The New York Times Book Review may not have asked for an ombudsman — but it has one in Jennifer Weiner, who has routinely criticized the Book Review for its lack of female contributors. The combative, polarizing Weiner has a history of literary feuds, many of them waged against what she perceives, rightly or not, as the pretentious, male-dominated bastion of literary fiction. She has both her detractors and supporters; certainly, she has the publishing world's attention.
Weiner's latest target is Bookends, a new feature of the Book Review announced yesterday by Pamela Paul. Almost as soon as the feature — which will allow two authors to discuss a potentially contentious literary topic — went live, Weiner weighed in with her criticism:
Wishing NYTBR would just say "we exist solely for 5000 readers of literary fiction." Except I think they just did. http://t.co/ydt4E2czko— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) September 3, 2013
Apparently, Weiner was not mollified by the inaugural Bookends discussion, between Adam Kirsch and Zoë Heller, on whether novelists are too timid in criticizing each other (a problem that, it must be said, Weiner does not suffer from):
1/2 Early "Bookends" observations: it's not a very lively conversation, when both parties make the same points, share the same assumptions.— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) September 4, 2013
2/2 Heller and Kirsch say novelists fear making enemies bc they work in the academy, all know each other. Maybe literary writers do...— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) September 4, 2013
That criticism of Bookends continued apace this afternoon:
Bookends #1 displays the qualities its writers abhor -- it's toothless, tepid, engineered not to offend or provoke. So what's the point?— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) September 4, 2013
(Anna Holmes was recently a guest editor of The Atlantic Wire.)
Certainly, the issue of women's bylines, as we've noted before, is one that needs attention. And Weiner herself has been the victim of sexism for airing her views (cf. the downfall of Times Magazine's Andrew Goldman).
Nevertheless, some within the book world privately complain that Weiner's strong* criticisms are starting to backfire — harsh as they are, some simply tune her out. One book blogger suggested to me that the easiest way for the Book Review to quiet Weiner is by hiring her. Hey, it's an idea.
*Update: This morning on Twitter, Weiner and some of her supporters objected to the use of the word "strident" in this story, pointing to its historic usage to dismiss women. I have changed it and I apologize. Had I been aware of that connotation while writing this post, I would have used another word. Weiner also objected to some of my other word choices, including "combative" and "polarizing," but as I think those accurately describe her public criticisms of the The New York Times Book Review, those words remain. Weiner and I will be speaking this afternoon when she returns from holiday services, and this post may be updated again following that conversation.
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