Jennifer Weiner — live-tweeter of The Bachelor, flogger of Franzen-frenzy, and gadfly on behalf of “chick-lit” and women’s fiction — has a lot to say outside the realm of her fiction, it won’t surprise you to know. This much can be discerned from her blog posts and op-eds, her social media feeds, or even from merely reading the dozens of commentary pieces (I’ve written some of them!) that arrive after she says things on social media.
As someone who has enjoyed Weiner’s fiction, but particularly adored her essays and nonfiction, I was excited to plunge into her first major foray into nonfiction, a memoir called Hungry Heart. After a few chapters that set the stage, the book gets quite raw, and also hilarious — exploring topics like miscarriage, weight-loss surgery, the death of Weiner’s estranged, alcoholic dad, and the most universal and lingering of afflictions: being a teenage outcast. Her mixture of pathos and humor fits right into the current cultural moment, in which funny women are writing memoirs left and right. But unlike some of the lady comedians cashing in on the trend, Weiner has the goods, and the talent to make the formula work (the latter is demonstrated particularly well by an enclosed gem of a family vignette from the author’s undergrad days at Princeton, where she led the fight to gender-integrate eating clubs).
Away from the glare of literary feuds and Twitter wars, Hungry Heart paints a picture of the artist as a smart, confident, but also deeply emotional and wounded grown woman who remains eager for approval and professional satisfaction and fiercely determined to hew for her daughters a better, easier path than she walked herself.
Over email, Weiner answered Flavorwire’s questions about the book, her writing process, our political mess, and the value of women’s stories.
Flavorwire: One of the major recurring tropes in your book is the pain of body shaming and bullying, specifically of women who don’t fit a certain mold. I can’t help but wonder if you’re seeing lots and lots of resonance with the Trump-and-Hillary race, which is literally a body-shaming bully and a smart, tough woman?
JW: Like many women, I am finding myself… triggered? Upset? Anxious? Furious? I’m not sure what the right word is, but this election is bringing up a lot of painful stuff — specifically, the idea that a woman’s value resides in her beauty, and that if you’re not beautiful, if you’re not pleasing to the eye of the man in power, you’re worthless.
Trump’s strategy relies on attacking his opponent’s physical selves. She doesn’t have the stamina, he says of Hillary, and he’ll imitate her, staggering around the stage. Or he’ll mimic a disabled reporter, flapping his arms at his sides. He’ll stalk the stage during a debate, looming in Hillary’s personal space, and he’ll critique women’s bodies, from their “big fake tits” to their “fat ugly face(s).” The message is that he’s a person, and the rest of us – women, reporters, the disabled – we’re just bodies, just objects, not on the same plane as Trump.
Last week, a People magazine reporter came forward with allegations against Trump. His supporters’ response was to make a meme of her face, juxtaposed with a glamour shot of the third Mrs. Trump, and write things like, “Really? He’s going to attack THAT when he’s got HER?” Message: ladies, if you’re ever raped, attacked, assaulted, belittled or demeaned, you’d better hope you’re hot enough to be credible.
And as someone who went through the experience of being called ugly in public, this has put me right back in that place where some guy doesn’t think I’m hot, and so I’m not allowed to have opinions, and what I say doesn’t matter. Which is not a great place to be, and is absolutely not the world I’d hoped my daughters would inherit.
One of the ideas you talk about most meaningfully is how impossible it is to fully move beyond feeling abandoned or like an outsider as a teenager and young woman. Was one one of the impulses for writing nonfiction about explaining your personal history, especially now that you’re a public figure and everything you tweet can be fodder for the internet news cycle?
I wasn’t writing the book to explain anything, necessarily, although I think that people who read it can’t help but come away with a sense of where I came from, and how it shaped me, and why I feel the way I do about the issues I talk about. I wrote these stories because I think there is great value when women tell the truth about their lives, and that one of the things that happens is that other women, who might have been sitting alone in their shame and their pain, might say, “Oh, wait, that happened to her, too? And she’s okay?” That’s my hope. The advice writers get is to write the book you wish had been on the shelf… so I’m leaving this book for any woman who ever needed to read stories about surviving hard times, and fighting for your own happy ending.
Even if it had nothing to do with the impetus for the book, do you think that telling your own story helps put your perspective as an agitator for the underdog (and for your own wider inclusion and respect) in context?
That’s my hope… but, unfortunately, I think it’s a lot easier to mock and dismiss a woman who asks for things, or who expresses frustration or disappointment, or, Heaven forfend, jealousy when she doesn’t get something she wants.
I thought some of the most striking passages by far were the ones where you went into the darkest and saddest parts of your life, including your miscarriage and your father’s abandonment. How much courage did it take to go to these places? Did you have to take a deep breath (or drink) before writing?
When I’m alone in a room with the laptop, when I’m the only one reading the story, it doesn’t take much courage at all. It really wasn’t until this book was off at the printer that I thought, “OMG, the whole world is going to know EVERYTHING.” And by then it was too late! I’m just doing my best to tell myself that these stories are going to help other people, and that honesty is always a good thing.
How are you anticipating handling the process of touring and publicity for something so personal?
I’m having someone filter my social media.
You’ve now written fiction for adults, a kids’ book, and nonfiction. Any different approaches between how you tackle each genre?
The writing is always the same – it’s just me, in a room, with the blank page. The editing is different. I had to learn the rules for writing middle grade – how the chapters need to be short and punchy, how kids don’t have patience for long descriptive passages, how you aren’t allowed to write about nudity! For the non-fiction, I had to go through draft after draft after draft, and get increasingly specific with each one – to find those small moments and those examples that showed who I was and what was going on. That, I learned, is much easier with fiction, where you’re creating the character, than in memoir, where you ARE the character.
Confessional writing by women and men tends to be treated differently: brave vs. hot mess, etc. Are you preparing yourself for this in any way?
Oh, I could write a dissertation on the “brave, revelatory” versus “TMI! Overshare!” divide that characterizes the way memoirs by men and those by women are treated. I’ve got my arrows in my quiver — a list of books by men that got praised to the high heavens for their courage, for their willingness to Go There, and a corresponding list of women who were shamed for doing the exact same thing. I think about Katha Pollitt, who had the courage to be honest, and cast herself in a fairly unflattering light, when she talked about Google-stalking an ex, and how she got savaged in the Times… and how her contemporary David Denby’s memoir that covered his addiction to porn was praised. Or how men’s memoirs of addiction get treated as “unsparing, unflinching” — all of those good ‘un’ words — where the women who write those books are treated like exhibitionists. If it happens — when it happens — to Hungry Heart, I will be ready, and I’ll just hope that the book is reaching the audience I wanted it to reach.
I loved reading your chapter on your activism at Princeton. As a battle-hardened campus feminist from another era, is it strange to see feminism be so trendy among young people today?
When you make it clear that feminism isn’t about bashing men or asking for special privileges, if you show that all we want is equality, most reasonable people get it. That was what happened at Princeton, with the eating clubs. It wasn’t about invading male spaces or asking for special treatment, it was just saying, “Hey, if we’re students here, the same as you, how come you have your choice among eleven clubs and we’ve only got nine? How is that fair?”
But it’s always been hard for feminists to manage our own narrative, and to fight against the caricatures — the angry, bra-burning man-hater, the special snowflake with daddy issues who needs three trigger warnings before she gets out of bed. The truth is, feminists are just regular people who want to be treated the same as everyone else, and I hope the day will come where everyone understands that. It’s like the Aziz Ansari line — if you believe in equality between the sexes, you’re a feminist. And you can’t dodge the label. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m a physician who examines eyes for a living, but don’t you dare call me an ophthalmologist!”
Are there any memoirs or other works of art by women that have come out recently that have inspired you?
I loved Lindy West’s Shrill and Sarah Hepola’s Blackout. And everything by Nora Ephron, and all of Erica Jong’s wise essays about surviving the writing life.
You’re really explicit that one of your big motivators for writing success is essentially to “show the haters” from your earlier life — and that you sometimes feel ambivalent when people who resemble the haters (confident-seeming, put-together types) show up at your readings. What do you make of the fact that even women who seem like they have it all identify with your flawed, beleaguered heroines (and with you)?
On the one hand it’s very depressing. I’d like to believe that a woman I admire — someone like Michelle Obama, or Meryl Streep, women who are brilliant and accomplished — get to a point in their lives where they aren’t plagued by insecurity or self-doubt. But what I’ve learned is that no one is immune. If 25-year-old me had looked at 45-year-old me, she would have thought, “Here is a woman with absolutely nothing to complain about.” But the truth is, there are always things that you want, that other people get… and it always hurts. Some days more acutely than others. I think the trick is to just look at what you have, and be grateful for every bit of it. And do not go on social media when you’re hungry.