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Jennifer Weiner: 'Best Thing' Would Be Equality

Jul 8, 2012
Originally published on July 8, 2012 2:59 pm

Jennifer Weiner writes what is often referred to as women's fiction. But that term is imperfect for many reasons — so we'll just refer to her as the author of multiple best-sellers.

Weiner's written a bookshelf's worth of hits, like Good in Bed, and In Her Shoes, which became a hit movie starring Cameron Diaz. She also created and ran the ABC Family television series State of Georgia. And in her copious free time? She live tweets The Bachelorette.

Her latest novel, The Next Best Thing, draws on that TV experience: It's about a young woman who moves to Los Angeles and creates her own vaguely autobiographical sitcom. Weiner tells NPR's David Greene that Ruth, her heroine, was deeply influenced by The Golden Girls — which comes through in her sitcom idea.

"It's about a girl and her grandmother who move to Miami. The girl wants to become a chef, and the grandmother, who has sort of had many, many husbands, wants to sort of see if she can stand on her own two feet," Weiner says. "It's a coming of age story where the women are of very different ages."

Without spoiling the book too much, we can say that Ruth gets the coveted green light for her show, but things go downhill from there. "She wants to write a show about an imperfect woman who gets great things ... who isn't the babe, but who gets the guy, who gets the job, who wears the great clothes, who makes the great jokes," Weiner says. But Ruth's vision ends up getting a little watered down in the execution.

Weiner writes bitingly about the experience of women in Hollywood writers' rooms, though she says her own experiences were often positive. "I was working for female executives, I had a wonderfully great co-show runner who had absolutely no objections when I said, like, look, we're telling a story about women, I want this room at least half female," she says. "I think that with humor, especially, you hire the people you're comfortable with ... if you're a guy, probably you're hiring guys, and it's not deliberate necessarily, but the way things work is that there are just very few women writing shows or in writers' rooms."

Weiner is on the front line of gender conflict in literature as well — she's been very outspoken about what she calls a double standard in criticism: When men write about relationships and family, it's literature, but when a woman does the same thing it's dismissed as "chick lit." "If a man writes about a family, it's like, oh, he's really writing about America," Weiner says. "If a woman writes about a family, it's just assumed that she's writing about herself."

"I'd love it, sure, if The [New York] Times sort of treated my books with respect," she says. "I think The Times should make space for commercial women's fiction the same way they make space for commercial men's fiction." Weiner points out that while The Times runs roundups of crime novels, it completely overlooks romance. And, she says, even women considered to be literary fiction authors have a hard time getting recognized.

"I think I went through a year's worth of The New York Times and found that of the people who hit the trifecta, which is two reviews and a profile, which is sort of the most love they can give you, it was 10 guys and one woman," she says. "And the women are still showing up in the style section, and they're still showing up in profiles that talk about their hair. ... I don't know if it's on purpose, I would hate to think that it is, but I just, I so truly and deeply believe that it's something that needs to change."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Jennifer Weiner writes what is often referred to as women's fiction. But that term is imperfect for a lot of reasons. And so, we'll just refer to her as the author of multiple best-sellers. Weiner's written a bunch of hits, like "Good in Bed," and "In Her Shoes," which became a hit movie starring Cameron Diaz. She also created and ran the ABC Family television series "State of Georgia." In her free time, she live tweets the "Bachelorette." Her latest novel, "The Next Best Thing," draws on her TV experience. It's about a young woman who moves to L.A. and creates her own sitcom - with mixed results. Jennifer Weiner joins me from our studios in New York. Jennifer, welcome to the program.

JENNIFER WEINER: Thank you very much for having me.

GREENE: So, the new novel, "Next Best Thing," it follows the heroine, Ruth Saunders. She's lived with her grandma since her parents died in a car accident, and that left her face scarred. She moves to Los Angeles to pursue this dream of writing a television series. Tell us about the series. What is she trying to write?

WEINER: Yes. Well, like many of us, she was deeply influenced by "The Golden Girls," and she wants to...

GREENE: Of course.

WEINER: ...of course, and she wants to write a show that's loosely based on her own life. It's about a girl and her grandmother who move to Miami. The girl wants to become a chef, and the grandmother, who has sort of had many, many husbands, wants to sort of see if she can stand on her own two feet. So, it's a coming of age story where the women are of very different ages. And what happens is Ruth sells this show, gets the green light, gets the call that every writer wants and then things start going wrong.

GREENE: I guess I don't want to spoil the book too, too much, but Ruth's experience in writing this series, it's good and it's bad. I mean, how much of her idea becomes a little bit watered down?

WEINER: Well, what happens is she wants to write a show about an imperfect woman who gets great things. She wants to go out there and have this heroine who isn't a beauty, who isn't the a babe, but who gets the guy, who gets the job, who wears the great clothes, who makes the great jokes. And she realizes that her kind of disfigurement isn't going to play well. She can't find a scarred actress, and so she decides that she's going to cast a plus-size woman. And this is sort of one piece of my Georgia life that I used. She casts this woman who is allegedly very comfortable in her own skin. She's sort of a size 12, 14, which makes her on the larger side of normal definitely for Hollywood. And what happens in the time between shooting the pilot and shooting the actual show is her star loses 30 pounds and becomes unrecognizable and just another Hollywood beauty and breaks Ruth heart.

GREENE: How much of this is based on your own experience, I mean, working on a television show?

WEINER: You know, I'd say, I mean, there were things that were just like, they were either too good or too painful not to use. I mean, definitely our star was Raven-Symone, and Raven-Symone did in fact lose a great deal of weight. That's public record. Everyone knows it. And then there were things like I had to cast a goat, and I think when you are a writer and you have to cast a goat, that's God's way of telling you, like, if you don't use this, you know, bad things will happen to you. Because it turns out that goats have head shots and reels.

GREENE: No, they don't.

WEINER: I would not make this up. So, seriously, I'm like, my line producer is, like, you know, we have a cast the goat. And I'm like, all right, you know, cast a goat. And he's like, well, what are you looking for in a goat? And I'm like, goat, goatish, goat-esque...

GREENE: Not a question I was ready for.

WEINER: Exactly. You know, he was like do you want horns? Do you care about the color? Do you care about the gender? I'm like I want the goat to look like a goat.

GREENE: And this was in the state of Georgia you had to do this?

WEINER: State of Georgia, yes, we cast a skinny goat.

GREENE: Right. You know, what I found interesting is you're writing pretty bitingly of the experience of women in Hollywood and women in the writers rooms of Hollywood. I mean, how much of that did you see?

WEINER: Well, I mean, with me, it was interesting because I was working for female executives. I had a wonderfully great co-show runner who had absolutely no objections when I said, like, look, we're telling a story about women. I want this room at least half-female. But I think that with humor, especially, you hire the people you're comfortable with. Like the saying out there is the writer room's a safe place. Like, you can talk about anything, you know, sex or your parents or your wife or food or whatever it is you're going to talk about. And you're going to do that with people you feel comfortable with. And so that means if you're a guy, probably you're hiring guys. And it's not deliberate necessarily, but the way things work is there are just very few women running shows or in writers rooms. Like there's nothing approaching equity yet.

GREENE: Well, you talk, you know, and this book covers the really tough experience for women in the writers room in Hollywood. I want to get to the writers room in terms of books. You have been very outspoken about...

WEINER: Yes, yes, yes.

GREENE: ...what you see as a real double-standard, a gender double-standard in the literary world. And you focus on your times. You've talked about NPR. I mean, and one thing you said, Jennifer, is when a man writes about relationships, family, you know, it's considered literature, but when a woman does the same thing it's really taken less seriously by critics and often not reviewed in places like the New York Times.

WEINER: Yeah. I think for whatever reason, that double-standard still persists. If you look at what you've read in high school and how much of it was by men, I think all of us are wired sort of literature equals Dickens and Joyce and the Russians and, you know, now Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides and those boys. It's harder for a Mona Simpson or a Mary Gates Gill or a woman who is undeniably in the literary tradition to prove that she belongs in that club too. I mean, I think I went through a year's worth of the New York Times and found that of the people who hit the trifecta, which is two reviews and a profile, which is sort of the most love they can give you, it was 10 guys and one woman.

GREENE: Wow.

WEINER: Yeah. And the women are still showing up in the Style section and they're still showing up in profiles that talk about their hair and their clothes. And it's still such a different ballgame.

GREENE: Jennifer Weiner is author of the new book "The Next Best Thing." Jennifer, thanks so much for talking to us.

WEINER: This was great. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.