Jennifer Weiner, the bestselling author of eight books, had been battling traffic for close to an hour before landing at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. With her kids ensconced in an upstairs room, she collapses into a perfect leather chair and sweetly, if sweatily, orders off the bar menu.
The unpretentious 40-year-old is different from many other novelists: She's online, engaged and quick to speak up for women's fiction. And she's one of the few authors a publisher will book into a hotel in Beverly Hills.
Because, as she explains simply, her books sell.
Weiner's new novel, "Fly Away Home," the story of a betrayed political wife and her two adult daughters, is prominently displayed at Target and in the top 10 lists on Amazon.com. At every stop on her book tour, she serves cupcakes; she'll be at Vroman's in Pasadena on Monday.
Weiner has an easy grip on the sassy side of the zeitgeist. When her first novel, "Good in Bed," came out in 2001, she was swept up in the chick lit tide. That book, about a zaftig woman trying to find success, sparkled with Weiner's funny, strong voice. She followed it up with "In Her Shoes," a tale of two sisters that was made into a 2005 film starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette. Weiner swiftly established herself as one of the best in the chick lit class.
For a time, bookstores were awash in these pink-jacketed novels — some pale shadows of Weiner's, all similarly adorned with pictures of shoes and purses and kicky girlish silhouettes. Mallory Young, a professor of English at Tarleton State University in Texas, co-edited "Chick Lit: The New Women's Fiction," one of the few academic works about the genre. These books are important because they "give voice" to a new generation of women "as they try to navigate financial issues, career issues and family issues."
Yet after the wave came a backlash. Weiner was a target in the anthology "This Is Not Chick Lit," which sought to reestablish a literary beachhead for female writers. It still grates. "The idea that somehow the success of that genre meant less shelf space for quote-unquote worthwhile writing by women, I'm sorry, but no, that's not the way it works in the economy," Weiner says. "My book sales make 'real writers' possible."
She's entirely right. Like other creative industries — music, movies — publishing's bottom line is elevated by its big hits. Although Weiner is happy that her books are popular, it doesn't make the lack of attention from the critical establishment any less of, as she would say, an "ish."
"Women are far and away the bigger consumers of fiction than men, but men are still far and away the more reviewed, the more critically esteemed, the more respected," she points out. "That can get frustrating."
"She's super smart, but her books are perceived as fluffy," says Lizzie Skurnick, a critic with a long history of looking at Chick Lit. "It's very hard to have that [intelligence] acknowledged when you write for women, and your readers love you and come to see you."
One reason Weiner connects with readers is because of what she writes. "People are always coming up to me with my books and saying, 'You write these things I think but I could never say,'" she says. "I wonder if novels work for women because they give us a safe place to talk about our ish."
A wife and mother of two, Weiner readily riffs on how hard it is for women to live up to expectations — during pregnancy, as mothers, as sisters, as spouses — as well as their everyday embarrassments and joys. She does this not just in her novels. A onetime newspaper columnist whose career took her to the Philadelphia Inquirer, she started blogging in 2002, before her publisher knew what a blog was. "I like having that conversation," she says.
This interest in engaging with her readers has never ebbed. Weiner embraces Twitter, where she spends less time promoting her own work than she does in casual exchanges. "I love doing that," she says. "I feel like that's a fun conversation that builds a bond without having anything to do with my novels, necessarily."
Her personality is suited to the modern mode of conversation-as-promotion. Quick and funny, she laughs often and is not shy about sharing. Speaking via Skype from Cape Cod, where she has a summer house, she appears on screen fresh from the beach. "I put on makeup!" she says brightly. "Can you tell?"
She's inclined to ask questions of her fans on Facebook and Twitter too. Most recently, she nudged publishing etiquette by taking a question about book jacket covers to her readers. Did they prefer jackets with author photos or those with blurbs from other writers?
"Everyone was saying, I don't even read the quotes, because of course they're going to say nice stuff," she says. Although it runs counter to a strong publishing tradition, Weiner decided, "Yeah, you're right."
"She has a huge Facebook presence that's very funny, and also very honest," says Skurnick. "I think Jennifer is very brave. What I love about her, as much as anyone on the Internet, is she really is herself."
When she attended Princeton — where she studied writing with John McPhee, Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison — she didn't alter her prose. "I never tried to publish any fiction in the literary quarterly because I knew even then that what I was doing was a little more commercial than what was in vogue.
"I always had this voice," Weiner says. "It's just something you're born with."