In my long publishing career, I've occasionally been taken aback by an interview question or comment, so I sympathize with novelist Claire Messud when an interviewer 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.
Not surprisingly, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner was offended by those remarks. Weiner seems to specialize in being offended, as Salon has noted in tallying her many literary feuds. Predictably, she claims Messud was attacking writing by women like her.
A writer of popular fiction, Weiner has frequently been a New York Times best seller, has made millions from her books, and more than one of them was turned into a movie. She's an author in the publishing empyrean, no matter how much she's complained about not being reviewed enough or respected enough by the literary establishment.
Messud's rhetorical questions are 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.
But none of that really matters. When I heard about Weiner sparring with yet another author, I was first reminded of short-tempered Norman Mailer. And when I read that she accused Messud of "going all Jersey Housewife" in response to the editor, I thought: brilliant.
It's a 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 expert at giving her reading public what it wants, she's a master 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.
Midlist authors, take note.
Lev Raphael is the author of 24 books in genres from memoir to mystery. He is a visiting assistant professor of fiction writing and crime literature at Michigan State University.