This Famous Author Fought For Her Right to Speak Up, and Won
It's a classic case of she said, he said. Wherein he said, "Be quiet."
Last week, Alexander Nazaryan, culture editor at the Atlantic Wire, tried to silence bestselling novelist Jennifer Weiner for her criticism of the New York Times Book Review's latest feature, "Bookends." He lambasted her as "combative," "polarizing," and "strident," and cited unnamed sources that implied she should pipe down.
Weiner, author of popular books like In Her Shoes and Good in Bed, frequently and openly takes issue with the exclusivity of the literary fiction world. She was less than impressed with the Book Review's new back-page section, in which, "two writers take on pressing and provocative questions about the world of books." Weiner posted multiple tweets that took "Bookends" to task for excluding commercial writers, and argued that the premiere column, on whether novelists are too timid in criticizing each other, was, "toothless, tepid, engineered not to offend or provoke." Her comments prompted Nazaryan to write the article "Jennifer Weiner is Mad at The New York Times Book Review Again" (a headline that reads like a middle school mean-girl snark).
Rather than disagreeing with the content of Weiner's tweets, Nazaryan instead attacked her for expressing her opinions in the first place, citing such august sources as "some within the book world," who said Weiner's strong criticisms are causing them to tune her out, and "one book blogger," who suggested Book Review could "quiet Weiner" by hiring her. Weiner and her Twitter followers quickly called Nazaryan out for poor journalism and unsubstantiated claims. The two authors had a phone conversation, and Weiner wrote a rebuttal article for the Atlantic Wire. In "The Wrong Way to Talk About Women in the Book World," Weiner points out that Nazaryan, "quoted my tweets, but did not respond to their content by saying, 'They picked a great lineup of writers,' or, 'the Times has no mandate to hire popular novelists,' or, 'that first piece was scintillating,' or even, 'let’s reserve judgment until a few more columns have run.' There are valid responses to the points I made. Instead of engaging with the message, he chose to shoot the messenger."
This is nothing new, of course. The list of Women With Opinions who get verbally assaulted by men — not for their opinions, but for having those opinions — is long and unending. One notable example is feminist and media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who created the web series Tropes vs Women in Video Games to examine misogyny in games. Last July, Sarkeesian found herself the target of online harassment campaigns that filled her Wikipedia page with lies, pornography, and profanity, and spammed her YouTube channel with disgusting comments. She received death and rape threats, and one man even posted an online game that allowed users to batter an image of her face.
Some women fight back when men attempt to hush them, but many stay silent for fear of further attacks. "I worry about how many voices we’re losing when women — particularly the ones just starting out, dipping that first toe into the waters of online debate — see what happens to the writers who are willing to put themselves out there," Weiner said. "Make a point, and you’re 'combative' or 'polarizing.'"
A word like "strident" — which Nazaryan later removed from his original article (his follow-up can be found here) — carries heavy weight when it's used to describe a woman. Historically, it has been used to dismiss or vilify women who speak out. In her book How to Be a Woman, British broadcaster and UK Times columnist Caitlin Moran suggests that women should reclaim "strident feminist" as a badge of honor. "They have used it to abuse us! Let’s use it right back at them!" she writes. That only works, however, when women use the word to refer to themselves, as Slate writer Amanda Hess points out in a piece that briefly tackles the history of the term "strident."
Rather than penning an article that's basically a long "here we go again" eye roll, Nazaryan could have given his counterpoints to Weiner's criticisms, engaging her in a discussion, rather than attempting to quiet her. While Nazaryan may not have been malicious in his intent, his attack was ultimately petty and shoddily constructed. Worse, it served to perpetuate a culture that shuts women down for having a voice.
It's heartening that the two writers were able to have a lengthy discussion and seemingly make amends, but that only took place after numerous supporters of Weiner, and Weiner herself, spoke up in her defense. The language we use to talk about women and their opinions needs to change. "Disagree with someone, and it’s not a 'debate' or a 'discussion,' but a 'cat fight' or a 'feud,'" Weiner writes. If there's to be active, lively debate within the book world, and the world in general, women's voices need to be afforded the same respect as men's, not brushed away in dismissal.