspicuous literary virtue, but others—like Munro—are completely absorbing and a distraction from my sad, ordinary, working-stiff life. (Feel free to substitute other writers’ names for “Franzen” and “Munro” in that last sentence. Who you find boring and who you find enjoyable is entirely a matter of personal taste.)

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As it happened, right before I delved into this latest bit of Franzen frenzy, I’d just finished reading Single, Carefree, Mellow, a new collection of short stories by Katherine Heiny that seemed like an ideal test case for some of these questions, since it has elements of both literary and commercial fiction.

On the literary side, it’s a collection of short stories, a form that is “literary” by default since story collections don’t sell very well anymore. Many of said stories had first appeared not just in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, but also Ploughshares and several other small literary magazines with high prestige and low circulation. Heiny has an MFA. There’s a degree of moral complexity in that many of the characters are participants in adulterous affairs, and nobody feels too bad about it or even gets punished.

The major conflict of book’s first story, “The Dive Bar,” comes from a young woman named Sasha’s summons to a dive bar to meet with her lover’s soon-to-be-ex-wife. Sasha goes not out of any sense of guilt but because she thinks it will be interesting. (“How many things are so fascinating that you can’t stand not to do them?”) After one drink, other woman tells her: “You’re a home-wrecker, and you have no morals at all.”

Two things occur to Sasha at this instant. One: Having morals is not something she’s ever aspired to. Successful writer, loyal friend, pretty girl; those have been goals, but she can’t say moral person has ever made the list, and that’s kind of startling to realize. Two: . . . She doesn’t have to sit here and listen to this.

On the commercial side, the book has been blurbed by Lena Dunham. There was a profile in the New York Times, but it did not have the headline “Great American Novelist” (or short story writer) like Franzen’s 2010 Time cover and instead emphasized the 20-year gap between Heiny’s first—and, thus far, only—publication in the New Yorker and the release of this book. The delay was due to her need to earn a living by ghostwriting young adult romance novels (the later volumes of the Making Out series, if you’re curious) and then raise her two children. The stories themselves do not tell of deep human suffering. The characters are well-off white people who live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or in the suburbs and sometimes have housekeepers. At the end, all the people live (though, alas, not the dog) and are reasonably, if not blissfully, happy.

Mostly, though, these stories are fun. They don’t feel virtuous. They feel like they were written to entertain. They would be enjoyable to read on the train after a long day of work, moral complexity and all. They don’t have the painfully-dreary close observations of so many MFA workshop stories that make you feel like the writer is doing her darnedest to sound sensitive and smart but instead comes off as someone who spends way too much time worrying about insignificant details because they have nothing more important to say. (I used to write a lot of stories like this.) Instead, Heiny’s observations are quick and off-kilter and funny enough to make you laugh out loud, even on the rush hour train. Like this one from a high-school girl who has just seen her first porno: “You are young enough to still have your parents always in the back of your mind, and you are heartbroken to think that your mother lives in a world where such films exist.” Or the inherent humor in always referring to a neighbor named Bunny Pringle by her first and last names, “like Darth Vader.”

There are some poignant observations, too, like this one from Sasha during an aimless bullshit session with her roommate: “Sasha does not know what this kind of conversation is called. . . . She only knows that she never wants to be without it in her life. Never. Never. Never.” Or from a woman who had been contemplating breaking up with her boyfriend: “Maya knew then that she could not leave Rhodes. [Her dog’s] death had prevented it, the same way a flat tire or a broken alarm clock could prevent someone from making a flight that later crashed. There is such a thing as too much loss. Maya understood that now.”

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  • Heiny

Heiny has enough imagination and skill that even though her characters end up in places that might, in retrospect, seem obvious, they get there honestly, motivated by their own interior logic instead of the author manipulating them to serve the needs of the story. That may, in fact, be one of the major distinguishing factors, between “literary” writing and a “commercial” writing, along with the fact that literary books tend to be tragedies while commercial ones tend toward comedy. All writing is artificial, of course, but writers who are considered literary are better at hiding the artifice, or at getting the reader to suspend her disbelief for a while.

Of course, we could just say there’s good writing and bad writing. And that may be a much fairer standard to judge books by than superficial things like the author’s gender or the presence of pastel drawings of shoes or faceless women on the book jacket or attention by from the New York Times. I also wish that femaleness or pastel drawings of shoes, or even a happy ending, were not taken as a sign of inferiority. I wish the assumption did not exist that women are willing to read books about the lives of men, but that books about women should be banished to their own special Women’s Fiction category. Because good writing is good writing, no matter who does it and what it’s about, and it shouldn’t be disparaged because it also happens to be enjoyable. Single, Carefree, Mellow is a good book. I hope people read it.