When I was an insecure college freshman, Good in Bed was a godsend. The protagonist was wickedly funny, even as she voiced my fears about the way my weight would limit my future, that nobody would ever love me, nobody interesting would ever hire me. It was a reminder to buck up, kid, it'll be fine.
But something has started to bother me about Jennifer Weiner's cheerleading for happy endings.
Weiner is the subject of a fair and friendly profile in this week's New Yorker, thanks to her sideline as "unlikely feminist enforcer," as the piece puts it. She's tireless in kicking up a fuss over the ways women are marginalized in the literary world, quick to point out double standards. Suggest she's "strident" and she will call you out on it. And that's a battle worth fighting.
But there's another layer to her argument: She wants respect for the kind of commercial fiction she's spent her career writing. To dismiss a novel because it stars a charming female protagonist working her way toward a happy ending, her argument goes, is to dismiss it simply because it reads as feminine, and that's a sexist load of crap. And she's not wrong—thrillers, comic books and science fiction, traditionally assumed to be male domains, all receive a friendlier critical hearing than much-maligned "chick lit."
The problem, for me at least, is the way Weiner sells her happy endings. In the New Yorker piece, she makes a case for their intrinsic value as a kind of healing balm:
"I just have a very hard time seeing entertainment as a bad thing. The things that come up again and again in my books, like a man who thinks that you are beautiful just as you are: is that sentimental, wish-fulfillment bullshit that isn't ever going to happen in real life? I feel like it's something that we want, and I believe in it, even if it is sentimental."
She was even more explicit in a talk attended by the New Yorker, given at the Renfrew Center Foundation conference, devoted to eating disorder treatment:
Weiner argued for the value of familiar books, with their tropes of self-realization and rescue. And she defended the "political impact of escapism," having written her first book "almost as a life raft to the girl I had once been." She continued, "I wanted girls like me—who felt ugly, or fat, or lonely, or like it was never going to get better—to be able to read something and think maybe it will."
Here she is making the connection between her causes:
The same cultural prejudices that maligned large women, she said, explain why books like hers do not get critical respect. Her campaign about books, she suggested, is more than just a campaign about books: "Just as I want plus-size women visible, and valued, and loved in my books, so do I want books like mine visible and valued, if not loved, by a critical establishment that's still too rooted in sexist double standards, still too swift to dismiss women's work as small, trivial, unimpressive, and unimportant."
I love a good happy ending. Who doesn't? And when you're fat, it can feel like a rare ray of light to read about a character dealing with the same day-to-day bullshit. Hell, I practically collect plus-size romance novels of the most angsty variety. There is nothing wrong with imagining a better outcome for yourself than most media promises.
But in these arguments there's this irritating drip, drip, drip of suggestion that those of us who're fat or otherwise getting the short end of the beauty-standards stick need some sort of special ministering. We need the happy endings, because we need to believe, dammit. We need succor!
It's like being chased down the street by a pack of well-meaning but nonetheless terrifying Salvation Army captains. It's clammy and it's smothering, this worry for my emotional wellbeing.
You'd almost think Weiner was concern-trolling, though she's clearly not being disingenuous—this is obviously something she cares deeply about. But this line of argument seems to assume that to be less than conventionally attractive is to be necessarily sad-sack. Sad fatties need hugs, and they can get them from commercial fiction.
The irony is, there's an enormous disconnect between this line of argument and what you'll actually find in Weiner's books. Cannie Shapiro, the protagonist of Good in Bed, has her dark moments, but they're often leavened by a prickly kind of humor: "Nobody's going to date me looking like this….I'm going to die alone, and my dog's going to eat my face, and no one will find us until the smell seeps out under the door," she complains at one point, but she's never defeated by it.
Image by Jim Cooke.