Writing about writing

My Inner B*tch: For Some Writers, Success Is Not Enough

Sometimes I wait too long to write and then the thoughts, or the threads weaving together an essay, deteriorate from being left out in the rain.  Nothing I write comes out of whole cloth, and weaving is long, laborious, sometimes tedious work.  I know because for several years I literally wove cloth on a 36-inch 4-harness Harrisville loom.  I made a few things, but eventually I sold the loom to a friend and haven’t woven anything since.  Sometimes I feel that way about writing:  that I want to sell my tools to a friend and move on.  Writing is such hard work.  Which leads me to a bit of a diatribe.  Thus spake my inner bitch:

I envy writers like Jennifer Weiner who can “produce at a deadline pace.”

Jennifer Weiner

She has published, what, eleven books in 13 years?  And yet she roars with indignation at the publishing industry for being condescending toward female writers.  Ya think, Jennifer?  Please tell me what industry in this world is not condescending toward women.  Just where is it do women no longer struggle to be taken as seriously and treated as equally as men?  I came of age during the height of the women’s movement.  When I was 12, I was a radical feminist, reading about rape in marriage and desperate to break free from a world that thought I deserved no better than to live in a single-wide with crying children and a husband who drank and beat me.

Maybe that’s why women people like Weiner annoy me so much.  According to a New Yorker article (thanks, Kevin, for mentioning the article otherwise I never would have unearthed the issue from the stack of books and magazines next to my bed), her debut novel is in its 57th printing.  She has a writing “closet” that “may be bigger than some of the apartments occupied by struggling writers in Brooklyn.”  She has a summer home in Cape Cod.  She has a personal shopper, someone who reminds her to pack underwear.  She has been “outspoken about female writers whom she considers unsisterly.”  And that is where she totally loses me.  I may forgive her for wanting more when she already has more than many other writers (male as well as female) even dream of having.  But the infighting that she appears to relish seems to serve no purpose other than to advance her own agenda:  promotion of Jennifer Weiner.

I don’t begrudge Weiner’s writing style, her “commercial novels.”  As Rebecca Mead notes, however, “literary criticism, at its best, seeks to elucidate the complex, not to catalogue the familiar.”  That’s not to say that all commercial novels are unworthy of literary criticism.  The Chief Inspector Gamache series written by Louise Penny, in my humble opinion, is worthy of literary attention.

English: Louise Penny
English: Louise Penny (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, there is a cataloguing of the familiar in her series.  They are police procedural novels and as such a particular pace and certain tropes are expected.  Plot presumedly drives the stories forward; yet, I keep reading Penny’s novels for the characters and the settings.  I read them because the people within her novels are complicated and their lives are complicated and the settings (modern Quebec, a quaint village, the near fatal freeze of winter, the life-draining heat of summer) intertwine with their lives to make things even more complicated.  I come away from these novels still feeling thoughtful, still pondering the fine line between love and hate, good and evil, the demons within and the demons without.  Because Penny’s novels are categorized as a particular genre (mystery, crime fiction, whatever), she may never get the accolades that Weiner claims is often denied writers who are female.

But I don’t hear Penny complaining.  In fact, if you friend her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/louisepennyauthor), you’ll find that Penny seems to be quite content with her writer’s life.  She is about as prolific as Weiner, having produced nine novels in as many years.  Her tenth is due out in August 2014.  But in contrast to Weiner, one gets the feeling Penny is still pinching herself to see if her success is just a dream. One gets the sense that she feels lucky, the kind of lucky that many artists describe as “being in the right place at the right time.”  Yes, I’m admiring Penny for her humility.  Perhaps I’ll be criticized for that.

Can I still consider myself a feminist if I choose not to take up arms like Jennifer Weiner and damn the literary critics for looking down their noses at commercial novels because you know they only do that if those novels are written by women?  No, wait, Stephen King has had the same complaint for years.

Stephen King
Cover of Stephen King

Maybe I just don’t get it.  Maybe I have a stronger class consciousness than a gender consciousness.  After all, I feel unequally uneasy at a women-only dinner party as I do at a fancy restaurant where I have to pretend I know which fork to use when.  I grew up among a lot of women.  Cousins, sisters, aunts, mother.  I’ve known from an early age that women aren’t always “sisterly” toward each other.  Before I learned to play the part of a middle-class female, I was often condescended to by other women.  I was consider stupid, slow because I was, in their presence, a fish out of water.

Eventually I married well, learned to appreciate fine wine, and appropriated the manners and preferences of my middle-class friends.  For a while anyway.  I’m still married well, but now I openly enjoy good cheap wine and most of those middle-class friends have moved on, no doubt because they found me to be a bore.  I feel no great loss there.  The complaint of wanting more, More, MORE from those who already have plenty bore me.

I’ll give this much to Jennifer Weiner.  At a book signing event, “[s]he took time to talk to everyone.”  She appreciates her readers.  She knows without them she would be nothing.  If she chooses to write for them and if they happen to prefer her stories to those by, say, Doris Lessing, then so be it.  More power to her.  I hope she continues to be successful and to make her readers happy.  I might hope she won’t consider this blog post “unsisterly” of me.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ve misplaced my inner Pollyanna.

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36 thoughts on “My Inner B*tch: For Some Writers, Success Is Not Enough

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself! (And I tried…) It’s not unlike the top 1% of the top 1% complaining that they’re being targeted and discriminated against. Huh? Wha?

    Ah, if only people and things could be judged for what they are instead of what they seem to represent. Or something like that.

    Love the longer post too, Marie. Gives you a chance to stretch your rhetorical legs.


    1. You are so kind, Kevin! I sensed a fair amount of restraint in your post, and I could understand why. This one went through several drafts, toning it down a little bit at a time. I don’t need to get flamed by Weiner on Twitter … although maybe that would be a good thing 😉


  2. I Just read the following on the blog of M.J. Wright on writing:
    1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know enough to realize you don’t know what you’re doing.
    2. Conscious incompetence – you realize how much there is to learn.
    3. Conscious competence – you know what you have to do, but it’s a conscious effort, mechanical.
    4. Unconscious competence – it’s become part of your soul and your writing soars.
    I think i am at conscious competence, which is somehow much harder that just being ignorant, and I haven’t yet begun to soar. It is quite a challenge to take up this space and feel the strength to forge ahead. I am working toward 4), but it may be a while.


    1. Very interesting, Susan. I think I’m at #2 conscious incompetence and I say that because I have many WIPs and yet I’m making little effort to work on any of them because I know I have so much to learn yet 😉 You’re on your way to #4 but don’t force it. I imagine it’s one of those states of being you just suddenly realize you’ve attained, like when all the pieces fall into place.


  3. Marie, you hit the mark on Weiner. Whining is a part of her platform, just a way to stand out and get publicity. It’s ridiculous, in my opinion. But if she ever wants to be sisterly, I’d love for her to look down her nose from her very high pedestal and endorse my book. 🙂


  4. Marie, I don’t even know who any of these people are! My goodness, I am living in complete ignorance (and bliss haha). But you have me interested in Penny’s books! Very erudite post . . . .


    1. Hey, Luanne! Yes, sometimes ignorance is bliss 🙂 I do recommend Penny’s novels. I would start with the first in the series, Still Life. Here’s an excerpt of a review I left on Audible.com:
      “Inspector Gamache is a wonderful character: tough yet sensitive; a dry wit and deep intellect; but he’s not perfect. He makes mistakes but he has the humility to admit them and move on. He’s the kind of inspector that I would want investigating my murder, if I ever have the misfortune of being murdered. In this particular novel, a painting is as much as a character as the characters themselves, which is an interesting technique that works well.
      Penny paints a “still life” of Three Pines in her novel, but I appreciate that attention to detail. By the end of the novel, I felt like I had been to Three Pines and had had tea or whisky with its citizens. For those of you who like a well-developed, even-paced, and slightly twisted mystery, this one’s for you.”


  5. First off, thank you for using “as such” correctly. You are a rare find.

    Now, onto the main point… Do women who attack other women for not being sisterly enough understand irony?

    And finally, closing out on the topic of class, just remember when you are around folks who look down on you because of variances in social upbringing: You are much better at picking up a lead pipe and cracking f*****g heads open than they could ever hope to be.



  6. Oh, I think each of us does what we have to make it in this world. I try not to be too opinionated or judgmental because I am sometimes ‘surface oriented’ and my brothers think I am kind of ‘simple’ too! I am a big supporter of women, have read a few books by Jennifer Weiner. I guess it is all up the readers! I hope and wish for all of us on wordpress to ‘make it BIG!’ Smiles, Robin


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I usually don’t like to rant on my blog, but it does get under my skin when a very successful author complains that she still doesn’t have the type of recognition she wants. Her readers are her success. I can’t imagine that Weiner would be happier if she had a Pulitzer but only 1/4 the readers she has now. Anyhoo, I would never deny her the success she does have. I only wish my self-pubbed friends had more than they have now 🙂


  7. It’s always a little disappointing when someone complains their silver spoon is slightly tarnished. But, hey, I’m sure we all have our version of similar complaints! Still, a good rant is needed every once in awhile. Nice post Marie. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Phillip! I’m going to blame Kevin for alerting me to the New Yorker article. Without it, I could have remained blissfully ignorant of Weiner 😉


  8. Ok, I’m with Luanne and Jill (blissful ignorance), though instead of cheap wine I prefer a good bottle of 12 year old Scotch 🙂 Enjoyed hearing your inner bitch come out, and despite the bitchiness, you were very nice about it all. If I ever become something of a successful writer, I suspect I’ll be like Louise Penny and constantly pinch myself … is this really happening to me?


    1. Thanks, Dave. I like 12-year-old Scotch, too 🙂 The rub for me is how many of us would be like Penny, pinching ourselves and enjoying the success, and yet someone like Weiner, in part because of her complaints, gets to be so successful and yet it’s not enough for her. I’m picking on Weiner, but my feelings would be the same for anyone in her situation making her complaints. I’m glad you didn’t mind my inner bitch 🙂 She may (or may not) make another appearance 😉


    2. Dave, you already have one of the most essential talents all the great writers we admire tell us is essential: the ability to express yourself in clear language.

      Clear language can be in Elizabethan meter or the ‘naked’ expression of e.e. cummings. It’s in the whimsical as well: in Lewis Carrol’s famous poem we understand clearly the conclusion in the last stanza:

      `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
      All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

      Many of these words defy ‘definition’ yet the meaning is clear: the truth of Art is only to be found within the poem itself.

      If you choose to be a fiction writer, my only recommendation is to get an accomplishment ‘under your belt’ and the easiest way to do that is to write a short story and rewrite it until, in your estimation, it is perfect. Read what Poe had to say about the form and then consider that there is a new genre of literature called MultiTouch Fiction that allows even a single short story to be read by millions. This is a wonderful opportunity to differentiate yourself: advice we are told is vital in today’s marketplace.

      Disclosure: I am the leading proponent of MultiTouch Fiction, a revolutionary new genre of Literature that will accelerate the transformations currently underway in the publishing industry. MultiTouchFiction.com (a WordPress site) is straight commentary and analyses: no ads, no selling, no BS. There is not now, or will there ever be, a single reference to my own work. Good luck to everyone!


  9. I enjoyed reading this essay. It is strange that while we live in a world that openly admires many great women writers, some will still maintain this simply isn’t so? I could form some reasonable conjectures that motivate this denial, but I am not a psychologist and shouldn’t pretend to some definitive knowledge in this area. However, I am knowledgeable in one area and I can see at once why Ms. JW is so defensive: she wants to be considered a great writer because she believes her success in the marketplace is the confirmation of that belief


    1. …sorry, folks, something happened…is the confirmation of that belief which is contradicted by her own work. Read the first chapter of any of her books and you see the violation of the ONE thing every great writer we admire instructs us to do in our work: show don’t tell. When a writer creates anything of lasting value – and there are writers around the world doing this today, writers whose names we will probably never know – the writing is great when, in that single moment of truth, the beauty of Art presents itself. This is what the poet knows when he says “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.” It’s beauty that is undeniable. So many have tried to solve Keats’ riddle as though it were some elusive equation that if they could define the terms just so the answer would reveal itself. But the poet knew that Beauty is not to be understood; for Beauty is an experience. It is as undeniable as when you walk outside in your busy rush at life, look up and say, quite unbidden, “what a beautiful day!” For you it might be a glorious sunrise; for the fisherman in the Pacific Northwest, it could be the rain’s slant cast across a shadowed treeline. For both it is the same experience: where Beauty presents as undeniable truth, beyond the requirements of thought and analysis or mere opinion. When an artist achieves a moment of truth, creates Beauty, however limited in scope, a sense of profound humility combines paradoxically with a moment of supreme confidence in one’s abilities. All insecurity is resolved and the artist knows that if he never creates again, the truth of what he did create is undeniable.


      1. Stephan, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You express very well what I’ve lately been trying to get right in my own head. As a reader, I can appreciate writers such as Ms. Weiner: they can entertain, provide an escape, a quick release away from our (at least, my) mundane life. But they don’t provide great literature, that experience that lasts long past when the book is put away. For me, it’s that glimpse into the human soul, all it’s ugliness and beauty, which gets under my skin and makes me wonder about life, love, humanity. I often feel changed, as if in the process of reading a particular book, I feel I’ve matured because of the experience.


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