Great American Novelist Jonathan Franzen – the best writer of our time, y’all -- did a Q and A with a Butler University MFA candidate – perhaps you’ve seen it? – where he dismisses my quest for respect and reviews for genre women’s fiction by saying, that I “rub him the wrong way,” that I’m “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias,” and I’m an “unfortunate” person to be a spokesperson for fairness and equity in the World of Letters…and, oh yeah, he’s never read my books, because his friends don’t think they’re any good.

He thinks I’m hijacking a legitimate debate and making it All About Me. Except it’s not even a legitimate debate, because I’ve never written an essay about it -- an essay, of course, being the only permissible place for debate in Franzenlandia.

“She has no case, so she just tweets.”


I'm bewildered by Franzen's continued attacks. He's on the cover of Time, he's got the Times writing curtain-raisers about his new book a year before it's published, he's been Oprah-anointed not once but twice, and is the subject of an upcoming biography. He is respected -- nay, revered - in all the places that matter...and he's calling me names? Does he think that the Times devoting two paragraphs to books like mine takes away from books like his? Is he angry that I've got a bunch of Twitter followers, even though he doesn't think I should have an audience at all because I'm not on his approved list?

Anyhow. In terms of "just tweeting," it turns out I've written many essays about my case. Links below...but, before the links, I’d argue that Twitter is a lovely and appropriate medium for voices that have traditionally been shouted down, shut out or ignored by the places that court the Franzens of the world. There’s a long history – maybe Franzen doesn’t know it? – of women using the materials at hand, whatever’s available to them to make art or make a case. I’d argue that feminist Twitter, women writers advocating for their work, one hundred and forty characters at a time, is a part of that history.

So I've used Twitter, and blogs, and Facebook, which are what you've got when you don't necessarily have the New York Times. But there's a longer case to be made about why ignoring genre fiction by women while covering mysteries and thrillers and sci-fi and horror is sexist and short-sighted and bad business, and I’ve been making it for years.

There was this piece in the Guardian.

This interview in the Huffington Post.

Here is an NPR interview!

Here's a Salon Q and A, where I discuss Franzen's dealings with Oprah, and the damage it did to women writers.

A New Republic response
to Franzen's latest run at me, explaining that Twitter is not just a place for self-promotion -- that, in fact, self-promotion is the last thing smart writers do there.

This blog post, back in 2010, when the Times turned itself into Franzen’s personal PR machine, running an easy dozen pieces before FREEDOM had even been published, sending a reporter to cover a cocktail party in his honor.

So what should a book review do? Should it be a mirror, reflecting back popular tastes? Is it a stern uncle waving a scolding finger, dragging us away from Harry Potter by the ear and insisting that we read Philip Roth instead, or a nanny telling us we have to eat our spinach before we're allowed dessert? Is it possible to be some combination?...

Disdaining romance while reviewing mysteries and thrillers; speaking about quote-unquote chick lit from a position of monumental ignorance while heaping praise on men who write about relationships and romance; maintaining the sexist double standard that puts Mary Gaitskill and Caitlin Macy in the Style section and puts Charles Bock or Jonathan Safran Foer in the magazine…all of these are symptoms of a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.

For those who don’t feel like clicking, here is the short version of my credo, my This I Believe.

I believe that genre fiction by women deserves the same treatment and respect as genre fiction by men. If an outlet like the Times is going to review mysteries and science fiction, either because it believes that the readers of those books are important enough to acknowledge, or because it thinks those books have something to say about the world and the way we live now, then it darn well better review romance and “chick lit.”

Declining to cover the books that women read is another way of making women invisible – women writers, women readers. It silences voices, erases an audience, sends the message that women’s stories don’t matter (or matter only enough to show up in the Style section).

I believe that literary fiction by women deserves the same treatment and respect as literary fiction by men. There is no reason I can fathom for a place like Harper’s or The Atlantic or The New Yorker to run three times as many stories by men as by women, or review three times as many books by men as by women.

I believe that these two beliefs are different.

I do not believe that genre fiction is the same as literary fiction.

I don’t think that what I’m doing and what Franzen’s doing are the same thing.

I do not weep bitter tears when The Paris Review ignores my books, because The Paris Review does not review John Grisham or Dan Brown or Stephen King.

However! The New York Times does review those guys. It should review books like mine. And now it does!

As upsetting as it was to know that our Great American Novelist and his pals have such a low opinion of me, as painful as I find it to picture Franzen on a stage dismissing the work I’ve done with a snide “good for her,” it’s nothing surprising or new. The smart set’s never had much use for my books, even if it’s been happy to capitalize on the gains that writers like me, and Jodi Picoult, and every other popular writer who’s spoken out for gender equity have achieved.

Luckily, the smart set doesn’t dictate readers’ choices (luckily, there are lots of people who like my books, even if Franzen's never met them).

Nor does the smart set tell New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul how to do business. Under Paul’s leadership, the Times had gotten more diverse, more welcoming, more interesting, I’d argue, and I don’t think they’ve had to sacrifice quality to do it.

The Times’ tent has gotten bigger. There’s room for books like mine, which is all I’ve ever wanted for myself. There are more women writing reviews, more women's books being reviewed, which is exactly what I've wanted for my fellow women writers.

There is Vida, and its yearly count, putting editors on notice, forcing them to defend their abysmal ratios and, with any luck, seek to improve them, which is good news for women writers, and, I think for all readers.

The Times has changed, and the times will continue to change. All of this undoubtedly causes Franzen great dismay, and longing for a time before Twitter, where he and his friends were the ones who decided whose books mattered, whose voices merited an audience, who deserved to be part of the conversation, who got to move the bar.

Franzen can call me a freeloader and a self-promoter, whine about which way I rub him, turn up his nose at my books. It won't turn back the clock, un-invent Twitter, erase the Internet, or take back the power it's given those of us who are not Jonathan Franzen.

Women writers – even the ones whose work Franzen disdains – have a platform, and a place at the table. Our voices are being heard, and the world -- at least the tiny corner of it that cares about books, and book reviews -- is changing.

There’s no going back.

In a story in yesterday's New York Times, Tara Mohr wrote about how women handle criticism that began with an anecdote about performance reviews. “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only two percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.”

The bottom line? “If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized – with comments not just about her work but also about herself,” Mohr wrote. Those comments can have a devastating impact. “Criticism stings for all of us, but women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable. By the time a girl reaches adolescence, she’ll most likely have watched hundreds of films, television shows and advertisements in which a woman’s destiny is determined not by her own choices but by how she is perceived by others. In those hundreds of stories, we get the message: What other people think and say about us matters, a lot.” In the Age of the Internet, where everyone with a phone or a laptop has a soap box, “this criticism often also becomes vulgar, sexualized and angry.”

Vulgar, sexualized and angry. All of that should sound familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to literary criticism and the latest Internet explosion.

On Thursday night, literary blogger Ed Champion unleashed a series of tweets at the novelist Porochista Khakpour, saying that unless she apologized for removing his post from her Facebook page, he'd publish the name of a man who'd allegedly taken nude photos of her, without her permission.

If Champion's name sounds familiar, that's because in June, Champion published an 11,000 word takedown of Emily Gould and the “middling Millenials,” which was less a review of Gould’s first novel, FRIENDSHIP, than a review of Gould herself.

It was not a good review. Champion reduced Gould to an animal, describing her as “a dim bulb,” “a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite,” and, most infamously, a “minx” with her “head so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.”

The response, in both cases, was loud and almost unanimous. Champion, the public agreed, had gone too far. In June, he threatened suicide, pledged to go off-line, disappeared for a while, then came back and appeared to be on good behavior…until late last Thursday. This time, Twitter suspended his account, and Champion hasn't been heard from since.

It’s a great illustration of social media doing exactly what social media at its best should do – defending the victims, putting wrongdoers on notice, giving people a platform to talk about what they’d suffered and what steps should be taken.

But, while we look at the specifics and the individuals, it's also worth considering the general, and the big picture. Ed Champion’s words and actions did not appear in a vacuum. They happened in the context of literary criticism as it is now; in a climate where it is acceptable and commonplace for mainstream critics to conflate characters with their female creators, to review not just books but women, and to find them wanting.

We saw it when Alessandra Stanley clumsily tried to praise television producer Shonda Rhimes, first by calling her an angry black woman and then assuming that all of the characters that bore a superficial resemblance to Rhimes (that would be the black ones) were merely versions of their creator.

In his review of Caitlin Moran’s HOW TO BUILD A GIRL Dwight Garner assumed the book’s heroine was a version of Moran herself, an “uncool girl from the hinterlands” who used pluck and smarts to pull herself up and out. Even in a largely positive review, Garner couldn’t resist swiping at Moran for her failure to be Jennifer Egan or Zadie Smith,the same way James Woods seems powerless to resist telling Donna Tartt that it’s not too late for her to put away her childish things and become "the very different writer she might still choose to become."

In a review of Anya Ulinich’s LENA FINKLE’S MAGIC BARREL, we get author = protagonist again, with Claudia la Rocca noting that Ulinich’s “life on paper bears a striking resemblance” to her heroine’s, and telling us that Finkle is “nothing if not a narcissist,” deluded enough to believe that there’s an audience for a 361-page illustrated exploration of her sex life. The book gets praised, faintly – “it’s a fast read but not a dumb one…pitched toward the same pop culture consumers who are drawn into the best serial shows.”

(Side note: there’s a dissertation, or at least a listicle, to be written about book critics who truly believe that comparing someone’s novel to TV is absolutely positively the most damning insult you could deliver).

Author-as-protagonist showed up again and again in reviews of Gould's FRIENDSHIP, where the working assumption was that the blogger heroine of the book was a slightly-altered version of Gould. This gave reviewers permission to write about Gould’s life, to quote from old blog posts and interviews, not the book, to make it all about her instead of about what she’d created.

And It Happened To Me. In a “close reading” of my work – the kind of critical attention that Salon book critic Laura Miller sneered I “demand” Miller wrote that an “obsession with prestige and exclusion haunts (my) characters” and is mirrored by my own “craving’ for the NYT’s “validation.” Miller wrote that she “found (her)self praying” that a character “portrayed with…cruelty” wasn’t based on anyone real. She slammed my “fictional alter ego” for “ingratitude and selfishness,” and wrote that Cannie Shapiro, “like Weiner herself” resents all the people she imagines to be looking down on (her).” There’s not even a question that Cannie might be fictional; not even a hint of doubt that Cannie is me. Nor is there any sense that a book review should review the book, instead of asking whether or not you’d enjoy hanging out with its heroine and whether you find her likable -- even though Miller has previously been quite insistent that likability is not the criterion by which a critic should judge a woman's work. Miller’s point wasn’t just that I write bad books and that they’re about bad people, but that I, myself, am ungrateful, selfish and cruel.…and, look out, because she’s got the nine-year-old blog posts to prove it!

If women aren’t really writers, just reporters; if their characters aren’t really characters, just lightly fictionalized version of themselves, it stands to reason that critics review not the books but the women themselves. Female authors cease to exist as people and become merely text. They can be dissected, investigated, critiqued, picked over and pulled apart, without fear of consequence. They are fair game. They are things. Shonda Rhimes isn't Shonda Rhimes, she's the Angry Black Woman. Anya Ulinich isn't Anya Ulinich, she is a Great Female Narcissist, and I am a status-obsessed mean girl, and Emily Gould is a “snarky little trollop” (that's not from Ed Champion's piece, but from an anonymous blog comment quoted in Michiko Kakutani’s review of FRIENDSHIP in the New York Times).

A bad review is a review of a book. As scathing as it was, William Giraldi’s much-discussed review of Alix Ohlin confined itself to the work, not the woman.

Compare that piece to Giraldi’s attack on FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY, which was really a bad review not of the books but of EL James, and, to a lesser but still troubling extent, her readers. Romance as a genre is a “mind-stinging preponderance of crap,” and James is a “charlatan amorist” who doesn’t have a right to her nom de plume. “I’m made distinctly queasy by uttering the sacral American surname when referring to this empress of inanity,” sniffs Giraldi, “so let’s use her real name, Erika Leonard. She who has done so much to help debase our culture should stand revealed.”

Why do critics write book reviews?

John Updike believed that the critic and the writer share a role and social responsibility – “to life people up, not lower them down.” “Thoughtful criticism,” Updike wrote, “is in itself an art and a creative act.”

Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the modern era’s most respected critics, agreed. In “A Critic’s Manifesto,” he wrote that that the critics he read growing up were not “trying to persuade me to actually see this or that performance, buy this or that volume or take in this or that movie... all of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.”

Clearly, there’s a gap between what criticism is supposed to be and what it’s become. Whether it's Giraldi’s take on the “moronic craze” and “drooling enthusiasm” for the FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY books, Kakutani’s assessment of Gould's heroine as “narcissistic, entitled, self-dramatizing, snide, self-pitying and frequently petty, prideful and envious, “ Miller’s reading of me as resentful and ungrateful and my heroine as “obsessed with prestige and exclusion,” Champion’s calling Gould a “torrid hoyden hopped up on spite” – there’s something else going on.

These are not reviews as art. These are not reviews meant to enrich or enlighten, or steer readers toward or away from a purchase.

These are reviews meant to shame and silence. When William Giraldi writes that E.L. James “she should stand revealed” or a critic tweets her review at its subject to make sure she sees it, or a book blogger threatens to release the name of the man who took nude photos of a novelist, the intent is the same – I see you for what you really are, and I will reveal you. I will expose you. I will shame you. I will shut you up.

What happens when a woman writes a book and finds not her work but herself on the reviewer’s chopping block? What happens when you get called a “torrid hoyden” or a big fat meanie, or when someone says, “apologize or I’m going to expose you?”

Porochista Khakpour spent a chunk of her weekend in a police station. She cancelled a class she was going to teach.

Emily Gould wrote, “I have a hard time even talking about how terrible the week that he published that rant was for me. A lot of people have tried to tell em that the net effect was positive for my book, but it put me in a position of talking about that rant instead of talking about the book. I hate that. I hate that that happened. I’ll never get that week or month or set of opportunities back; he poisoned them all. The worst part is that as cartoonishly evil and misogynistic and mentally ill as he is, there are still people are are like “well, it was a book review.” “Critics are allowed to call someone a bad writer.” Or worse, that it was a “subtweet war” or a “literary fued.” It was none of those things. It was an attack on women, meant to make us feel threatened and fundamentally unsafe in the online and physical spaces we inhabit. It is so bonkers that we even have to point that out or defend that point of view still, now, in 2014.
I felt fear doing events around publication. Not stage fright, fear for my physical safety. Instead of planning celebrations I was arranging with bookstores and my publisher for adequate security at events. I felt worried that the location of my apartment had been revealed in so many profiles. It’s not like I experienced physical trauma or was tortured but I felt under attack. This wasn’t something that “happened on the Internet” or something that could have been avoided by “just unplugging.” Talking to readers, doing events, and promoting books online is my job. I still haven’t sorted out what kind of damage was done.”

As for me? I wish I could tell you that I was savvy enough to recognize that I was getting trolled with a piece of click-bait that was so clearly meant to shame me and to shut me up for what it was and thick-skinned enough to ignore it, even as respected critics and writers gleefully retweeted the piece, and Miller accepted giddy Twitter high-fives for writing it. But I’d be lying.

I wasn't afraid that someone was going to show up at a reading and do me harm. I was ashamed. I felt awful. I felt like canceling my upcoming book tour.

Whether it’s an enraged blogger likening you to an animal, or a well-connected book critic calling you a bitch, the story ends with another woman not giving the talk, not teaching the class, not hitting “publish” on the blog post.

Tara Mohr believes that women need to learn to handle criticism, to unhook themselves from the ingrained need to please. But if we've got to learn how to take it, maybe it's time for critics to learn to do a better, or at least less sexist job of dishing it out.

While this is, of course, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, it is also the time I typically spend counting and grumbling.

I count the number of books reviewed that were written by women, and the number of women writers profiled in the Times, and then I grumble when those numbers turn out to be significantly lower than the number of male authors whose works and selves got that consideration.

It's interesting that this willingness to count and to talk about the results means that I just might be, in the eyes of no less venerated an institution than The Nation, the "most aggrieved of the bestselling novelist" in all the land.

So, the breakdown: railing against social media and Amazon and name-checking fellow novelists for having "succumbed" to Twitter? A-okay! Pointing out that there are gaping inequities between the number of men and the number of women getting published and reviewed? Bitch, bitch, bitch.

In the three years since individuals and organizations have been doing the count-and-grumble, not much has improved. I’m sure I could run the numbers right now and come up with predictably grim tallies…but this was a year where a lot of things went right.

Under the leadership of Pamela Paul, who took over last April, the New York Times Book Review has become a more inclusive, more embracing, more interesting place.

Interspersed with the typical big-boy heavy hitters whose tastes are probed and recommendations sought in the “By the Book” feature are pop-culture figures from Penn, of Penn and Teller, to Sting. Popular writers like Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson alternate with Tom Perrotta and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Bestselling authors have gotten the cover treatment. Hey, there’s Stephen King! Look, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert!

Paul’s Book Review has even found room for the kind of commercial fiction whose presence has long been limited to the bestseller list. Each week, the Book Review publishes "The Short List," capsule reviews of books grouped by subject or genre…which means that if you’re a woman who writes genre fiction that isn’t mysteries (those are still covered by Marilyn Stasio’s column,) you’ve got a chance at getting some notice.

As a whole, 2013 was a good year for ladies at the Times. Women wrote big books, and they got the kind of two-reviews-and-a-profile attention that’s long been lavished on the Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran-Foer).

This year, Meg Wolitzer, Claire Messud, Kate Atkinson, Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt all joined the two-reviews-plus club. Of the paper’s five best novels of 2013, four were written by women.

Predictably, Paul’s revamp prompted a certain amount of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching literary quarters.

A woman whose debut novel got scads of press (and two NYT reviews) fretted that it just wasn’t fair that commercial fiction, which already gets all the readers, would “dominate” the book review section, too.

Other literary ladies sniffed that they simply couldn’t find the energy to get worked up over questions of who gets covered, and how, and where, while one book publicist memorably tweeting that she was too busy selling books to waste time on “literary fueds.”

Many of the got-no-time-for-it ladies, big surprise, are the ones who are currently reviewed by the Times, published in the New Yorker and, in one case, short-listed for the women-only Orange Prize (it takes a special kind of chutzpah to declare yourself above the gender fray while you’re happily collecting accolades and cash that are only available because other women pointed out inequities and fought for ways to address them).

Other defenders of the status quo worried that if commercial writers succeeded in getting coverage in the NYTBR, it would result in the total absence of gatekeepers, a lowering of the what-deserves-attention bar so radical that anything could clear it, resulting in a boring book review.

It's early days but, so far, none of the worst-case scenarios have come to pass.

Boring, of course, is in the eye of the beholder...but I'd submit that brilliant book plus smart reviewer does not always equal a great piece of criticism. Too often, what you end up with is lengthy, tendentious criticism in which the critic unloads every literary reference and four-syllable word in his or her arsenal in an attempt to prove that he or she is as smart as the author under consideration.

Nor has a page’s worth of capsule reviews once a week in the Times meant that serious writers of fiction are no longer getting their due. That worried debut novelist, for example, hasn't had any trouble getting the Times to publish her beer preferences in the Sunday Magazine.

As for the fear of a world without gatekeepers, at The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review have proved themselves more than capable of distinguishing between a big, important novel and a piece of self-published Wookie erotica.

The New Yorker is still publishing Lionel Shriver and Jeffrey Eugenides. The Paris Review is still publishing Lydia Davis and Rachel Cusk. The New York Times might do capsule reviews of best sellers, but it is still spending more of its resources calling attention to quieter, less accessible fare that might otherwise be overlooked.

None of this is new...and all of it's okay. Sure, the VIDA numbers at these publications are nothing short of appalling, and literary magazine could do a better job of actively seeking out and encouraging young women writers to submit their work...but, as long as People and Entertainment Weekly cover popular fiction, editors at The Paris Review and The New Yorker are welcome to confine their attention to highbrow books.

Three years after the start of a conversation about why the Times was writing so many stories about Jonathan Franzen while giving literary women writers short shrift, ignoring commercial women writers completely and implicitly telling readers of romance and chick lit that they weren't welcome, the Times has shown that it is, in fact, capable of changing.

Most readers make room on their shelves for a variety of books -- capital-L literature, graphic novels, science fiction, mysteries and beach reads and beloved childhood favorites. It's been great -- and gratifying -- to watch The New York Times make room on its pages for a similar bounty.

My third annual Halloween e-short story, "Disconnected," goes on sale Monday - it'll be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and wherever fine e-books are sold. (And if you don't have an e-reader? Buy it here, and read it on your laptop or your phone!)

Here's a little taste...

"Get a new phone number,” they had told her, along with “go to a meeting your first day out,” and “do ninety in ninety,” and “find a sponsor,” and “find a home group,” and “the only thing you have to change is everything.” Feeling as skinless as a peeled egg, Shannon vowed that this time, she’d follow directions. She was almost thirty years old, hardly a kid anymore, and she had been in and out of rehab six times already, not that anyone was counting.

Besides, this last time she’d almost died. They’d Narcanned her in the hospital. She’d come surging up and out of the darkness with tubes up her nose, a needle buried in the crook of her elbow, and a terrified-looking nurse leaning over her, saying, “God, we almost lost you!”

I’m done, Shannon had decided, lying on the narrow gurney in the ER while a homeless man vomited into his lap and two cops stood guard over a bloodied woman handcuffed to her bed. I am really and truly done. By then she had lost her dignity, her money, her job as an editorial assistant at Paragon Press. For the past three years she had supported herself writing blog posts for a site called Busted! that had started its life as an aggregator of celebrity mug shots. She had studied with Jane Smiley in graduate school, she'd once received a semi-encouraging rejection letter from The New Yorker (“This isn’t quite right for us, but please try again”). Now she spent her days scanning electronic police-department databases for the faces of the famous, the formerly famous, the almost famous, and the reality-TV famous, as well as scribbing snarky comments across the thighs and torsos of actors and singers who’d gained weight and then had the temerity to appear in public in spite of it.

Ten posts a day netted her five hundred dollars a week. She’d given up her apartment, the few pieces of non-Ikea furniture that she’d acquired. Busted! did not offer its employees health insurance, which meant that the hospital was eager to see her backside. After they’d moved her to a room, another nurse had come in with a rape kit. She and Shannon had had a quiet conversation, and then the nurse had left with the kit, still sealed in plastic, in her hands. What had happened to her wasn’t rape, Shannon had decided. It can’t be rape if they pay you when it’s over.

From the hospital she’d gone back into an overwarm October night and thence to rehab—a low-end one, a place where they sent people on welfare who had no money to go anyplace better. After twenty-eight days, she’d taken the Chinatown bus to Manhattan, then the subway to Brooklyn. There was a ten-thirty meeting in the basement of St. Patrick’s in Bay Ridge. She went there because she knew there was a T-Mobile store just down the street, and also that the meeting, which she’d found when she’d gone to meetings the year before, often had doughnuts or cookies—important if you had little money and no food. Ever since she’d left rehab, Shannon found that she was hungry all the time, craving processed flour and white sugar, big mouthfuls of cheap sweet stuff, food that could fill you and hold you in place like an anchor.

She arrived while the two dozen attendees were mumbling through the preamble, and dumped powdered creamer and sugar into a cup of coffee until she’d created what looked like a latte. There were cinnamon-dusted doughnuts, and she stuffed two into her pockets and devoured a third before taking a seat in a folding chair toward the back of the room. It was a speaker meeting. The woman behind the podium, a trembly sixtysomething with short brown hair and orthopedic sneakers with white laces tied in neat bows, told the story about how she’d been hooked on Vicodin. When her doctor wouldn’t renew her prescription, she began buying pills from a neighbor. Her habit had crept slowly from being once a week to once a day to all day, every day, until she had slept through the pickup at her grand- daughter’s preschool. That, she said, was her rock bottom. That was when she decided to get help. Shannon licked cinnamon off her fingers while the woman dug tissues out of her bag. She wondered what would happen if she told them the things that she’d done, the things that had been done to her. There was a line she’d read in a book somewhere, about how if a woman told the truth about her life, the world would crack open. She wasn’t sure about the world, but she suspected that such truth-telling could prove mightily disruptive at an AA meeting.

She was thinking about getting another doughnut when she saw a man with a spiderweb tattooed on his neck squinting through the dusty church light like he wasn’t quite sure he was seeing her or not. Shannon didn’t recognize him, but that meant nothing. He could have been someone she’d dated or someone she’d fucked for drugs, or maybe even someone she had known in college, the good old days when she’d been young and bright and full of promise, when her short stories had won prizes, when drugs were just something that showed up, or didn't, at a party on a Saturday night, and she didn’t think of them between one appearance and the next.

She dropped a dollar in the basket for the Seventh Tradition, and when she turned she was unsurprised to see the spiderweb guy sitting next to her. “You new?” he whispered. Shannon considered the question. New to the program? New to this meeting?

Of course, big surprise, the guy didn’t want to hear her story. He wanted to tell her his own, which was a variation on every junkie’s story that she’d heard. Shannon tuned it out as the guy recited the particulars: “. . . and then he’s like, ‘You aren’t gonna believe this stuff,’ and I was all, ‘Hey, wasn’t this on the news last week? Aren’t people dying from it?’ It was fucked up, I know, but all I thought was, okay, this is gonna be super-strong, so I’m gonna get super-high, and the next thing you know . . .” He pursed his lips, an endearing little-boy-ish gesture, and made a popping sound. “Next thing you know, you’re, like, flat-lining in the ambulance.”

Shannon gave him a distracted smile. “Yeah, they Narcanned me,” she said. The guy tipped an imaginary hat.
“Respect,” he said. Shannon smiled and tried not to think about how she’d once gotten an A plus in a class on modern British poets, how the professor had written her a letter of recommendation saying that in his decade of teaching, she’d been his most promising student.

At the center of the circle, the leader cleared his throat. Shannon bent her head and closed her eyes as the guy at her side finally subsided, then spoke the words of the Serenity Prayer.

My goodness! October already!

It's been a busy few months around here, right?

My kids started school. Then they both got lice. I feel like my life has been an endless cycle of combing, rinsing, washing, and calling the professional nit-pickers.

I went on "The Today Show," where I talked about un-kosher chickens and sanitary napkins and why women are so hard on each other about baby weight, and how that really needs to stop. Missed it? Here's the link!

Jeffrey Eugenides, who teaches Creative Writing at my alma mater, told Salon that he didn't know why Jodi Picoult would be the one "bellyaching" about the disparity between the ways men's and women's books were treated. I emailed him to try to explain why, sending him a link to the VIDA count, explaining that the women he was teaching would likely graduate into a world where their work was less likely to be published and reviewed than that of their male peers.

After Eugenides said he wasn't presented with the Vida stats -- that, essentially, the reporter slipped in a question about gender and genre at the end of an interview, than made it the centerpiece of the interview -- I suggested that he might want to say so, in as public a place as he made the "bellyaching" remark. Not "Say you were wrong!" like I'm the Feminist Crusader Thought Police (now meeting at my house, after "30 Rock") and he's a goatee'd desperado, but just "maybe say you didn't have all of the information when you answered the question." At which point, Professor Eugenides, who'd proposed getting together for a beer so he could explain why he said what he said, stopped returning my emails...and the head of the Creative Writing department, which I've supported, with my gratitude and my yearly contributions, said, "We can't make him listen to you, now bug off and go away." (I'm paraphrasing).

Over at NPR, Linda Holmes wrote a piece called "Women, Men and Fiction: On How Not To Answer Hard Questions," which brilliantly explained all of the reasons why who gets reviewed, and where, and how often, continues to be an issue, and how many ways, in a few short paragraphs, Eugenides misses so much of the point (as Holmes writes, when you say that you've "heard about" an issue, "That's a red flag. You usually don't want to ask anyone to respond in any depth to an argument he's "heard about."")

Jodi and I wrote a letter to the editor of the campus paper trying, again, to explain where we stand, and why... and I'm trying to let it go. Will let you know how that turns out, to let this serve as the universe's reminder that authors are not their books, and some perfectly wonderful work's been written by people who were bigots, anti-Semites, and just jerks in general in their day. Maybe some day I'll have better luck changing the mind of a man at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, or at least getting him to think about who gets covered, and where, and how.

What else? I wrote piece for Allure about "The F-Word," about growing up fat, and being prepared with a speech for a kid who got taunted for her weight...but being completely un-prepared when that same kid used the f-word to describe another girl.

It was a hard piece to write, because it meant thinking about a hard part of my life. You can read all about it right here...and it looks like next week I might be taping a talk show about it. Of course, I got the email, and the first thing Mrs. Love Your Body As It Is thinks is, 'How much weight can I lose between now and next week?" Some things never change. Oh, and I'm working on another spooky short story that'll be available in e-form just in time for Halloween. It does not involve lice. It does involve a woman who hits the bestseller list after her husband, a Great Man of American Letters, dies, and she writes a memoir about their life together. Everything's fine...until her agent starts asking about her next book.

Stay tuned for details, and stay away from lice!

Media blitz!

THE NEXT BEST THING -- which I am quite proud of -- came out on Tuesday.

On Friday, I showed up on "The Today Show," dishing about the book, "The Bachelor," and my summer reading list with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford.

No, I was not offered booze.

No, I'm not bitter.

Then, this morning, I was on NPR, talking gender imbalance in book reviews, why it's tough for women in writers' rooms, and how to cast a goat for your sit-com (turns out, in Hollywood, the goats have head shots).

Here's a link to the audio:

Thanks to the helpful "Bachelorette" producers, I have figured out a way to BEND TIME ITSELF, so I can tweet "The Bachelorette" while I'm at my reading at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble, at 150 East 86th Street, at 7 p.m. tomorrow night.

The rest of my tour dates are all right here. Cupcakes will be provided, and I hope to see lots of you there. In vests. Wear a vest, win a prize!

Lots of exciting stuff happening with THE NEXT VEST -- er, BEST THING! (Have you bought it yet? You totally should! The first chapter's right here, and here is a lovely Kirkus review!)

I taped "The Today Show" yesterday,and got to dish about "The Bachelorette," hot summer reads, and what it's like to tell your mom that your first book is going to be published, only it's called GOOD IN BED.

The way it happened was kind of amazing...turns out, Hoda Kotb is on Twitter is a fan of my "Bachelorette" tweets! So a few Mondays ago, when Em and the boys were having their Scottish games in Croatia, she tweeted "everyone must follow the funny Jennifer Weiner," and my sister, who's also on Twitter -- and have you seen her video "Eye of the Cougar" yet? -- said, "Hoda Kotb just tweeted at you!"

So I wrote back something along the lines of "OMG! You follow me!," and shamelessly begged her to allow me on her show "And vwolla!" as my four-year-old likes to say.

The segment is scheduled to air in the ten o'clock hour on Friday, July 6, but for all I know, Brad and Angie could decide to make their union legal tonight, and I could end up in Bumpsville, population, Me. But I'll keep you posted.

Also, I am wearing a LOT of fake hair in the segment. Like, Lady Godiva-length extensions. It was fun!

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to tape "CBS Sunday Morning," where I'll be recommending five great books for summer. If you follow me on Twitter, you can probably guess a few of them already, but a few are surprises. I hope you'll enjoy the books, and that I'll keep it together on camera (no wardrobe malfunctions, no mispronouncing authors' names, spitting while talking, etc).

Then I'm zipping over to NPR's studios to tape "Weekend Edition," where I'll talk about THE NEXT BEST THING and maybe what it feels like to don the Vest of Literary Legitimacy, which my assistant found on the clearance rack of Men's Wearhouse in Philadelphia.

What else? I'm in Philadelphia Magazine, complaining about men spitting on the sidewalk (so not okay!), and how I met Bill Clinton when I was a nubile eighteen-year-old college freshman (all I did was shake his hand). The title of the book is slightly wrong -- it's THE NEXT BEST THING, not THE NEXT BIG THING -- but you knew that already, right?

Finally, because I have the most amazing publicist in the world, I am also in the August issue of O Magazine, talking about the five books that made a difference to me. There's girlhood favorites, A WRINKLE IN TIME and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, the wonderfully weird GEEK LOVE, and the two books I picked up as a young woman that were frank and funny and honest and sexy and made me believe that, maybe, someday, I, too, could be a writer: Erica Jong's FEAR OF FLYING, and the late, great Nora Ephron's CRAZY SALAD: SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT WOMEN.

When I made my picks, months ago, I had no idea that Ephron was unwell...and while I am heartbroken that we won't get to read any more of her sharp, trenchant essays, I'm glad I got a chance to mention her book and let the world know how much she meant to me, and to the generation of female writers and bloggers who would follow in her footsteps, taking on Nora's kind of topics: cooking, body anxiety, being so in love that you talk in a tiny little hamster-voice to your beloved (who, of course, hamster-answers you right back).

So! After the NPR taping I'll be zipping back home to remind my kids that they have an actual, breathing mother instead of just a Skype image on a screen, and then the book tour starts in NYC on Monday night. All my dates are right here, there will be yummy cupcakes from local bakeries at each event, and I hope to see lots of you out there...and remember, wear a vest, go home with a cute tote bag or towel!

(And yes, I know that many of you live too far away from the readings to show up in a vest. I'm busily trying to think of some kind of contest or giveaway, so please check back!)

I hope you're all having a wonderful Fourth. Happy Independence Day, happy picnicking and barbecuing, and happy reading.

Wow! Who knew that all you needed to do to get noticed by The New York Times was wear a silly vest?

Don't forget, today's the last day to enter the win-a-book-club-visit contest (scroll down for details). We'll be picking the winner tomorrow night.

And! When one of my Twitter followers volunteered to wear a vest to my reading, I thought,"That's worth a prize! So! If you wear a vest to one of my readings -- the schedule's listed here -- you will get a cute tote bag or beach towel (also pictured below).

Have a wonderful weekend. Keep cool. And remember the point of all these funny ads and fun contests: THE NEXT BEST THING goes on sale on Tuesday. I'm really, really proud of it...and I'd be really, really grateful if you got yourself a copy.

Time Magazine says it's "utterly engaging." Kirkus says it's unsparing in "exposing Hollywood’s sexism, ageism and incurable penchant for extravagant silliness." Library Journal raves "full of warm and interesting characters as well as a wealth of insider industry detail (Weiner was a cocreator of an ABC Family sitcom), this is a must-read for Weiner’s many fans and anyone who enjoys smart, funny fiction.

You can read the first chapter of THE NEXT BEST THING here...and you can order it anywhere books are sold.

So, what if you were a novelist, hoping and praying for your new book to take off?

Why, you'd don Jeffrey Eugenides' billboard-famous vest...

And then you'd make your own billboards....

You'd buy ads on literary websites....

And hope that people would notice! And that it would go viral -- or, as your mother says, "virile!"

By golly, it's The Next Vest Thing!

When a smart reader suggested showing up in a vest to one of my readings, I thought, well, that deserves a prize!

Like, perhaps, a cute tote bag!

Or an adorable beach towel!

My tour dates are all right here...and, of course, you can pre-order your copy of THE NEXT BEST THING!

The week before your book comes out is always equal parts excitement and stress…and this week’s been especially difficult.

On Monday, Tablet Magazine published a piece attacking my books and heroines for being insufficiently Jewish. Basically (and you have to understand, the article was so unkind -- it ended by comparing me to Alex Portnoy’s baton-twirling dim-bulb of a girlfriend -- that I kind of skimmed it with one eye open), the author’s assertion is that I’m whitewashing (goy-washing?) my characters to make them more palatable for a non-Jewish audience.


I don’t think that’s the case.

If I wanted to attract a mainstream, non-Jewish audience, why have Jewish characters and Jewish holidays and Jewish situations at all? Why include bat mitzvahs, Chanukah latkes and shiva calls? If I’m doing it on purpose, why not go all the way?

The characters I write are just as Jewish as I am. I was raised Reform, I consider myself observant, and I just cringe at the notion that I’m being a bad Jew by writing characters who aren’t Jewish enough for Tablet’s taste.

I can’t do anything but be true to myself, to my own experiences, and to the stories I want to tell and the women I want to talk about.

On Monday, I sulked. “Shiksa lit?” Seriously? (A shiksa, for the uninformed, is a more-than-slightly-derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman: as in, “Oy! Adam Sandler! I loved him, until he married that shiksa!”)

On Tuesday, I decided, in the grand Jewish tradition, to rap.

“I’m Jew-y as Bette Midler/Jew-ier than “Fiddler.”/ And if my books are “shiksa lit?”/Sandusky’s not a diddler.”


“’Shiksa lit/ What is that sh*t?/I’m a Jewish locavore, and when I make borscht/ My beets (and my beats) are all locally sourced.”

And now, I am offering you this deal.

Pre-order a copy of THE NEXT BEST THING. You can get it from Amazon! From Barnes & Noble! Indiebound will direct you to the independent bookseller of your choice.

Tell me you did so on Twitter or Facebook. (No receipts necessary; I’ll take your word for it).

Then, I will write you a Jewish rap, thus establishing my Tribe cred to the three people who were worried about it.


First, can I kvell?

There is an amazing billboard of my new book!

My book! On billboards! Hold me!

Thanks to @AmayaWritesNYC for the picture. When I’m in New York, the week of the 9th, I’ll for sure pose in front of it…but meanwhile, if any of you New Yorkers want to send me a shot of you doing the same, I’d love to post them!

Also, a reminder-- you can still win me for your book club! Details and contest rules here.

THE NEXT BEST THING comes out a week from today. The tour starts a week after that. You know what it’s time for? Praying for no horrible breakouts between now and then, making sure my Spanx and my shoes and my Sharpies are in order, and loading my e-reader with enough books to keep me happy as I make my way from New York City to Pasadena (you can find my tour dates here).

1. BETWEEN YOU AND ME by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

I picked this up (okay, snatched it off my editor’s shelf) expecting it to be delicious, dishy fun, a perfect poolside read. And it was…but it was so much deeper, so much darker, so much more than that. (It also has, hands-down, one of the best book trailers I’ve ever seen. I don’t normally believe that book trailers do squat for selling books, but this one? Is great.

Kelsey Wade is a child-star turned star-star, a singing, dancing, world-beating show-stopper of a girl. Logan is her cousin, struggling with the usual miseries of trying to make it in NYC (the bad first job, the guy who doesn’t call, then sends you thirty peonies. In January). She hasn’t seen cousin Kelsey in years, until she gets the call…and quickly gets sucked into the madhouse that is Kelsey’s world, standing by horrified and helpless as Kelsey slowly falls to pieces.

If you read the tabloids (and you bet I do), a lot of this will sound awfully familiar: the starlet who cheats on her former child-star boyfriend, marries one of her backup dancers, has (and loses custody) of a baby, and eventually ends up with her father as her conservator. But beyond the guess-who-don’t-sue element, there are the characters of Logan and Kelsey, who come alive on the page, existing as flesh-and-blood young women, each struggling with their own past, their own families, their own conflicted feelings about fame and love and what makes a good life.

2. YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE by Pamela Ribon

Ribon, better known to her fans as Pamie, was one of the flagship contributors to TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY, and a writer for Samantha Who? On July 3, she’ll publish her fourth novel, about two BFFs from a small Southern town. One of them escaped to Hollywood. The other stayed behind in Ogden, Louisiana. When they reunite for their annual girls’ vacation, Smidge tells Danielle a secret: her cancer’s come back. It’s terminal. And she wants Danielle to move back home and take over Smidge’s family after she dies.

This sounds like a book with all the elements I love: best friends, “found” families, Ribon’s trademark humor and vivid writing (the description of Smidge’s cancerous cough is heart-stopping). I can’t wait to dive in.

3. I COULDN’T LOVE YOU MORE by Jillian Medoff

You’ve heard me raving about this one for month, and with good reason: Medoff has assembled an unforgettable cast of characters, then thrown them an unwinnable dilemma, a Sophie’s Choice that no parent should ever have to face. Eliot is happily partnered, mother to one, stepmother to two, who starts questioning her choices when an old flame reappears, kicking off a chain of events that culminate in a gasp-out-loud twist. You can read more about it on Jillian’s website (, but trust me: this book? Is that good.

4. OFF THE MENU by Stacey Ballis

Yes, another pub-mate! I loved Stacey’s last book, GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT, about a woman who loses half her body weight – and, in short order, her husband –and has to build a new life from the ground up. This book looks just as lovable. It’s the story of Alanna Ostermann, assistant to a celebrity chef, a woman with a demanding job, an adorable dog (named Dumpling!), and a busy life that only gets busier when she meets a hot Southern transplant named R.J..

5. THE MIDDLESTEINS by Jami Attenberg

One of the perks of being a writer is you get to go to Book Expo America, where, if you are patient and persistent, you can wait in line and get signed copies of early editions of books that won’t be out until the fall. THE MIDDLESTEINS, boasting a blurb by Jonathan Franzen (!) won’t be out until October, and I feel like a little bit of a tease telling you how good it is, so I’ll just say: come fall, remember this title.

6. Molly Ringwald: WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU

Okay, I’m a sucker for a celebrity memoir/novel/whatever (see: earlier confession about tabloids), and I cannot wait to dive into Ringwald’s first collection of stories, set in Hollywood, that deal with infertility, failing marriages, a former child star trying to make a comeback. After my own year in Hollywood, I expect I’ll find plenty that will feel familiar…and, come on, it’s Molly Ringwald! How am I not going to read it?

7. THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY by Sere Prince Halverson

Another stepmother story that isn’t what you think. Take one happily-married wife, and her two stepdaughters, who’ve been essentially abandoned by their biological mother. Take her husband away from her. Then start unpeeling the layers, learning that things weren’t ever as simple as they seemed; that there are no monsters and no saints, just lots of flawed people and secrets. Kirkus called UNDERSIDE “a poignant debut about mothers, secrets and sacrifices…Halverson avoids sentimentality, aiming for higher ground in this lucid and graceful examination of the dangers and blessings of familiar bonds.”

8. THESE GIRLS by Sarah Pekkanen

Ever since Bridget Jones sailed to our shores, fretting about her extra lbs and whether handsome Mark Darcy liked her, someone in print or on the air has been declaring that quote-unquote chick lit is dead, dead, DEAD I TELL YOU DEAD!

Except, weirdly, even though the shelves aren’t as crammed with pink as they once were, there’s still an audience for stories about young women trying to make it in a big city – their jobs, their bosses, the men in their lives.

I’ve loved everything Sarah P has written (full disclosure –we share an editor. What can I say? My editor’s got great taste!) But this book took it to a new level. It’s about two women who work at a fashion magazine, and a third, a former nanny, running from a painful secret and an even worse family tragedy.

I loved this book. I especially loved the character Renee, who wants to be the beauty editor. She has to compete for the slot by running a blog full of helpful fashion tips…and ends up with anonymous commenters savaging her for her weight, and a problem with the black-market diet pills her model roommate left behind. As any woman who’s ever expressed an opinion on the Internet, only to be met with “how dare you tell anyone anything, fattie?” that part felt stingingly familiar (except for the model-roommate-illegal-diet-pill stuff). Engrossing characters, sharp writing, hot guys…what more could you want for the pool?

And finally…

9. Jeff Abbott, THE LAST MINUTE

My fourth 7/3 pub-mate, Jeff writes thrillers…and, because I love me some Robert Crais and Jonathan Kellerman, I can’t wait to give THE LAST MINUTE a try. It’s already getting raves, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called the book “outstanding…genuinely moving…hits full stride early on and never lets up.” And Jeff’s website has a countdown ticker!

As long-time blog readers may remember, there was a day when I would go to any book club, coffee klatch, mah-johng club or compulsive-gambling support group that invited me. I was a single lady, with one book and no kids, and if you wanted me, I was there.

Times have changed. Now, I have two little ones, plus a serious addiction to reality TV. If I said yes to one club, I reasoned, I'd have to say yes to them all...and so, reluctantly, I decided that, at least until the kids got bigger, I'd have to refuse all invitations.

However! In preparation for the new book, and to boost the all-important pre-sales figures (Stacey Ballis does a better job of explaining why they matter than I ever could), I am giving myself away to one lucky book club.

Here's the deal. You pre-order THE NEXT BEST THING.

You email your receipt to, along with your name and address and an email address where we can reach you.

On July 1, some random name-picking computer program chooses one lucky winner, and I will visit the winner's book club on a mutually agreed-upon date within the next 12 months.

The winner has to be in the continental US (I figure, if the winner was in Hawaii, people would figure I was cheating). In addition five runners-up (runner-ups?) will receive tote bags loaded with signed copies of my backlist and some extra, fun Philadelphia-centric treats. The full rules, complete with legal language that I barely understand, are right here. (Please note -- I know right now the fine print says the winner is responsible for my transportation and accommodation. That is not true! I will pay my own way and put myself up!
I do, however, reserve the right to use your guest-bathroom towels.
The good ones).

Q: But I ordered the book weeks ago!

A: No worries! Just dig up your receipt and send it in! (And if you can't find it, the honor system applies -- I am prepared to take your word that you have, in fact, ordered THE NEXT BEST THING).

Q: Do e-books count?

A: But of course! Order a hardcover, order an e-book, order the audio version (do you know that Olivia Thirlby, from "Juno," is reading it?). Whatever you prefer -- it all counts.

Q: But I don't belong to a book club!

A: No worries! Enter anyhow, and if you win,just round up five of your friends. We'll go out to dinner at a mutually agreed-upon restaurant and drink wine and talk about "The Bachelorette."

Q: But I'm broke!

A: I hear you. There is a "no purchase necessary" option, which means you can enter the sweepstakes by sending your name without a receipt to You can also email me a copy of your name on your local library's waiting list, and not only will you be entered, I'll ship your library a few extra copies of THE NEXT BEST THING after it's published.

Q: Is there anything I can do to increase my chances of winning? (In other words, can you be bribed?)

A: It's the random-picking computer, not me, that you'd be sending delicious baked goods or attaching flattering Amazon reviews won't help. However, if you want to send a picture of your book club with your entry, I'd love to see it, and I'll post all the shots on a Pinterest board. Fun!

Q: Is this book even any good?

A: Well, Time Magazine says it's "utterly engaging," and I'm very proud of it. It's the story of Ruth Saunders, star of the short story "Swim" (you may remember it, and her, from "The Guy Not Taken.") Ruth is twenty-eight when the show she's written gets the green-light, and she gets to cast, shoot, and, eventually, run her own sit-com before It All Goes Horribly Wrong. Plus, Ruth has a crush on her boss to contend with, her grandmother's impending nuptials to consider, and a cute little dog named Pocket. I think it's a return to GOOD IN BED form -- in both cases, the heroines are bright, damaged, smart-mouthed young women, dealing with physical issues (weight in Cannie's case, a badly-scarred face in Ruth's), cripplingly low self-esteem, dysfunctional families, professional success, romantic failure, and a lively, loving circle of friends and colleagues.

"Swim" is available for free wherever e-books are sold. You can find it at Simon & Schuster, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Sony e-bookstore, on iTunes and on Kobo.

You can also read the first chapter of THE NEXT BEST THING here.

So, once more, with feeling: pre-order the book from the retailer of your choice. Email your receipt to Full rules are spelled out here. Then sit tight and wait for July 1!

And please stay tuned. In the next few days, I'll be posting my summer reading list, with some great new authors you might not have heard about yet, so your beach bag need never be empty!


Let me start by saying that I know I’m kind of an odd choice to give this presentation.

While I’ve been happily published by Atria Books for twelve years and ten books, I’m not a publisher…although I’m happy to share whatever insights I can give you about that part of the world.

While I’ve been blogging since 2002, I’m not exactly a book blogger the way most of you are. My blog is as likely to talk about “The Bachelor” as it is the latest publishing news.

So…why me? Who am I, and why am I here?

I think what I bring to the table is my own success in the world social media. I think – I hope – that I’ve figured out a way to use my blog, and Facebook, and Twitter and Pinterest to have an ongoing conversation with my readers, not deliver a “buy my book” monologue.

When I sold my first book in 2000, there was no such thing as social media. Stephen King’s e-novella RIDING THE BULLET, which I remember downloading for 99 cents and reading on my desktop at work, was presumed to be future of e-books….and there were only the most primitive e-readers available.

Websites, weblogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kindles, Nooks and iPads…all of these have emerged in the last decade, and publishers, authors and readers have all been scrambling to figure out how to use these new technologies to connect books with readers.

Let’s start with the good news: there has never been a more exciting time to be part of the conversation about books and reading than right now.

Once upon a time, when I was a young reader, there was no conversation at all. There was instead a series of occasionally overlapping monologues, with critics, authors and readers, each in their separate spheres.

The critics would issue their edicts from on high.

The readers would discuss them, in real life and usually in private.

(That’s my mom’s book club, by the way. Notice what book they're NOT reading.

True story – when my first book was published, I took my mom with me on part of my book tour. I’d be in the store, introducing myself to the manager and the sales staff, signing stock, being friendly, doing my thing, and I’d hear my mother talking to other bookstore patrons. “I just read the best book!” she’d gush…and I’d smile, proudly. “It had everything – amazing writing, great plot, and it was funny.” Here it comes, I would think…and I’d turn around just in time to hear my mother say, “Richard Russo! Empire Falls! Hang on, I’ll help you find it!” I finally had to tell my mother that, unless she discovered that Mrs. Russo was up in Maine, pimping GOOD IN BED, she had to at least try to hand-sell one copy of my book for every one of his).

So: critics talked to readers. Readers talked to each other. And authors – well, authors were largely silent and voiceless between books. Presumably, they were holed up in their garrets or their New Hampshire compounds, working on their next opus.

Aside from a letter to the editor, a book tour or reading, visit a book club, or, if you were Norman Mailer or Richard Ford, spitting on a critic at a party, authors really didn’t have an avenue for responding to criticism or interacting with readers. If an author had something to say, she said it in her next book.

We had three separate spheres – critics, authors, and readers. All of them were talking. None of them could talk to each other.

And then along came the Internet.

Suddenly, readers could talk to authors.

Authors could talk to critics.

Authors could talk to other authors.

The critical landscape had been looking bleak. Now, that landscape has been revitalized. Now, anyone with a laptop and an opinion can call him or herself a critic, and publish a review on the book of the moment, or the book of twenty years ago, and talk, online, to other readers and maybe even critics and the author herself, about her opinion.

The world has opened up.

While the world was expanding, so was readers’ access to authors’ lives. No more was our knowledge of our favorite writer confined to what we could glean from the book jacket. Now, we can go to their websites (because, of course, their publishers insisted they had websites, not to mention Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts) and see pictures of their houses or their spouses; their vacation or their kids.

Readers can email them our thoughts on their latest book. We can Tweet at Judy Blume.

Just…let’s just all sit with that a minute. We can tweet at Judy Blume. And sometimes, she tweets back!

Of course, this brave new world of overlapping conversation and unprecedented access was not without its complications and growing pains.

Consider the rise and fall of the women I consider to be the world’s first book blogger: Oprah Winfrey.

Yes, okay, technically Winfrey didn’t have a book blog – she had a televised book club, launched in 1996, and lasting until 2010.

But if Toni Morrison can call Bill Clinton the first black president, and Newsweek can call Barack Obama the first gay president, then I can call Oprah Winfrey the world’s first book blogger.

Even though Oprah did not, technically, begin with a blog, her televised book club had all of the hallmakrs that would come to characterize book blogs in the next decades: a fresh, enthusiastic voice, a tone that was worlds apart from the educated dispassion and cool remove of book critics, dispensing judgment from on high.

Oprah didn’t sound like a critic. She sounded like a friend, the woman next to you at the soccer game or the carpool lane who couldn’t wait to tell you about the amazing book she’d just discovered, and how much she loved it, and how much you were going to love it, too. She came at books as a reader….and the importance of that stance cannot be overstated.

Every book she picked became an instant bestseller, ensuring that every writer unlucky enough to publish during the Age of Oprah had to deal with well-meaning relatives who’d pull you into a corner and whisper, in the tones of having just received a revelation from on high, “Have you thought about sending it to Oprah?” Yes. Yes, Nanna. I thought about sending it to Oprah.)

Traditional critics weren’t happy watching a chat-show hostess most famous for her yo-yo dieting commanding an army of readers.

Oprah didn’t care. At least, she never responded publicly to those who told her she was doing reading wrong, that she was picking bad books, that she was trespassing on territory better left to the better-educated.

And then along came Jonathan Franzen, whose interaction with Oprah would demonstrate the perils of the interactive world, where readers and critics and authors can talk TO each other instead of about each other.

In September of 2001, Oprah picked Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS for her book club.

Franzen, a self-proclaimed writer in the high-literary tradition who took himself very, very seriously, went on a kind of foot-in-mouth cross-country tour.

While Franzen allowed that Oprah had “picked some good books,” he told an Oregon public radio station she’d also “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe.” Clumsily backpedaling in USA Today, he acknowledged that Oprah had done a lot of good, that she was a hero – “but not a hero of mine, per se.” (You sort of had to wonder where the publicist with the taser was).

Stung, Oprah rescinded her invitation, saying that Franzen was clearly uncomfortable about coming on her show, and that it was never her intention to make anyone uncomfortable…but it’s what happened to the book club in the wake of that kerfuffle that would foreshadow blogger/author/publisher interactions to come, and how they played out in public and in real time.

You know that old Eleanor Roosevelt chestnut about how no one can make you feel inferior without your consent?

It’s my belief that Oprah respected Jonathan Franzen – respected all writers – a lot. When he said, essentially, that her picks were unworthy, that cut deep.

Three books after FREEDOM, Oprah shuttered the club. When she started it up business again, she stuck to the classics…until her disastrous ’06 choice of James Frey.

After that egg-meet-face moment, where it was revealed that Frey's memoir was not what the kids call "true," and when Frey’s publisher, veteran Nan Talese proclaimed that readers didn’t deserve anything better than the appearance of truthiness, as opposed to actual truth, Oprah’s picks tapered off, becoming once or twice a year instead of monthly events.

In December of 2010, the club limped off into the sunset with the safest of safe choices – Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which had the worst sales of any previous pick. Just lack week, she revived the club, delighting readers, and pissing off BEA keynote speakers who thought they were done with their speeches. Will book clubs bring viewers to her foundering network? Time will tell...but I'm happy for @cherylstrayed, who became the first living woman since Toni Morrison in 2002 who Oprah tapped.

By 2010, the book club had become irrelevant. Oprah had become just another critic, marching in lockstep with the Times and The New Yorker, playing it safe, adding a limp, belated “me, too,” when they heaped laurels on Cormac McCarthy or Jeffrey Eugenides.

If Oprah was one of the first book bloggers, than I was part of that first wave of novelists who used blogs to invite readers to step into our parlors, and our lives, to share intimate details of what went on behind the scenes and between the books. As an ex-newspaper reporter, the chance to talk to readers, to get my words out there, to say something in the yearlong silence between books was a thrilling opportunity.

I remember telling my publisher that I wanted a blog. Then I remember explaining what a blog was.

I launched my blog, then called SnarkSpot, in January of 2002, and, as bloggers did, I treated my life as material.

I wrote about my family,

and my dog,

and my seemingly-endless first pregnancy, about my Bradley-method birth classes, and bringing my mother on book tour, where we stayed in five-star hotels (my sister and I did Marlon Perkins, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom-inspired voiceovers as Fran wandered around the lobby, staring at people and sneaking free bottled water into her totebag: the animal, out of is normal habitat is clearly uncomfortable as it struggles to adjust to its strange new environment. Let’s watch, as it approaches the minibar). Followed by, "You girls stay away from that minibar! Do you know you can by a whole package of Oreos for $5? Goddamnit, Jenny, are you tweeting this?"

I put it all out there…

Some of what I wrote came from the bad place. Did the world really need a sentence-by-sentence, sometimes word-by-word deconstruction of Curtis Sittenfeld’s NewYork Times takedown of Melissa Bank’s new novel, which she slammed for being insufficiently serious chick lit?

Maybe not. (And Curtis and I are friends now -- so at least some part of this story has a happy ending).

But remember, this was the early days of blogging, the day when you could, indeed, dance like no one was watching…and, for me, knowing full well that books like mine, with naked legs and cheesecake on a pink cover were unlikely to be hailed as the successor to Salinger or Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, blogging was a chance to defend myself, and my genre…to be a voice that said that, in spite of the cutesy covers, in spite of the breezy tone and bad boyfriends and bosses, in spite of the critics' scorn and, eventually, an entire anthology called THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT challenging my genre’s worth

some of those books had something to say.

I’d found my voice…in my books and on my blog…and then along came the New York Times.

In 2005, I got a call asking if I’d be interviewed for a story about mothers who blogged. I said, “Sure!” (Note to future Times subjects: beware the reporter who begins his interview by stating, “My wife loves your books.” Translation: he wouldn’t deign to read them).

Some of you will probably remember the story. As it turns out, the Times was not so much a fan of quote-unquote mommyblogs.

The headline of the story was Mommy –parenthesis --- and me – and, in the first few paragraphs, the reporter observed that, more often than not, such sites are “shrines to parental self-absorption.”

Narcissistic self-absorption? Seriously? I didn’t even know I was writing a mommyblog! I thought I was writing a blog about being a mother who wrote! That I was being funny and informative and helpful, to the rest of the struggling new moms trying to balance work and family and the inevitable loss of identity that goes with being Woman Pushing Stroller – or, these days, Woman Wearing Sling. I thought I was helpful and amusing -- an Erma Bomback for the e-age!

But I was wrong. The New York Times said so.

Then, in the summer of 2005, just before the film version of “In Her Shoes” was coming out,

the paper sent a reporter to my house in Philadelphia to do a profile of me for the Sunday magazine.

I cannot tell you how excited I was – even though the reporter they sent was far better known for her hit pieces than her valentines. This meant that they thought I was interesting! Maybe it would be one of those great pieces that would make everyone who read it want to read my books! They like me! They really, really like me!

Long story short – not so much. The Times didn’t think I was interesting as much as a symptom of what it saw as literature’s wrong turn – a turn toward social media and public connection, as opposed to dignified silence.

I can only recall bits and pieces of my day in the reporter’s company – my subconscious has helpfully blocked out most of it – but there are things I do remember.

Like the reporter wandering through my bedroom, picking up a picture of my sister, considering it with a sneer, and saying, “She’s not THAT pretty. I actually thought it was you!” (For those of your unfamiliar with IN HER SHOES, it's the story of a hot sister -- based on my sister Molly, who actually, objectively is much better looking than I am, and her smart-but-frumpy big sister).

Or her asking, over lunch, “Do you write your blog so that people will LIKE you?” (And oh, if I’d just been the tiniest bit quicker, I would have said, “No, silly, that’s what the blow jobs are for!”)

Bottom line: as the day went on, and the reporter asked me 10 questions about my blog for every one about my books, I began to get the distinct feeling that this piece wasn’t going to resemble the paper’s 4,000-word mash note to Jonathan Safran Foer… that it was, instead, going to be something I regretted, possibly for the rest of my life.

When I told the reporter that we were done, that I wouldn’t sit for the scheduled portrait, and that there wasn’t going to be a story, she was furious, complaining bitterly about the time she’d quote “wasted” reading my books (which erased any doubts I had about the slant of her story).

Nobody can hurt your feeling unless you give them permission. I gave the Times permission.

And I should maybe give you a little back story about this portion of the speech, which involves my agent and some of my loved ones saying, ‘Maybe you could just say ‘a big Northeastern paper.’” Because, if you piss off the Times, maybe they’ll take it out on your next book.

I thought about it…and, then, I thought, well, what else can the paper do? What other painful, embarrassing thing can happen?

Have Henry Alford say something bitchy about me? Been there.

Quote Jonathan Galassi – Franzen’s editor – making fun of my made-up German? Done that.

Misrepresent my sales on its bestseller list?

Well, this week my current paperback, THEN CAME YOU, the number eight bestselling book on Bookscan, which is said to account for 70 to 80 percent of sales.

For the same time period, it’s number 22 on the Times list.

This has happened with every book since LITTLE EARTHQUAKES. My publisher will go to the Times and say, “we think Jen’s book should be higher, and here are our numbers to support our claims.” The Times will say, “we think Jen’s book is right where it should be, and we’re not showing you our numbers. They’re proprietary.”
There’s just nothing to be done…and I shouldn’t expect any better.

As anyone who’s taken a women’s studies class will tell you, as long as there’s a woman writing about her own life, there’s someone – sometimes a man, sometimes another woman -- to tell her that what she’s written is unworthy, unimportant, beneath notice, that it’s not real literature and not worth taking seriously.

In the wake of this kind of treatment, though, it’s hard not to lose your social media mojo…and, in 2006 until 2009, I went through kind of a dark night of my bloggy soul.

I was still very happy writing my novels. The Times was still very happy ignoring them, except when I’d be lucky enough to be mentioned in the springtime vagina round-up, where Janet Maslin admitted that “Ms. Weiner’s characters are warmly and realistically drawn” in an article headline “The Girls of Summer: Surveying This Season’s Chick Lit.”

Sure, literary writers like Jane Smiley were still stepping up to tell me they were unworthy, that I should be turning my skills toward more serious matters.

But I felt solid about my novels. I was an English major, with enough women’s studies in my background to know what any woman can expect when she unleashes her female-based fiction on the world…but, in terms of blogging, I was second and third-guessing everything I wrote, losing sleep, fretting endlessly. Is this an overshare? Is it too personal? Is it silly? Stupid? Disreputable?

Is the Times going to laugh at me again?

Worse, is a fellow female writer going to tell the world that I only care about the issue because it has an impact on my own sales and hurt writer-feelings...that I'm not trying to make things better for current and future female writers, just me, myself and I?

To quote Roxane Gay (before she went on to suggest just that), "Sometimes, it would be nice to be able to say, “There is a problem that demands attention,” without being shouted down, condescended to, derided or ignored."

But if people were saying that, I couldn't hear them.

I had lost my social-media mojo...until "The Bachelor," and my fellow writters helped me get it back.

I was a Twitter resister. I’d been pulled onto MySpace, I liked Facebook just fine…did I really need a new microblogging site, one more item on the daily to-do list?

As it turns out, I think that the novels are fine and that blogging was fun, but Twitter might have been the thing I was born for.

Twitter’s taught me discipline, the skill of being funny or poignant in a pithy 140 characters.

It’s let me connect with readers, in a more intimate way than I ever could before.

It’s let me meet other authors, and hang out with them around the virtual water cooler and talk shop. It’s given me people.

Twitter’s like being at the biggest, best cocktail party in the world, where I can talk about anything to almost anyone, – big books, reality TV, how I embarrassed myself if in front of Jeffrey Eugenides or how, when your three-year-old says she “just wants to hold” the bottle of sparkly red nail polish, she is totally, totally lying.

Best of all, it’s given me a place to light a candle, instead of cursing the darkness – a place where I can not only point out instances of sexism and discrimination in the publishing world, I can also do something about it, supporting other authors in ways that weren’t available when my first book was published…and it’s something, I think, that all bloggers can do to celebrate the things they love.

Case in point: I loved Sarah Pekkanen’s debut novel, THE OPPOSITE OF ME

…and I remember the women who gave me blurbs even though they had no connection through agent or editor or publisher…they just liked my book.

When GOOD IN BED was published, I swore then that I would never be a non-blurbing writer…that I would always help debut novelists, as a way of paying forward the generosity my peers had shown to me.

Social media gave me – gives all of us – a chance to do this.

Sarah smartly recognized the importance of pre-orders in getting her book on people’s radar. She organized a contest and lined up some prizes for people who ordered her book the Tuesday before publication. I decided that, for one day only, I would offer a copy of one of my books to everyone who ordered Sarah’s.

The response was more than I think any of us imagined. I tweeted up a storm, linking to Sarah’s first chapter, and where you could buy the book, eventually mailing out more than four hundred copies of my books. THE OPPOSITE OF ME cracked the online bestseller lists at B&N and Amazon.

Sarah's excellent debut novel got written up on a bunch of blogs and even newspapers that might have just dismissed her book as another piece of disposable chick lit.

…and my new path was clear.

I continued to do Q and A’s and interviews and giveaways with Emma Donoghue, whose book ROOM took the country by storm last year, and with Liz Moore, a fellow Philadelphian and a rising star in literary fiction, whose book HEFT, about lonely people and chosen families, broke my heart. I’ve been thrilled to help spread the word about writers from Buzz Bissinger to Jillian Medoff to Julie Buxbaum.

I am so pleased to be in a position where, instead of just complaining about the Times’ bias, I can actually do something about it -- that I can now be part of someone else’s magic, that I can be the one sprinkling the fairy dust.

If you’ve got a blog, you can it, too.

I’m not saying never write bad reviews, or that there’s no place in the world for some well-deserved snark. I’m not saying not to be honest…

But there’s something to be said for talking up the things you love instead of talking down the things you hate.

And so, in closing, Blogging Class of 2012,

I would tell you this:

No matter what you blog about, there’s going to be someone there to try to slap you down, to tell you it’s unworthy, undignified, silly and girlie.

Ignore them.

In Oprah’s day, blogging existed as a corrective. It filled in the blanks that the mainsream critics ignored, considering the books and the genres that were beneath them, pointed out what the mainstream was covering badly, or missing entirely…and bloggers continue to serve this role, in different, sometimes dazzling ways.

Janice Harayda, aware that statistically women writers are underrepresented on review pages, pledged that 50 percent or more of her “One Minute Book Reviews” would go to women.

Carleen Brice launched “When White Readers meet Black Writers, a “sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted plea for EVERYONE to give black authors a try.” (In a video, she demystified the choices, pointing out that the books are “made of paper….just like other books. It’s not too scary, is it?” she asked.

Twitter is a place where Jodi Picoult and I can tell the world that the New York Times doesn’t cover popular fiction by women with the same regularity or regard with which it considers popular books by men.

It’s where Slate’s website for women, Double X, can tweet the statistics that show that, indeed, women are less frequently reviewed….

It’s where any number of other tweeters can say that Jodi and I are just jealous, and that our books suck.

And the conversation rolls on…because, painful as it sometimes feels, social media is a conversation, and there’s always someone new to talk to, and something new to talk about.

As a writer, Twitter has been invaluable. It’s let me listen to my readers: why do your black people in your books have light eyes? When can we expect a gay character in one of your novels?

It’s let me ask for their help when deciding where to buy ads, or even which author photo to use.

My favorite example: in THE NEXT BEST THING, coming in July, one of the main characters uses a wheelchair. I found Priscilla Hedlin, who blogs as Wheelchair Mommy, on Twitter, and she was kind enough to take an early look and tell me what I got right and what I got wrong.

As bloggers, you can help authors just by being there – by tweeting a “reading your book right now,” by answering our questions, by covering the books and the genres that the mainstream ignores, or covering popular books in a way the mainstream can’t.

Anyone could review Chad Harbach or do a Q and A with Kate Christensen, but how many people would think to bake protein bars with Harbach, or ask Christensen for her playlist?

Where the mainstream zigs, bloggers zag. Where dead-tree people are stuck with the demands of the form –500 words with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the end, with attention paid to the big releases from the big houses – bloggers are limited by nothing but their own imagination.

Bloggers can be passionate where their print peers had to be objective. They could be silly, enthusiasts, cheerleaders who’d shout the good news from the mountaintop when they found a book they loved or axe men who’d gleefully eviscerate something they couldn’t stand…and it’s been a pleasure to watch that passion make its way to the mainstream, as the Venn diagrams’s circles continue to overlap to the point where they’ve almost melted into nonexistence, where writers who got their start on blogs now review for NPR, and mainstream critics like the Washington Post's Ron Charles do video reviews draped in breakfast meat.

So: advice.

I would encourage you to be as transparent as possible, to remember that some of those old dead-tree rules about conflict of interest and full disclosure where in place for a reason – to ensure that the reader was getting a review untainted by money or personal loyalties, or rivalries. If your blog or Twitter feed has a moneymaking component that’s not as obvious as an ad or a tip cup at the bottom of the page, spell it out, as clearly and visibly and as often as possible.

Know the rules: the FTC says that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Sticking an #ad or #promo hashtag at the end of a tweet isn’t sexy…but, if you’ve been paid to praise the book, it’s the law.

Speak in your own voice, with the courage of your convictions, about the books and authors and topics you love, no matter who tells you that you shouldn’t love them.

Dance like no one’s watching. Sing like no one can hear. Tweet like your mother’s not online.

Be brave, be smart, be creative, be kind, and, above all, be yourself…and I promise, the readers will find you.

First things first: it’s “Bachelorette” time!

If you’ve followed my live tweets of the show, I wanted to tell you that I’m moving my critique over to Entertainment Weekly’s live-blog site, where I will make new friends and not to blow up your timeline (although I will continue to tweet the occasional observation…).

Watch as a few dozen improbably handsome dudes with made-up sounding names and jobs profess that they’ve found a magical connection! Marvel as sweet blond Emily searches for true love, or at least a gig on “Dancing with the Stars!” Drink every time one of the suitors says “journey,” “fairy tale” or accuses another guy of “not being there for Emily!"

Will our girl find true love?

Will Bentley show up to ruin the fun?

Will we ever find out what a “luxury brand consultant” actually does to earn a paycheck?

I have no idea! But I hope you’ll join me tonight to find out.

Then, on Wednesday night, I’m going to be at the Free Library of Philadelphia, talking to Buzz Bissinger about his new memoir, Father’s Day.

Every once in a while, you read a book that’s so wrenching, so gorgeously written that you know that it will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

FATHER’S DAY is one of those.

On an August day in 1983, Bissinger, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, author of A PRAYER FOR THE CITY and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, rushed to the hospital where his wife, who'd been on bed rest for two months, had just given birth to premature twins, born just three minutes apart.

Gerry, the oldest, was premature but fine, and is now a fourth-grade teacher with a degree from Penn, working toward a PhD.

Zach, oxygen-deprived and brain-damaged, is not fine.

“He will never drive a car, or kiss a girl, or live by himself,” Bissinger writes, with characteristic candor. While Gerry studies for his degree, Zach bags groceries. He is, in short, not the kid Bissinger, himself a hard-charging, success-oriented Ivy League graduate, signed up for…and he’s ashamed of his own shame. “The promise of a new Brooks Brothers wardrobe is just an illusion,” Bissinger writes, of a post-Christmas shopping trip. “What I experienced with my father I will not experience as a father with my son. He is not a hedge fund trader. I should have known that by now. I will never know that by now. I can’t.”

In telling the story of his son’s life, and the two-week road trip they took together, pinballing across America to revisit the places they’d lived, Bissinger turns his reportorial gaze on himself – his ambition and disappointments, his hopes and insecurities.

Nothing is sugar-coated. There are no platitudes about God never giving you more than you can handle, no suggestion that Zach was a kind of ennobling care package sent to teach his driven dad a lesson, to grant him the gift of perspective.

But, along the way, as Buzz loses his camera and his temper, as he clings to his son on amusement-park bungee cords, confesses that the New York Times best-seller list sends him into a day-long sulk, and takes stock of his own life, and how he defines success, that is what happens.

FATHER’s DAY is a searingly honest account about what it’s like to be the parent of a special-needs child, a story that doesn’t gloss over the disappointments – however petty – that go along with knowing that the trajectory of achievement you’d mapped out and hoped for is going to end not with a college degree and a shiny future but a job in a grocery store where Zach learns, with the help of a job coach, that eggs need to be bagged separately.

If you’ve seen Buzz fulminating on Twitter or on TV, or if you know him as the chronicler of athletes and politicians, this book might surprise you. The writing is spare and elegant, what you’d expect from a master craftsman who wrote FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and A PRAYER FOR THE CITY. Here’s Zach at an amusement park, riding the Teacups: “It is a kids’ ride, far too demeaning for crusty souls of the Boss and Mr. Freeze. They would never be caught dead here, too much to live down. But Zach doesn’t care. I can hear the gentle whir as the red and yellow teacups undulate up and down. A few screams scatter in the distance like a faraway car alarm. Zach’s arms are spread out behind him. His eyes are closed, his head bent back slightly. The warm air encircles him.”

Beyond that elegant prose, it’s the heart of the story, the tangled strands of self-pity and love, frustration and respect, that make FATHER’S DAY such a heartbreaking revelation of a read.

On Wednesday night at 7:30, I’m going to introduce Buzz. He'll read from the book, and he and I will have a conversation about FATHER’S DAY before turning it over to the audience.

Because I know that people who like the stories I tell will like this one – a lot -- I’m bringing 50 copies of my short-story collection with me. The first fifty people to buy a copy of FATHER’S DAY will get a signed copy of THE GUY NOT TAKEN for free.

I hope you’ll join me there.

Oh, happy day! "The Bachelorette" premiere is still a little ways off (May 14!), but ABC has "released" the men who will be vying for Emily's hand and heart (I see the word 'release' and picture the men milling around in a cattle holding pen while producers watch over them, with whips and cattle prods).

I'll be live-blogging the fun for the good folks at Entertainment Weekly, but let's warm up with a look at the contenders.

First impressions: the producers have presented us with a delectable assortment of the good, the bad, and the intriguingly coiffed, a fine crop of guys who want to find true love, or at least the guarantee of being on a few tabloid covers and maybe – just maybe – “Dancing with the Stars.” There’s a heavy emphasis on the International Male (hey, who else is old enough to remember that catalogue?) – and guys with jobs we’ve never heard of. (Hello, Brazilian grain merchant!)

Bonus points for whoever's running the show for not bothering/offering to proofread any of the bachelors’ responses. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then bad grammar, iffy spelling, and odd capitalization are a window into…something else.

So who’ve we got?

Arie is a race-car driver. Hey, just like poor Emily’s late fiancée, and father of her child! Oh, producers, you wonderful, lovable sadists.

Alejandro is a mushroom farmer from Medellin. First reaction: sure he is. Second reaction: I’d keep him around for a while, just because I enjoy saying “mushroom farmer from Medellin.”

Here’s Michael. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: never date a guy you’re going to have to fight for the flat-iron.

Kyle’s favorite movies are “Zoolander,” “Point Break” and “The Notebook.” Translation: I’m funny, I’m hip, and if we start dating, our schedules will sync!

The most outrageous thing Jean-Paul has ever done is “quitting my job, selling everything I own, and jumping on a plane to travel the world for six months – all within three weeks.” Hey, rambling boy, you want to know what’s impetuous for a single mom? Ordering extra pepperoni at Chuck E. Cheese.

Charlie is cute, seems down to earth, and has an English bulldog. I’d declare him the winner right now, except he was dumb enough to take the bait and give an honest answer about his biggest fear: “RATS!!!” Prediction: Charlie and Emily’s first date will be a ride-along with a local exterminator. Note to future contestants: if producers ask you your biggest fear, the answer is "naps" and "hot-stone massages." You're welcome.

Chris is twenty-five. Does he consider himself a romantic? Indeed he does! “I’m always trying to find the net best way to romanticize a woman.” Hubba-whah?

Here’s Kalon. He is a luxury brand consultant. Both his name and his job sound made up. My guess? His name is Steve. He pumps gas.

I respect Randy’s fashion choice, even though I dozed off briefly while reading his answers.

Ryan’s favorite artist is a basketball player. “I believe athleticism is the “Art” of movement. Michael Jordan was an incredible Artist.” Somewhere, Ryan’s English and art teachers are huddled in small balls of shame, weeping. Or should that be Weeping?

Of course, we have Lerone, the obligatory Man of Color. He seems nice and down to earth, but, given the history of interracial couples on this show, I’m dubious about his chances.

Then there's Tony. He ripped his pants trying to hop a fence in Vegas. He, and bulldog Charlie, are at the top of my list...

along with the guy whose forehead's so enormous I'm thinking about taking out ad space for my new book.

So you want to be a novelist?

Well, there's no one path to take. Novelists come in all shapes and sizes. They're men and women, wunderkinds and retirees. Some of them are very attractive. The rest of us resent them horribly. And if there was a single magic bullet, or a list of steps to follow that would guarantee publication, believe me, someone would have published it by now. What follows is just my take on the question - a completely idiosyncratic, opinionated, flawed and somewhat sassy take on some of the steps you can take to get published. Important caveat: I have only written two books, and I'm thirty-two, which, as my mother would hasten to point out, means I am probably not qualified to give advice to anyone about anything. (Update: Add ten years, eight books, one book-to-film adaptation, and one short-lived television series that I co-wrote and co-ran). If you're looking for lessons from the life masters - people who've made long careers in the world of fiction - then run, do not walk, to your local bookshop and buy Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's indispensable Bird by Bird, and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings and Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft.

If you want my advice, read on (and if you've already written your book and just want to figure out how to get it published, skip ahead to Step 8). 

1. The Unhappy Childhood

The big joke in the publishing community is that smart editors shouldn't waste their time at lunches or conferences, but should instead proceed directly to the local elementary schools. There, they will carefully note the boys picked last in gym class, the girls sitting alone in the cafeteria - all of the outcasts, misfits, geeks, dweebs and weirdos - and give them some kind of small identifying tag (much like wildlife services will tag animals to follow their progress through the years). Twenty years later, the editors should track down the kids they've tagged, now hopefully grown to more successful adulthood, and say, "Okay, where's the novel?"

Why do unhappy kids grow up to be writers? I think because being an outsider - a geek, a dweeb, a weirdo, a smart, mouthy girl or boy who just doesn't fit in - means that you're naturally equipped for observing life carefully. You're not on the inside, you're on the outside - and nobody's a more careful, dedicated observer of life than a kid or teenager who's trying to figure out how to finally fit in with the in-crowd.

Also (and this is totally my own take on things, unproven by any kind of study or research), but I think that kids whose parents are divorced, separated, single, or otherwise un-Cleaver-ish might have a slight edge over those who grew up in happily-married homes. For kids, divorce is a mystery, a puzzle that begs to be put back together - what went wrong? Was it my fault? Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? All of these questions reinforce the powers of observation, the questioning spirit, the impulse to try to make sense of life that can lead to becoming a writer. Or a mass murderer, I guess, but hopefully a writer instead. So if you're a would-be writer whose parents are divorced, be happy. If you're married, and a parent, and trying to turn your kid into a writer, please don't break up just because I said so. Because by the time our theoretical young writer has figured out that fitting in with the in-crowd isn't a consummation devoutly to be wished, and has given up trying to make sense of Why Daddy Doesn't Live Here Anymore, it will be time to….. 

2. Have a Miserable Love Life

Again, a crucial ingredient for the formation of a novelist - romantic humiliation and heartbreak. The unhappy childhood gives you the tools of observation. Unrequited crushes, romantic despair, a few memorable break-ups, will give you something to write about, an understanding of grief. No prospect of heartbreak in sight? I can provide phone numbers upon request. (Updated: I now know no single people. At all.)
Now that our would-be novelist has survived high school, heartbreak, and perhaps her parents' divorce, it's time to talk higher education. My advice? 

3. Major in Liberal Arts (but not necessarily creative writing)

My Mom is a great proponent of the liberal arts education. Why? Because a liberal arts education, whether you're studying history or anthropology or political science or English, teaches how to read, how to write, and how to reason. Everything else, says Mom, is just commentary. Once you've got the foundation of a liberal arts education - once you've slogged through the required reading, written the papers, attended the lectures and seminars - you know how to think...and in order to write, you have to be able to make sense of the landscape of the world. In order to be any kind of artistic innovator, you have to understand everything that came before you. 

And a liberal arts education gives you a framework in which to place your own experiences, a context you can use to look at everything else, a framework that any writer needs.

So why not major in creative writing? Here's a line that bears repeating (and one you’re going to be hearing a lot in these next few pages): a writer writes. If you're going to be a writer, nothing, not even a difficult major, can stop you. You'll write poems, you'll write stories, you'll begin a novel about suicide or bisexuality or a suicidal bisexual that will forever languish in a shoebox beneath your bed, but you will write. You'll do it in your spare minutes, you'll snatch time before work or eschew prime-time TV after. You'll think of stories while you're walking the dog or driving to work. You'll do it because it's your passion and your calling, because doing it makes you happier than almost anything else, because, really, you don't have any choice.

What college can give you is the luxury of immersing yourself in a subject that you'll never have the unbroken blocks of time to study again, an unbroken stretch of time to devote to reading great literature, or American history, or politics. I say, take advantage of everything college has to offer. Learn something new, knowing that writing will always be available to you as both hobby and vocation.

Now that you've got that shiny liberal arts degree tucked under your arm, it's time for you to…. 

4. Get a Job (not an MFA)

Again, let me say that this is just my opinion, and certainly there have been a lot of very good, and very successful writers, to come out of MFA programs. But I think you’re going to be better served in the long term by going out and getting a job instead of a degree in creative writing.

When I was finishing up with college, lo these many years ago, I had an English degree, which meant that I was qualified to do precisely nothing, except compose lovely paragraphs, and speak knowledgably about French feminist literary theory (don't laugh. I'm going to kick ass on Jeopardy! Someday. Maybe). I was lucky enough to have John McPhee as a professor, and he was generous enough to give me the best piece of advice ever - go into journalism. "You'll see a different part of the world. You'll meet all kinds of people. You'll be writing every day, on deadline" - which, of course, turned out to be invaluable when it came time to write fiction. Best of all, you'll be getting paid to write, instead of paying someone to tell you that you can.

So off I went to Central Pennsylvania, where I spent two and a half extremely instructive, occasionally frustrating, desperately underpaid years at a small newspaper called The Centre Daily Times in Happy Valley, where I covered five local school districts, plus the occasional car crash, fire, zoning board meeting, and wild-bear-on-the-loose story. (Update: No, I did not cover the Jerry Sandusky raping-little-boys scandal. Hadn’t broken yet. But – worth noting! – a young reporter in Harrisburg won the Pulitzer for her work on that story).

Looking back, I think I was a fair-to-middling news reporter. The stories didn’t always interest me, the numbers in the budget stories confounded me, and I always wanted to be way more descriptive than the space, or my editors, would permit. But I got to be a decent features writer…and, in my years at the paper, I learned how things looked, how people talked, how people interacted with each other, how they looked when they lied (cover politics, even in the micro level, and you'll get to see plenty of that).

I'm now a convert. I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It's not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it's great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don't grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses. And writer's block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn't done yet because your Muse hasn't spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer's block is a luxury no working journalist can afford - which will help you avoid it when you're a working novelist. Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates - myself included - desperately need. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited - of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you've written even stronger. Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines - you'll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter's dragging and your title's ill-conceived - you'll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Trust me, your editor will adore you!

Updated: So, yeah…those jobs that I recommended back in 2002? They don’t really exist any more. Newspapers have fallen on hard times. Internet users are used to getting their content for free, and have, thus far, demonstrated an unwillingness to pay for stories – even though it takes time, and expertise, and training and experience to report and write the kinds of stories that expose corruption and abuse of power, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If I were advising a recent college graduate today, I’d tell her to try getting a job writing at a newspaper – a small, local one; the internship program at a big one, wherever she can get a toe-hold, but that she’d probably have better luck on the Internet, where it’s my understanding that newbies write and report and shoot video and post links and churn out six stories a day and are generally paid, and treated, like crap. Which…isn’t so different from how life was at a small paper, minus the video and the links part (being treated and paid like crap is, I think, the nature of all first jobs).

Bottom line: try to find some job where you get paid for writing, even if it’s press releases for that new ED drug, or a trade newsletter…and if you can’t get paid, you can blog! And tweet, and Facebook! Social media is another wonderful new development since the days when I was a baby writer. Back then, “getting published” meant submitting pieces to papers or magazines, then crossing your fingers and praying and hoping and waiting. These days, anyone with a laptop and a basic understanding of the platforms can be published and launch a blog right now, and share her work with the world. Even if your day job has you clearing dishes, or washing dogs, or asking if people want you to leave room for cream in their coffee, if you’ve got a blog, you can be a writer, and hone your skills, and build your audience.

I also highly recommend travel, if you’ve got the time and the means to do it. Get yourself on the road and out of your comfort zone. Meet new people, and listen to how they talk, and notice what they wear, and how they sit. Be a waitress at the snootiest boite in town, and pay attention to how your customers look, how they talk, how they tip. Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside, and how the air smells more sweeter and the pizza tastes better than anyplace else. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny, lead Outward Bound trips and become an expert in teenage slang. Push yourself out into the world, away from people just like you, and pay attention once you’re there. Look for challenges, new faces and new places, and enough money to support yourself, if not in style, than at least with a roof over your head (one of my weird quirks: I’m a big advocate of supporting yourself once you’re out of school, of paying your loans on time, and not asking Mom or Dad to be patrons of the arts while you become the voice of your generation.) Leave your childhood bedroom, and town, behind. Besides, if you've followed Part Two of this plan, you're most likely single, and will want to get out of town anyhow.

"But if I got an MFA, I'd get to spend two years just concentrating on my writing!" True. Also true: that MFA will give you connections, and feedback. You’ll meet other writers, published ones who will teach you and unpublished ones who will struggle and strive alongside you. I’m not downplaying the upside of that degree, or the way it can smooth the path to publication. For example, instead of going hunting for an agent, chances are, those agents might come hunting for you.

But remember: a writer writes, whether or not she's in school for writing.
I think that in the end, staying out of writing school gives you more to write about. Saves you money, too. 

5. Write the Story Only You can Write

So now you're in your twenties. You've got your liberal arts degree. You've got a job that's put you smack in the center of the wild, bustling world. You're writing - of course you're writing - because a writer writes. And perhaps you've started to think that it's time to attempt a novel. Perhaps you're looking around with awed and slightly covetous eyes at the stacks of books about Young Women with Romantic Woes and Weight Problems. Or the neighboring piles of dystopian YA, or vampires, or werewolves, or teens making love connections in the post-nuclear winter, or at their cancer support group. There's a market for this stuff, you think, and you set down at night and try. Don't do it. By the time you finish, the window will have closed, and nobody will want those stories any more, because publishing will have moved on to the next trend.

Tell the story that's been growing in your heart, the characters you can't keep out of your head, the tale that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning. Don't write something just because you think it will sell, or fit into the pigeonhole du jour. It won’t feel sincere, and readers can sniff out insincerity faster than a dog can smell raw chicken guts in the trashcan. Don’t think about the marketplace when you’re writing. There will be plenty of time to think about it once you’ve written. Tell the story you want to tell, and worry about how to sell it later (more advice on that to come). And also…. 

6. Get a Dog
Okay, you're thinking, what does getting a dog have to do with becoming a writer? More than you'd think. Writing is about talent and creativity, but it's also about discipline - about the ability to sit yourself down in that seat, day after day, often after eight hours of work, and make yourself do it, day after day, even if you're not getting published yet, even if you're not getting paid, even if ABC is hosting an all-star reunion of your favorite cast members from The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. It's a form of training that's as much physical as mental in nature - you sit down and you do the writing, no matter what distractions are out there, no matter that you're tired or bored or uninspired.

Being a dog owner requires a similar form of discipline. You wake up every morning. You walk the dog. You do this whether you're tired, depressed, broke, hung over, or have been recently dumped. You do it. And while you're walking, you're thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that's had you stumped for days. You're out in the fresh air. Your legs are moving. Your dog is sniffing the butts of other dogs. It gives you a routine, a physical rhythm, a loyal companion, and a way to meet new people when you're in a new place. It gets your body used to doing the same thing at the same time - and if you're walking the dog for half an hour at the same time of every day, it's an easy step to go sit in front of the computer and create for half an hour at the same time every day. So go to your local pound or rescue organization, and get a dog. Trust me. You'll be glad you did. 

Update: When I wrote this, I was kid-free. I am now the mother of two, and you know that old chestnut about how if you want something done, ask the busiest person to do it? I think, if you want to get your writing done, have a baby, or a toddler, or a pre-schooler, and hire a sitter for two or three hours a day, and you will get your writing done…because (for me, at least), that will be the easiest part of your day.

When you’re with your kids, you’re totally with them, available for stories and tub-time and snuggles on the couch while you watch “The Muppet Movie” again and cries of “Mom! Wipe my tush!” When you’re free – when the kids are napping, or in nursery school, when the sitter arrives or your spouse says, “Go take an hour,” you are all about the work. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Every parent who writes finds his or her own balance, and his or her own method of handling kids and a job. My initial plan after Lucy, my big girl was born, was to take a year off and do nothing but be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. That plan lasted about three months, at which point I realized that I was not cut out to be at home all day with a newborn, that I needed to spend at least part of my day in (relatively) clean clothes, having grownup conversations with other similarly-garbed adults, and writing. I needed to be writing. So I found a sitter, and we started at ten hours a week, which eventually moved up to twenty, and then Lu started preschool, and I flipped my scheduled so I was writing in the mornings, while she was in school, instead of afternoons, when she was napping and with her nanny. hen I had another baby and I knew not to even try to do the full-time-at-home thing. I have nothing but respect for women who can manage it, but it wasn’t for me, and I was lucky to realize relatively quickly that it was better for everyone if I hired someone great to care for my kids and spent part of each day writing.

I’m lucky. I know exactly how lucky I am, to be able to afford great help, to have found great people, to have them working for me consistently for years. Just like I’ve had the same agent, editor and publisher for my whole career, I’ve had the same assistant and nanny for years…and a whole rolling crew that includes grandmothers and aunts and my summer babysitter, who adore my daughters and let me write, and go on book tour, without worrying for a second that my girls are not happy and well cared for.

My advice for new moms who want to write? Build your village. If you can’t afford a nanny or a sitter, work out a swap with a fellow mom who wants some free time, even if it’s just a few hours a week. Recruit your relatives, your in-laws, your sister, the responsible-looking fourteen-year-old down the street. See if there’s a local church or synagogue offering moms’ mornings out. When people ask, “how can I help?” tell them (this was something I figured out with Baby Two). Say, “Would you mind emptying the dishwasher so I can run on the treadmill (and think about my work in progress) for thirty minutes?” Or, “Can you watch my kids for an hour so I can write?” Don’t be a hero. Don’t be a martyr. Ask for what you need. People want to help, and if you tell them how they can, they will.

7. Get Published

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, has it really fallen? If a writer writes poems and short stories and novels, but nobody ever reads them, is she really a writer? Nope. If you want to be a writer, you've got to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (not to mention evil reader reviews on You've got to put your stuff out there for the world to see, and fall in love with, or revile. In short, you've got to get published.

"But I don't have an agent!" you say. Here's the exciting news: when you're just starting out, you don't need one. If you're trying to sell a novel, yes, you need an agent, and if you bear with me, I'll tell you how to get one. But if you're trying to sell a short story - and this is where I'd recommend you start - you can just be Joe or Jane Schmoe, with a great short story and a killer cover letter, and you can get published.

I sold my first story to Seventeen magazine - one of the shrinking number of mass-market magazines that still publishes fiction – in 1991, the year I graduated from college. No agent. I just printed up my story, wrote a cover letter saying who I was and what I'd done, and mailed it off, and was thrilled and delighted a few months later when I got a phone call….and, eventually, a check.

Now, granted, I went to Fancypants U.. I’d written the story in a workshop with a very well-known writer, and I was able to do some name-dropping in my cover letter. Did that help? Sure, probably it did. Is it necessary? I don't think so. I think if I'd submitted the same short story (it was called "Tour of Duty," and published in the spring of 1992, and reprinted in my short-story collection THE GUY NOT TAKEN), with a letter that left out all the stuff about Princeton, and just said I was a recent college graduate working as a reporter, the story would have met with the same happy response. No matter where, or whether, you went to college, good writing finds a home.

Once you've gotten that first story published - whether in a magazine, an alternative newsweekly, a literary quarterly that will pay you in free copies, or your campus literary magazine - then you've got a foot in the door. You've got a calling card. Your next cover letter can boast that you're the author of "Your Short Story Here," published in the Anonymous Quarterly. And then you're on your way, and you're getting your stuff out there, which is one of the most important things any writer can do.

So you write short stories. You publish short stories. You get rejected a lot, eventually moving from pre-printed rejection postcards to typed or handwritten personal notes of rejection (I have a shoebox full of thanks-but-no-thanks missives from Harper's, The Atlantic, and yes, of course, The New Yorker. Update: These days, I think they send rejection emails, so as not to waste money on stamps on the likes of you).

Updated: Can’t get published in a magazine? Can’t even find a magazine that publishes fiction any more? Again, blog. Or contribute to someone else’s blog. Write a guest post, or a short story. Write a funny tweet. Put your stuff out there, anywhere you can. Eventually, you’ll get started on the story you want to tell - your novel. You finish said novel. Finally, it's time to….

8. Find an Agent

This is, by far, the question I'm most often asked at readings - how did you find your agent? Judging from the way people ask, it seems that there's a certain level of mystery that's grown up around the process. You have to live in New York City, the logic goes. You have to have blood relatives who work for ICM. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows the secret handshake, and the code word to get you into the after-hours club where all the agents hang out, and once you're in you have to order just the right brand of vodka for your martini, or else the assembled agents will know you are a fake and a poser, and will all pretend that they've forgotten how to speak English.
I'm here to tell you that it's just not so.

Truth: agents want to find you just as badly as you want to find them.

Think about it it. How do agents get paid? By selling stuff to publishers. How to they find the things to sell that are going to make them money? By referrals, by word of mouth, and, in many cases, including the case of my agent, from people they've never heard of before who basically just wandered in off the street. They're looking for the next John Grisham, the next Susan Isaacs, the next Lee Childs, because if they find that person, they're going to get paid. It's as simple as that.

So here is the true story of how I found my agent.

I began my search in the winter of 1999/2000, after I'd finished GOOD IN BED. That piece of information stops about 95 percent of would-be writers in their tracks. You have to finish the book first? they ask, in tones of mingled dismay and disbelief. Yes, you have to finish the book first. I'm not saying it's not possible to obtain an agent on the basis of 100 pages and an outline, or even just a really good idea. I am saying that if you want to maximize your chances, finish your book before you even think about obtaining representation. If you're coming to agents with a complete manuscript, you've got a much, much better shot.)

Step one: I spent a day in the bookstore, and a night going through my own shelves, picking out the books that in some way resembled GOOD IN BED, making careful note of the names of agents (and agents are almost always thanked in the acknowledgements, so it's not like it's some big secret). Update: these days, finding out an author's agent is usually as easy as going to that author's website. When I was young...oh, never mind.

Step two: I availed myself of one of the many fine guides to literary agencies available, that lists contact names, addresses, websites and phone numbers and whether the agencies will even consider unsolicited material (most will, some won't). The Literary Marketplace publishes a yearly guide to agents. You can also find, and follow, agents on Twitter and Facebook, and start getting a sense of who they are and which one might be right for your project. Update: Don’t even bother spending money on those guides. They’re out of date ten minutes after purchase, and everything you need to know’s online now, you lucky so-and-so's.

Step three: I put together a list of about thirty agencies, places that represented writers sort of like me who were willing to consider unsolicited manuscripts.

Now, I don't live in New York (update: Brooklyn), I had no MFA, but I had some connections. There were other people at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked, who'd published novels. There were professors I could have talked to for referrals. But I really wanted the process to be - for lack of a better word - pure. I didn't want an agent asking to see my manuscript because So-and-So is my uncle, or my colleague, or went to the same college. I wanted agents asking to see my manuscript because they were impressed with the letter I'd written, the resume I'd assembled, and the places I'd already been published. Calling in favors might have simplified the agent-finding process, but as you'll see, I wound up with the absolute perfect agent for me, so I think my method worked just fine.

Step four: I wrote a kick-ass cover letter. It began with a paragraph from the opening pages from GOOD IN BED, ending with the line where Cannie reads the phrase "Loving a Larger Woman" and realizes, with a sinking heart and M&M shell stuck to her teeth, that the larger woman is her. It went on to say who I was, and what I'd done - that I'd published short stories in Seventeen and Redbook and written non-fiction pieces for Mademoiselle and It said that I was currently a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, that I'd finished my novel, and was seeking representation. I sent off about two dozen of these cover letters, sat back, and waited.

Step five: I got rejected. I got postcards from agents saying they weren't taking new clients, or weren't taking on more fiction, or generally weren't interested in buying what I was selling. Out of the original field of twenty-four letters, I got a grand total of three requests to see the manuscript. Agent One, the woman I'd long since picked as my dream agent, the woman who represented half a dozen of my favorite authors and who would, I was certain, become my soul mate, best friend and surrogate mother, wrote back in three weeks to say that while I was "definitely a writer" she was "failing to connect with the characters in (my) book." "Perhaps," she added thoughtfully, "this is simply a factor of where I find myself in my life at the present." Which I took to mean menopause. Which resulted in many bitter jokes about Agent One's journey through the unwelcoming terrain of hot flashes and hormone replacement therapy (not very nice, but I was heartbroken).

Agent Two, a total high-powered, big-shot, you'd-know-her-name-if-I-told-it-to-you woman who's been sitting on top of the publishing world since my own college days, eventually got back to me with a thanks-but-no-thanks form letter. Unfortunately, the letter arrived six months after the book had been sold. Yikes! Attention, Agent Two! Do you even read Publishers Weekly! Helllooooo!

And Agent Three said yes. Unfortunately, Agent Three said a lot of other things, including "nobody wants to see a movie about a lonely fat girl" (this comment came in the midst of a misguided attempt to have a simultaneous book and film deal), and "why don't you change the title to BIG GIRL?" (No, I still can't explain where that one came from. I figured that if we were going to call it BIG GIRL we should just go all the way and call it DON'T BUY THIS BOOK, YOU BIG FAT FREAK).

I was very upset, and in much despair. After all, I was nobody. I didn't live in New York. I didn't know any secret handshakes. And here was this big, powerful agent telling me that nobody wanted to hear about a lonely fat girl, telling me to change the title. Didn't she know better than I did? Shouldn't I trust her?
I wasn't sure. I'm not one to get on my high horse about artistic integrity or the absolute rightness of my vision, but I believed in the character I'd created, and I believed in the book I'd written, and I was sensing quite strongly that Agent 3 did not share my belief.

I agonized for a weekend, wrung my hands and ran the pros and cons past a series of vodka martinis, then Fed-ex'd the manuscript out to one of the agents who’d asked to see the book while I was working with Agent Three. On Monday morning, I picked up my phone and heard a by-now-familiar tiny little voice. "I loved your book!" the voice was saying. "It spoke to me!" In all honesty, I was thinking, "how?" But I knew I'd found what I was looking for - an agent who was in love with what I'd written, who got it on every level, who was going to do her damndest to find my book a happy home. And that, bless her adorable little size-two heart, is exactly what Joanna Pulcini did.

Important note (and please read this before you email me asking for my agent's contact info) -- Joanna is, unfortunately, not taking new clients right now. She left her big agency, went out on her own, and is committed to keeping her list of authors very small. And I'm sorry, but I'm not in a position to suggest who another good agent might be -- there are guidebooks aplenty that will do so. Believe that the good agents are out there, and with enough hard work and self-addressed stamped envelopes, you will find the one who's right for you.
Which leads to an important point….

9. Be a Smart Consumer

I know how it feels. Believe me. I know. You've slaved for years, you've prayed for months, you've sent out dozens of query letters and manuscripts, and gotten nothing, nothing, nothing. Your inclination is to fling yourself bodily toward the first person who so much as hints that she might just possibly be willing to consider representing you, and cling to her with a lover's helpless ardor even if you have the nagging suspicion that beneath her sharp suits and fast talk she might be, oh, I don't know, SATAN. (If her every movement is accompanied by the faint but recognizable reek of brimstone, that's a bad sign).

It's hard, but try to hold off, keep a cool head, and ask the right questions - questions like, "Can I see the list of writers you work with?" and "Which publishing houses have you made deals with lately? Which editors do you think would be the right fit for this book?" and, "If you were to represent me, how would you pitch this book? Who would you send it to? What's your plan?" Ask her how she operates – emails? Phone calls? Is she a check-in-every-week – or every morning -- kind of person, or someone you won’t hear from between publications? Does she call, or text, or email, or write letters on lovely engraved notecards? Does her style fit yours? Is this someone with whom you could see yourself working with – happily – for years?

A good agent should be willing to share her list, to tell you the names of her other authors, to give you some phone numbers so you can check her references. A good agent will readily discuss who she's worked with, at which houses, and what percentage of your earnings you can expect to share with her. Most importantly, a good agent should have a plan - a vision not just for your book, but for your career -- that sounds and feels right to you, the author. Finally, a good agent will never ever ever ask for money up front, or charge you any kind of fee – she won’t get paid until/if she sells your book.

Don't worry if the agent who winds up meeting these criteria isn't at the top of her company's masthead. A bigger name isn't always better, provided your agent has connections, and a plan (and young agents have often been networking with young editors since they were all underpaid assistants and associates, which means she's now got valuable connections, in spite of her relative pip-squeakiness). If I'd stayed with Agent Three, I'd be one in a stable of hundred-plus writers. Would I be her top priority? Probably not. I wound up going with a young agent in a big agency who was just putting together her roster of clients. And yes, it felt like a big leap of faith, to put my trust in her rather than in one of the gigantic, important, bold-faced ladies who've been making the big money deals since Joyce Carol Oates' output was still in the single digits. But I heard the passion in her voice, and the excitement as she talked about parts of the book she loved, and the editors she knew who'd love it, too, and how excited she was about a chance to bring my book into the world, and I just knew that she was The One. You'll know, too. Plus, I got in at the ground floor, at the moment when my agent was preparing to set up shop on her own, and assembling the very small list of clients whose careers she wanted to build. Now I'm lucky enough to be one of them. It all worked out really, really, well.

Update: I’m thrilled that, in the course of my career, I’ve had the same agent, the same editor and the same publisher. We were a great team for GOOD IN BED, and I think we’ve only gotten better…and we’re a part of each others’ lives now. We’ve danced at each others’ weddings, attended baby showers and fortieth birthday parties, had an unbelievable dinner at Per Se when BEST FRIENDS FOREVER hit number one on the New York Times list…as much as I miss working in a newsroom, when I was a reporter, and in the writers’ room, during the months “State of Georgia” was on the air, I wouldn’t trade those friendships for the world.

Joanna, and I spent a few months revising GOOD IN BED. Lots of trimming, lots of shading, refining the characters, sharpening the dialogue. All the while, she was having a series of lunch meetings with editors in New York. It was a running joke - every time I'd call her office, her assistant would say that she was at lunch. Even if it was, like, 10 in the morning, or 4 in the afternoon. I knew that no one person could possibly be eating that much lunch. What it turned out Joanna was doing was taking editors out to lunch. She'd sit them down, lean across the table, and say, "I have three words for you: Good! In! Bed!" And that would be all she'd say. By the time we were ready to actually sell the book, there was a tremendous amount of carefully orchestrated buzz. Who is GOOD IN BED? the editors wondered. What is GOOD IN BED? Can I get GOOD IN BED? The book sold very quickly, as part of a two-book deal, and so far we’ve all lived happily ever after.

10. What if I can’t find an agent, or my agent can’t find a publisher? Should I self-publish my book?

Updated: Again, self-publishing was something that didn’t even exist when I wrote GOOD IN BED. Or, rather, it existed, as what was then known as a vanity press: i.e., you shelled out money for a company to turn your manuscript into what looked like a book, and you’d sell it out of the trunk of your car, or give it to your relatives, but you knew that it was never going to be for sale in stores, or online (because there was no online. In another note, God am I old).

These days, of course, anyone who can’t get an agent or a traditional publishing deal has the option of self-publishing – of designing (or paying someone to design) a cover, editing (or paying someone to edit) the book, picking a price point (which can be as low as ninety-nine cents), and putting his or her book up for sale on Amazon, B&, the iTunes book store, and any place e-books are sold. Again, the understanding is that the book won’t be sold in stores…but these days, with so many people reading books on electronic devices (Nooks, Kindles, iPads, phones), that matters less and less…and the financials of self-publishing are definitely in your favor. If you’re with one of the Big Six publishing houses, you get to keep something like 25 percent of the royalties of every e-book sold. For the indie-published, a whopping 70 percent of the money is theirs to keep, unless they’re selling at 99 cents, in which case it’s 35 percent.

So why even bother going through the wringer of rejection, trying to get an agent and a publisher, knocking on doors and having them slammed in your face, when could just do it all yourself?

Here’s why: when you self-publish, every piece of the work of getting a book into the world falls to you. You are responsible for designing the cover, and the book’s interior. You’re responsible for the typos, the logic errors, the boyfriend’s name changing halfway through the book.

It’s your job to get the word out because, unlike a big publishing house, you don’t have a marketing or publicity department. You have to solicit reviews, get people talking about your book, Tweet and Facebook your little heart out, and hope it catches on.

The truth is, most self-published books – like most traditionally-published books – never catch on. They sell modestly, to the author’s friends and family, and…that’s about it. For every Amanda Hocking or Darcie Chan or John Locke, whose books sell a dozen copies, then a hundred, then a thousand, then a hundred thousand, and become word-of-mouth million-selling success stories, there’s a thousand John and Jane Does you’ve never heard of, who published their books with high hopes and great expectations, only to see them go nowhere. There are so many books out there, that only the creamiest of the creamy rise to the top, and get noticed, and purchased, and read…and what do those self-published authors do once they’ve hit the big time? Some of them choose to keep self-publishing, reasoning that they’ve made it this far, and made enough money, so why do they need the Simon & Schuster or Random Houses of the world do to what they’ve done already? But most of them end up going the traditional route, getting an agent, picking a publisher, and getting in bookstores old-school style.

In addition, every once in a while you’ll read about a writer who’s been burned by a Big Six publishing house and decided to go rogue and self-publish. Barry Eisler is the most famous example – after years of dissatisfaction with his covers, and the way his books were published, he walked away from a six-figure deal from St. Martin’s and decided, with great fanfare, to self-publish his new book…which ended up doing quite well, possibly, in part, because of the publicity surrounding his decision.

The more common scenario is for a self-published success to get noticed, and get a traditional publishing deal…because, as the wise-beyond-her-years Hocking put it, they want to spend their time writing. Not marketing. Not promoting. Not designing and approving covers, or fonts or nit-picky copy edits or negotiating placement on Amazon or the terms of an interview with Barnes & Noble, or fretting over price points, or organizing a book tour, or doing Twitter tours and guest-blogs and all the work that goes into promoting a piece of fiction. They want to write, and let the people whose job it is to edit and market and promote do the editing and marketing and promoting…and, maybe, they want their books available in bookstores, not just online (as self-published books tend to be). They want the affirmation of walking into a bookstore, pointing at their book and saying, “I wrote this.”

If you’re thinking about self-publishing, I urge you to look at Joe Konrath’s website. Konrath wrote mysteries, was published by St. Martin’s, worked like a dog to get his books out into the world, and was dropped by his publisher in spite of it all. He decided to self-publish, has enjoyed great success, which he spells out in very specific detail on his website. Konrath has become a bit of a zealot on the death of Big Publishing, the way, the way New York City agents and editors mistreat and abuse writers, and what the future of publishing will look like (short answer: Amazon will rule the world). He is one of self-publishing’s success stories – and remember, self-publishing successes are every bit as rare as traditional publishing success stories – so I’d take what he says with a grain of salt, but I’d read it.

There’s no doubt, for anyone who’s paying attention, that the world is changing, and the increased availability and popularity of e-books are driving that change. Will publishing end up looking like the music industry, where there are no more albums, no more CDs, no more great album art, just iTunes downloads where music exists in an electronic cloud, not on vinyl or on a disc? Will hardcovers become collectors’ items, pricy, gorgeously-designed items with hand-crafted illustrations and hand-tooled leather bindings, with most actual reading taking place on e-readers?

I don’t know what the future holds for publishing…but, if I was giving advice to a new writer, I would say this: write the book that only you can write. Write the best book you can. Get it to the point where it’s just as good as a book you’d pull off your local store’s shelf. Polish, re-read, edit, pay for an outside reader, then edit and polish again.
Once your book is perfect – or as close to perfect as it’s getting -- set a time period during which you’ll do your darndest to find an agent and get a publishing deal. Polish your manuscript to until it shines, write the best query letter you can, figure out all the ways that your book is different and special and fills a void in the bookshelves.

Then, if it doesn’t happen, I would put it up for sale on the Internet. I’d pay for a great cover. I’d write a great description. I’d devote what time and money my real life allowed to getting the book reviewed, read, noticed. I think that a lot of the stigma that used to be attached to self-publishing is gone, and now it’s just one more way to get your work into readers’ hands – and, maybe, if it’s what you want, into the hands of agents and editors and publishers, too. I’d do it with the understanding that some stigma still exists. Your self-published work is not going to get reviewed anywhere (but how much do those newspaper and magazine reviews matter, if they ever did?) Your local chain or independent bookstore probably won’t give you shelf space, because that shelf space is paid for by New York City publishers (but, again, with so many people buying their books online for devices, does shelf display even matter?)
I’d put my book out there, learn whatever I could from the experience, from the reviews, from what people said about the content, the cover, the packaging and the description…and I would keep writing, because – say it with me – a writer writes.
I’d move on, and start writing my next book, spending most of my time on that, knowing that it’s great writing that ultimately finds a home, and when it was done I’d start looking for agents again.
Maybe Book One, which you’ve worked your tail off to make great, will be one of the lucky ones, finding an audience, selling a hundred thousand copies and eventually landing you an agent and a publisher. Maybe you’ll decide, a la Konrath and Eisler, that you don’t need a traditional publisher, that you’d rather quit your day job and take on (or outsource) all the aspects of publishing a book well, because nobody’s ever going to care more about your book and its success than you. Maybe – and I’m being realistic, because you should know, going in, that this is your most likely scenario – you’ll sell thirty copies, and it’ll be the digital version of what most pre-e-book writers have, namely, the Book Under the Bed, the one that you wrote, with high hopes and great expectations, that didn’t get published, that maybe landed an agent, that served no purpose other than to prove that yes, you could write something novel-length…which is, itself, an achievement.

11. Use Social Media (if it feel right)

Updated: I remember, in 2002, telling my publisher that I wanted to start a blog. “Great!” they said. “Wonderful!” they told me. Then they asked, “What’s a blog?”
I explained that a blog was like an online diary, and mine would be about writing, and getting published, and book tours, and being a mom, and that one time someone was mean to me, and that I’d publish funny stories and excerpts of my work in progress and talk about “Survivor” and “American Idol” and my kids and my dog…and I did. Until I started feeling overwhelmed and overexposed (being held up as an example in a piece the New York Times ran in 2005 about so-called “Mommy-bloggers,” describing us as a pack of navel-gazing narcissists who neglect our kids in favor of our websites, didn’t help).

Then came MySpace (anyone remember that?) You could post pictures, and excerpts, and connect with your readers. Then came Facebook….and Facebook fan pages…and, finally, Twitter, which I think might be my favorite medium of all. Writers can send short 140-character blasts about everything from “The Bachelor” to the books they love to why Brooklyn lady-writers feel the need to keep throwing their non-Brooklyn-writing peers under the bus. You can send silly tweets, angsty tweets, tweets about “The Bachelor” which I love, and why the New York Times reviewed Jon-Jon Goulian two reviews and a profile, while ignoring Jesmyn Ward, who won the National Book Award. I adore Twitter for its immediacy, for the way it keeps me informed and entertained, for my ability to do it while I’m waiting to pick up my kid from preschool, or I’m in line at the grocery store. It’s a water-cooler for people who work alone all day, a rolling, rollicking, gossipy, informative and sometimes not-nice cocktail party with a hundred conversations happening at the same time. I think it’s made me a better writer, forcing me to be sharp and concise, to state my case clearly, to hone my remarks, to make sure they’re as funny or poignant or meaningful or helpful as they can be. Really, I can’t say enough about how much I love it.

But I know that there are writers who don’t share my enthusiasm, and who regard social media, and the notion of talking to readers in any non-book forum, as akin to torture. They just don’t want to do it…and, in my opinion, they shouldn’t have to.

Look: readers are savvy. They are smart. They can tell when someone who’s on Twitter just flat-out doesn’t want to be there,. They tend to be the ones whose only tweets are promotional – exhortations to buy his or her book/short story/paperback release, links to reviews, nothing that offers to much as a glimpse into the writer’s life, who she is, what she loves.

Being online is unavoidable. Your publisher will expect it, and readers have gotten used to having a level of access to writers that they never enjoyed before.

At the absolute bare minimum, you need a website – ideally (your website should not be, because what happens when you write Book Two?). It should have a picture of your book, a link to an excerpt to its first chapter, links to where people can buy it – Amazon, B&N and DO NOT FORGET your independent bookstores. You can link to Powell’s, to your local favorite bookstore (mine is Head House Books here in Philly), to Indiebound, which will help readers locate a store. You’ll want your author photo, your bio, maybe some links to other writers you like…or an essay about the book the changed your life….or the story of how you got published…or the book you love reading to your kids, or a list of your favorite books. It doesn’t need bells and whistles, or fancy graphics, but the idea is, you want to give the reader something as a reward for having made the trip to your site – a little treat, a funny story, a cute biography, a picture of you with bad hair in high school. Whatever. Poke around the Internet, find the authors you love, look at their websites, and see what feels right.

If you choose to tweet – and again, I cannot emphasize enough that it should be your choice – start off by finding your voice. Twitter’s like a conversation, and it’s important that you sound like yourself.

Next, find your topic. Obviously, you’re going to talk about your books, and when you’ve got a new one out, or a reading to announce, you’re going to let people know…but please, please, be very sparing with the self-promotion. People go on Twitter to be entertained, provoked, amused, affirmed, and even outraged. They do not go there to be sold things. Don’t be the writer whose only tweets are naked attempts to get people to buy your book. I’ll unfollow you. So will everyone else.

So if you’re not just doing post like “Yay! Kirkus loved my latest!” or “Reading tonight at the Free Library of Philadelphia,” what are you writing about? Start by looking at other writers’ feeds, and see what they’re doing. @mindykaling, writer and star of “The Office” and one of the best Tweeters out there, writes hilarious tweets about the long, involved, fantasies she had while running (okay, I know you’re not Mindy Kaling, and I’m not either, but it’s inspiring!) @laurazigman posts links to funny Xtranormal videos she makes. @harlancoben is just real and funny about being a dad and a writer; @garyshteyngart posts cute pictures of his dachsund.

Do you love to garden, or cook, or build little ships in glass bottles? Do your kids say funny things? Are you addicted to RuPaul’s Drag Race? (Don’t laugh – there are plenty of writers, including some very literary ones, who live-tweet trashy reality TV).
Be yourself. And connect. Don’t just talk; talk back to readers who tweet at you, even if it’s just a quick “hi,” or “thank you for reading.” Talk about what you’re reading – not only is it good karma, but, in my experience, people love to hear what authors have on their nightstands. Which leads nicely into my final piece of advice for anyone embarking on the writing life…. 

12. Read

Read everything. Read fiction and non-fiction, read hot best sellers and the classics you never got around to in college. Read men, read women, read travel guides and Harlequins and epic poetry and cookbooks and cereal boxes, if you're desperate. Get the rhythm of good writing in your ears. Cram your head with characters and stories. Abuse your library privileges. Never stop looking at the world, and never stop reading to find out what sense other people have made of it. If people give you a hard time and tell you to get your nose out of a book, tell them you're working. Tell them it's research. Tell them to pipe down and leave you alone.
So that's all I've got in the way of advice. As always, feel free to email me with follow-up questions.
Take care, and happy writing!

Jennifer Weiner, May, 2002

Updated April, 2012

I turned in the final draft of THE NEXT BEST THING on Wednesday, and planned a girlie "treat yo'self" day on Thursday -- a trip to New York, lunch with my editor, shopping for some pretty new dresses for my spring tour dates, and Ricki Lake's reading on the Upper East Side.

So there I was, happily ensconced in the quiet car (aka "heaven" to moms of small children), clicking through my Twitter feed, when I came across an interview with Lena Dunham, creator of the film "Tiny Furniture," and the new HBO show "Girls."

The interview was all about Dunham’s reading habits. In it, she in which she praised the movie "Clueless" and the adventures of Eloise, admitted to never having finished THE GREAT GATSBY…and, sigh, took a shot at chick lit.

Asked "Have you ever read a book about girls or women that made you angry or disappointed or just extremely annoyed?" (a looking-for-trouble question if I've ever heard one), Dunham replied, "I don’t have a taste for airport chick-lit, even in a guilty-pleasure way. Any book that is motored by the search for a husband and/or a good pair of heels makes me want to move to the outback. If there is a cartoon woman’s torso on the front or a stroller with a diamond on it, I just can’t."

Cue my sigh.

Here’s the thing: those books Dunham is railing against? They're pretty hard, if not impossible, to find. They’re not for sale in airports, they’re not available in bookstores; they’re not around any more now they were last summer, when Brooklynite-of-the-moment Thessaly La Salle bitched about "mind-numbing titles boast(ing) pink covers with stick figure women swinging purses and walking little dogs; in The Paris Review.

You can read all about it in whatever gloating “Chick Lit: She is Dead! And We're All Pissing On Her Grave!” story’s been published in the ten minutes since I started writing this blog post. Start with this one, or this one here!

Here is what happened: back in the day, Bridget Jones and her sisters were a huge success. Publishers, like the let's-make-some-money business-runners that they are, saw those books selling and began demanding more, more, more! More funny stories of single girls fretting over their hips! More tales of twentysomethings with meddling moms and gay BFFs trying to make it in the big city!

New imprints were born. Shelves overflowed with tomes with pink covers decorated with handbags and high heels. Business was booming. For a while, it felt like any young woman with a laptop and a bad breakup had a book deal.

Then, the marketplace got saturated with those single-in-the-city stories, some of which were fantastic, some of which were not great. Readers demonstrated that they could discern between the good and the copycats. Publishers pulled back. The strong survived. Candace Bushnell, Jane Green, Emily Giffin, along with newer voices like Sarah Pekkanen and Amy Hatvany and Liza Palmer and Caprice Crane, continue to have their work printed. Meanwhile, publishers started screaming for more sparkly vampires and dystopian YA, because that’s what’s selling right now.

So those shoes ‘n’ husband-hunting books Dunham’s railing against? They are a straw (wo)man.

Maybe Dunham took a glance at the cover of Shopaholic book, or, eek, the circa-2002 cover of IN HER SHOES, thought, “Ugh,” and then, when the Times reporter asked her “what books don’t you read,” instead of demurring with a ladylike (and infinitely kinder), “I’d rather talk about the books I DO like,” she went after the tired target of chick lit – specifically, a brand of chick lit that isn’t even around to bug her any more.

When I tweeted my disappointment with what Dunham had to say, a few ladies (including some magazine critics) tweeted back with the argument familiar to anyone who followed the hoo-hah last spring when Jennifer Egan used the occasion of her Pulitzer win to….bash chick-lit writers (is anyone sensing a theme here?)

People are allowed to not like things! Just having a vagina does not mean cheering for anything another vagina-haver does! That way lies madness, and votes for Sarah Palin, and “likes” on Katie Roiphe’s Facebook page! (I am assuming that Katie Roiphe has a Facebook page).

I agree. Of course Dunham’s entitled to her opinion. Of course we’re all allowed to not like things. Of course being female does not involve supporting every single thing that any other woman does.

But. But. But but but.

We know that it’s harder for women to get their books published and reviewed. We know it’s harder for them to get their shows on the air, their voices in the op-ed sections, their work in the pages of important magazines.

No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, in terms of prestige, and prizes, and who gets on the shelves and on the air and reviewed in the New York Times, it is – still -- a man’s world.

Given all of that – given the struggles that women writers face to get published, to get watched, to be heard – isn’t it better for the ladies who've made it to celebrate the women they can support, instead of slamming those they do not?

I’m not saying critics need to go easy on female writers or show-runners in the name of sisterhood. There is such a thing as the soft bigotry of low expectations. I don't want female critics to hold back because they happen to share the same chromosomes as the author/comedian/show-runner. That’s not helping anyone.

But for me, personally, there’s a third path, one that involves neither handing out meaningless blandishments for all things female nor cheerily chucking women whose work I don’t like under the bus, and it is this: saying nothing.

Years ago, Amy Bloom, a writer I adore (seriously, if you haven’t read A BLIND MAN CAN SEE HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU, go treat yourself right this minute), did an interview in which she said she was no longer writing negative reviews. If she was given a book she didn’t like, she’d just say, “Thanks, but no thanks. Find someone else.” Being a writer, putting her work out into the world, she knew how much a bad review could sting, and decided she'd rather not be the one causing another writer pain.

That’s kind of where I am right now. Get me alone, give me some wine (or, better yet, come to one of my readings this spring), pull me into a corner and I’ll gladly tell you what I really think about whatever you want to discuss. But in print? In public? If I don’t have anything nice to say about another woman’s work, I’m not saying anything at all.

Lena Dunham is only twenty-five. Nobody was interviewing me when I was that young, and I shudder to think what might have come out of my mouth if anyone had.

Maybe by the time Dunham's my age, and maybe seen her work dismissed as being too girlie or too frivolous for daring to deal with things like dating and roommates and sex and clothes, she’ll think twice before trashing other ladies’ work in public.

Maybe she’ll learn not to judge books by their covers…because some of those books with shoes and purses, arrayed so prettily on the airport bookstore tables, were not as silly or frivolous as they looked (seriously, even Joyce Carol Oates has had her paperbacks repackaged with bridesmaids’ dresses and flowers on the cover).

Maybe the New York Times, which snarkily dismissed Jodi Kantor’s book on the Obamas’ marriage as “chick non-fiction,” where a Q and A with Whitney Cummings began with the question “people say you slept your way to the top. So, did you?” and which reviews many more men than women, will quit asking questions that seem designed to provoke girl-on-girl violence.

Maybe it’ll all get better…and we can go back to talking about “The Bachelorette” again.

A girl -- a woman -- can dream.

Years ago, I was invited back to Princeton to give a reading at the creative writing department. (Yes, for those who don’t know, I graduated from Princeton, which I imagine is a subject of great shame among its stellar writing facility. I like to imagine Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison and John McPhee standing around, leafing dubiously through a copy of GOOD IN BED, saying, “Jennifer Weiner?....nope, don’t remember her at all!")

So I came, I read, I fielded questions, and then I went out to dinner at a beautiful restaurant near campus along with other current members of the creative-writing staff, whose numbers currently include Jeffrey Eugenides.

I love Jeffrey Eugenides…especially MIDDLESEX. I thought it was everything a novel should be – big, and sprawling and smart and engaging, with an immediately relatable hero/ine, a book that took on family and romance history and love and did it all in a way that made you say, “No, no, you go ahead, I’m just going to read a few more pages.

I also get extremely shy and tongue-tied around big-deal literary authors I respect. This comes in part from my personality, in part from being told for ten years that I’m not a real writer and I don’t write real books, just entertaining girlie fluff (and if you think it’s easy to write “just” entertaining girlie fluff, I urge you to give it a try. It’s actually harder than you’d think.

So there we were, a party of ten or so, sharing a delicious post-reading feast. Jeffrey Eugenides was seated a few spots down the table. I had to talk to him. I had to. There was no way I was going back to Philadelphia without telling this man how much his book had meant to me. But I couldn’t work up the courage to say anything besides “please pass the salt.”

Wine, I decided, would help.

I had a glass. Then another. Then a third, putting me two and a half glasses over my limit (I’m not much of a drinker). Finally, I touched his forearm and said (or possibly slurred) “I loooooved MIDDLESEX.”

He smiled politely. “Thank you.”

I bared my purplish-stained teeth at him in a grin that was meant to be friendly but probably looked feral.

“I read it right after it came out. Right after my first daughter was born.”

This factoid was greeted with another polite smile. Please, said the look on his face, please let the poet start talking to me again. But I was undeterred. (Also, possibly, drunk).

“And, you know, even though I’d had amnio, and I knew she was a girl, I made the doctor look extra-close to be sure.” (MIDDLESEX readers will remember that much of the book’s plot hinges on an aged pediatrician’s failure to properly recognize male genitalia when presented with it. “Because,” I concluded triumphantly, in a whisper that could probably be heard in West Windsor, “nobody wants to be the mom who missed the penis!”

At that point, Jeffrey Eugenides was looking at me with an expression on his face that could only be characterized as unmitigated horror, with a soupçon of disgust. I took another gulp from my wineglass.

“Oh, c’mon,” I said. “I can’t be the only mom who’s ever done that!”

Yes, said the look on Jeffrey Eugenides’ face. Yes, you can.

So there you have it: my evening with Jeffrey Eugenides. Which, if I’m remembering right, ended with a cordial conversation about Princeton’s best cupcake shop.

And I’ll be back in Princeton, at the Public Library, this summer when THE NEXT BEST THING is released, and there may – or may not – be talk of penises. Stay tuned for tour dates...

In which two New York Times Book Review editors discuss their female trouble....

Editor One: So, you’re not going to like this, but I really think we need to talk about the sexism situation.

Editor Two (whining): Didn’t we talk about some lady book last week?

One: No, last week we talked about Mark Leyner.

Two: Oh. (Happily). I like Mark Leyner.

One: So do we all. But here’s the deal: there’s this evidence, and it’s pretty overwhelming, that women’s literary work is perceived, reviewed, purchased and read much differently than similar work by men.

Two: And this is our problem because….?

One: Because people are talking. And noticing. And counting how many women’s books the Times reviews and how many women reviewers we hire. It’s making us look bad. It might even be making people not read us. So the next time we write about Chad Harbach, or Mark Leyner's sugar-frosted nut sack, or one of the Jonathans….

Two: Please. We’re the only game in town. People are going to read what we say, no matter what. (Excited). Let's write about Chad Harbach again!

One: You do this, or I’m telling everyone how long you spent in the bathroom with that Wall Street Journal piece about James Patterson's Palm Beach estate.

Two (shocked): You wouldn’t!

One: I would. And this won’t be so bad. Here’s my plan: we find some Times-approved woman writer and let her write an essay about the problem.

Two: Not one of those icky commercial writers? The ones who were making all that fuss about Franzen?

One: No, no, no. Don’t be silly. You know we don’t mention those ladies except on the bestseller list. We’ll find an acceptable lady writer. Someone who’s sophisticated. Genteel. Someone who writes about families and marriages and relationships and motherhood, preferably as experienced by wealthy New Yorkers.

Two: I don’t know. That still kind of sounds like chick lit. Or women’s fiction.

One: Can't be chick lit if it’s written by a critically-respected midlist author whose books the Times reviews.

Two: Ah! Gotcha. Okay, so Elinor Lipman? Kathryn Harrison? Cathleen Schine?

One: I was thinking Meg Wolitzer.

Two: Huh. Didn’t she once write an essay about reading a Sophie Kinsella book and not finding it completely odious?

One: That was a long time ago. Probably no one remembers.

Two: I don’t know. She had a scene in THE TEN YEAR NAP where a lady breast-fed another woman’s baby. (Shudders). I don’t like breast-feeding. Or babies. Or books about mothers who breast-feed their babies. That would never happen in a Jonathan Franzen book.

One: I know.

Two: In a Jonathan Franzen book, the character would have to dig through a turd to find a wedding ring. That’s literature.

One: The piece really isn't that bad. She uses the word “relegated” twice in the first sentence. Then she announces that she’s not going to be discussing about popular women’s fiction, but “literature that happens to be written by women.”

Two: So “popular” can’t be “literature.” I like where this is going.

One: Then she quotes Jane Smiley, who complains about not making Jodi Picoult-style coin or getting Franzen-style respect.

Two (fondly): Ladies. Always with the claws out.

One: She does mention the VIDA stats. Says women get “shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications.”

Two: She called us prestigious? I like her better and better.

One: And she bitches about lady book jackets. “Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach.”

Two: Well, girls do like their pretty things.

One: She does make one point that concerns me. She says that in the seventies and eighties, things were better. “There was Atwood, there was Morrison. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies. But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance.

Two: But she doesn’t say that maybe the shift has something to do with the way literary women treat their best-selling commercial sisters? Like Jennifer Egan winning the Pulitzer and dissing women she saw as writing lesser books? Or Maureen Dowd printing a conversation with Leon Wieseltier about how those books with pink covers are ruining literature, and complaining about log-rolling, which never, ever happens anywhere else in the literary world?

One: Nope. She also doesn't seem to think that women in her position have an obligation to help the next generation of young literary writers, with blurbs, or giveaways, or joint readings, or supporting one another in public or on social media the way commercial women writers do.

Two: Well, as long as she's not throwing the New York Times under the bus, I don't care who she blames, or doesn't blame. You go on with your bad self. I'm going to be in the bathroom for the next ten minutes or so.

One: Tell James Patterson's loggia I say 'hi.'

I have no idea how the New York Times editors decide what to cover in the INSIDE THE LIST column...but I like to imagine the discussion going something like this.

Editor one: Looks like Jodi Picoult’s new book is going to debut at number one.

Editor two: (Blank look): Jodi Who?

One: You know. Jodi Picoult. The lady who writes books about real people facing ethical dilemmas?

Two: Real what?

One: Never mind. Look, it’s a huge best-seller, and we really should say something. I mean, her readers, Times readers…lots of overlap there.

Two: Didn’t we just write about some lady-book bestseller? That mommy-porn thing? Shouldn’t that buy us, like, a month? And at least two more profiles of Nicholson Baker?

One: (Placating). Look, it’s not like I’m saying we have to review the book or anything crazy. But this column’s called Inside the List. Which means that maybe we should actually mention the books that are on the bestseller list. Every once in a while.

Two (Sulking): I don’t like writing about popular fiction, unless I get to make fun of it. That’s why I’m an editor at a mainstream newspaper with a diverse readership which nevertheless permits – nay, encourages – its publishing reporters to ignore most of the books people actually enjoy, especially if they’re written and enjoyed by women.

One: Shh!

Two: Oops. Sorry. (Whispering) Forgot I’m not supposed to talk about that in public. (Then) Look, can’t we just write about Chad Harbach some more? He was on the list!

One: He doesn’t have a book on the bestseller list right now.

Two: Yeah, but he did. Remember?

One: I do. But, given that it took him nine years to write the first one, we might not get to talk about him for a bit. Now, this Picoult book. It deals with organ donation, end-of-life decisions, complex family dramas. Oh, and it’s got a protagonist who lived with a wolf pack. She did a lot of research. Maybe we can talk about that?

Two (brightening): Hey, wait a minute! Wasn’t she one of those lady writers who hates Jonathan Franzen?

One: Well, technically, those lady writers weren’t complaining about Franzen, per se, but, rather, the disparate amounts of attention given to men versus women, and literary versus commercial fiction in mainstream...

Two: Yeah, yeah. Probably Josie was just jealous of Franzen. Can we write about Franzen?

One (Slowly): So, instead of writing about Jodi Picoult and her number-one bestselling book, you want to write about Jonathan Franzen.

Two: Well, we can mention Joanie’s book. Throw her a bone. And then we can talk about she doesn’t like Franzen, and then we can talk about Franzen! (Happily). I like talking about Franzen. You know he hates Twitter, right?

One: Okay, but given the number of people who read Jodi’s…

Two: Franzen.

One: Yes, but did you happen to see those VIDA statistics about how the Times has been reviewing more books by men than by...

Two: Franzen!

One: Look, it’s getting a little embarrassing with all of the…


In non-Franzen news, Liz Moore, author of HEFT, and I are going to be reading and talking on Thursday night at Headhouse Books in Philadelphia at 7 p.m.. Join us for lively conversation and dessert!