Authors Gone Wild?

Books open

Back in the late 1980s, before I’d published my first book, novelist Edmund White advised me at an awards banquet, “Never say anything bad about a peer in public. It might come back to haunt you.”

That seems like quaint advice these days, when feuding authors make the news all the time in our content-hungry blogosphere.

Look at the latest attack by Jennifer Weiner, who seems to specialize in being offended, as Salon has noted in tallying her many literary feuds. What’s set her off now? Novelist Claire Messud, responding to an interviewer who said she wouldn’t want to be friends with the lead character in Messud’s new novel.

Messud gave an eloquent rebuttal:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

Weiner was offended by those remarks, claiming that Messud had attacked writing by women like her.

I’ve been on the receiving end of some annoying or dim interview questions in my own career, so I found Messud’s rhetorical questions apt and sensible. They’re not an attack on any other kind of fiction, and her last line quoted above actually points to a much broader vision than Weiner acknowledges.

When I heard about Weiner sparring with yet another author, I was first reminded of short-tempered Norman Mailer. But when I read that she accused Messud of “going all Jersey Housewife” in response to the editor, I thought: Whoa! Brilliant move!

It’s a very catchy quote and a smart publicity move. As Salon notes, “this isn’t the first time that Weiner has cannily tilted a conversation on its axis to ensure her issues — and sometimes her books — are at the center of a debate.”

Weiner isn’t just gifted at giving her reading public what it wants, she’s an expert at creating controversy and making headlines by attacking noted authors in the news. She excels at turning an apparent chip on her shoulder into brilliant PR. It’s a canny strategy guaranteed to boost her already high public profile.

At this rate, she’ll someday have an anthology of attacks on authors she claims have dissed her and her genre. Can a documentary be far behind?

A different version of this blog appeared in The Huffington Post.

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2 Responses

  1. I wouldn’t want to assign ulterior motives to Weiner’s comments. She’s been writing about this at least 2003. Her article on her book tour (“My Big Fat Book Tour” http://www.phillymag.com/articles/my-big-fat-book-tour/) noted how her former newspaper shafted her in a profile because an editor thought it was “too nice” (and did it by digging up stories about her neer-do-well father), and how Dave Egger’s hard-to-find novel gets book cover in the major media. It’s amazing what is said and done to women that men would never experience.

    • What you say at the end is true enough, but that doesn’t undercut her pattern of being quick to take offense when none is intended. I’ve read her interviews and she comes off as someone with a short fuse.

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