The Next Best Thing
Jennifer Weiner, 2012
Simon & Schuster
Actors aren’t the only ones trying to make it in Hollywood.…At twenty-three, Ruth Saunders left her childhood home in Massachusetts and headed west with her seventy-year-old grandma in tow, hoping to make it as a screenwriter.
Six years later, she hits the jackpot when she gets The Call: the sitcom she wrote, The Next Best Thing, has gotten the green light, and Ruthie’s going to be the showrunner. But her dreams of Hollywood happiness are threatened by demanding actors, number-crunching executives, an unrequited crush on her boss, and her grandmother’s impending nuptials.
Set against the fascinating backdrop of Los Angeles show business culture, with an insider’s ear for writer’s room showdowns and an eye for bad backstage behavior and set politics, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel is a rollicking ride on the Hollywood roller coaster, a heartfelt story about what it’s like for a young woman to love, and lose, in the land where dreams come true. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—March 28, 1970
• Where—De Ridder, Louisiana, USA
• Raised—Simsbury, Connecticut
• Education—B.A., Princeton University
• Currently—lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jennifer Weiner is an American writer, television producer, and former journalist. She is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Weiner was born in DeRidder, Louisiana, where her father was stationed as an army physician. The next year, her family (including a younger sister and two brothers) moved to Simsbury, Connecticut, where Weiner spent her childhood.
Weiner's parents divorced when she was 16, and her mother came out as a lesbian at age 55. Weiner has said that she was "one of only nine Jewish kids in her high school class of 400" at Simsbury High School. She entered Princeton University at the age of 17 and received her bachelor of arts summa cum laude in English in 1991, having studied with J. D. McClatchy, Ann Lauterbach, John McPhee, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates. Her first published story, "Tour of Duty," appeared in Seventeen magazine in 1992.
After graduating from college, Weiner joined the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she managed the education beat and wrote a regular column called "Generation XIII" (referring to the 13th generation following the American Revolution), aka "Generation X." From there, she moved on to Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader, still penning her "Generation XIII" column, before finding a job with the Philadelphia Inquirer as a features reporter.
Novels and TV
Weiner continued to write for the Inquirer, freelancing on the side for Mademoiselle, Seventeen, and other publications, until after her first novel, Good in Bed, was published in 2001.
In 2005, her second novel, In Her Shoes (2002), was made into a feature film starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine by 20th Century Fox. Her sixth novel, Best Friends Forever, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and made Publishers Weekly's list of the longest-running bestsellers of the year. To date, she is the author of 10 bestselling books, including nine novels and a collection of short stories, with a reported 11 million copies in print in 36 countries.
In addition to writing fiction, Weiner is a co-creator and executive producer of the (now-cancelled) ABC Family sitcom State of Georgia, and she is known for "live-tweeting" episodes of the reality dating shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. In 2011, Time magazine named her to its list of the Top 140 Twitter Feeds "shaping the conversation." She is a self-described feminist.
Weiner married attorney Adam Bonin in October of 2001. They have two children and separated amicably in 2010. As of 2014 she lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her partner Bill Syken.
Gender bias in the media
Weiner has been a vocal critic of what she sees as the male bias in the publishing industry and the media, alleging that books by male authors are better received than those written by women, that is, reviewed more often and more highly praised by critics. In 2010, she told Huffington Post,
I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book—in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.... I think it's irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites—those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed...the Times tends to pick white guys.
In a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy, she said, "There are gatekeepers who say chick lit doesn’t deserve attention but then they review Stephen King." When Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom was published in 2010 to critical acclaim and extensive media coverage (including a cover story in Time), Weiner criticized what she saw as the ensuing "overcoverage," igniting a debate over whether the media's adulation of Franzen was an example of entrenched sexism within the literary establishment.
Though Weiner received some backlash from other female writers for her criticisms, a 2011 study by the organization VIDA bore out many of her claims, and Franzen himself, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, agreed with her:
To a considerable extent, I agree. When a male writer simply writes adequately about family, his book gets reviewed seriously, because: "Wow, a man has actually taken some interest in the emotional texture of daily life," whereas with a woman it’s liable to be labelled chick-lit. There is a long-standing gender imbalance in what goes into the canon, however you want to define the canon.
As for the label "chick lit", Weiner has expressed ambivalence towards it, embracing the genre it stands for while criticizing its use as a pejorative term for commercial women's fiction.
I’m not crazy about the label because I think it comes with a built-in assumption that you’ve written nothing more meaningful or substantial than a mouthful of cotton candy. As a result, critics react a certain way without ever reading the books.
In 2008, Weiner published a critique on her blog of a review by Curtis Sittenfeld of a Melissa Bank novel. Weiner deconstructs Sittenfeld's review, writing,
The more I think about the review, the more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order.
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 5/21/2014.)
Jennifer Weiner is a dynamo of a writer: witty and engaging with a series of best-selling novels.... But The Next Best Thing isn't on a par with Good in Bed or In Her Shoes.... Certainly, the TV business is overripe for ridicule, and Weiner leaves no Hollywood cliche unturned: the self-absorbed, empty-headed actress; the crass producer who makes casting decisions based on whether he would sleep with the actress...; the network executives who alter plots and themes on a whim. The book's nicest surprise is a lovely leading man for Ruth who is a handsome producer with a gentle wit, thinning hair and a house out of Architectural Digest—and who also happens to use a wheelchair.
Weiner is coming off a year in Hollywood, and she puts the experience to excellent use in this utterly engaging story of a showrunner who, after six years of slogging, finally gets a series on the air, only to discover that her troubles are only beginning—meddling studio execs, egomaniacal actors and one crushable but unobtainable boss.
Ruth [Saunders] gets the coveted green light for her show, but things go downhill from there.... Ruth's vision ends up getting a little watered down in the execution.... Weiner writes bitingly about the experience of women in Hollywood writers' rooms.
NPR Saturday Edition
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.
A sitcom showrunner finds the road to her first series launch much rockier than expected. When Ruth Saunders gets "the call" from the network telling her that her original series, The Next Best Thing, is a go, at first she is incredulous....The plot, exposition and flashback, heavy at first, pick up speed as complications multiply. Spares no bon mot in exposing Hollywood's sexism, ageism and incurable penchant for extravagant silliness
1. What is the significance of swimming in The Next Best Thing? Why do you think it is such a cathartic activity for Ruth?
2. How does Ruth use humor to her advantage? What purpose does it serve her? What did you think about her involvement with Hellsmouth?
3. Throughout the novel, Ruth finds herself in situations where either she is disappointed by people involved in The Next Best Thing, or she knows she will be disappointing others. How does she handle these moments, and should she have handled any of them differently? What does Ruth mean when she says, “I could do it all as long as I felt like my toughness was in the service of something important; that I was protecting the essential heart of my story” (290)?
4. How does the novel depict male-female dynamics in Hollywood? For those people in positions of power, is their gender shown to be part of their success? Do you think that the outcome of The Next Best Thing would have been any different if the show had had a male show-runner, rather than a female?
5. Consider the various interiors described within the novel—Ruth and Grandma’s home in Framingham, the Two Daves’s offices, Little Dave’s home. What does each physical space convey about the individuals who inhabit it?
6. Why is television so sacred to Ruth? How do her beliefs about the power of television impact how she responds to the production process of The Next Best Thing?
7. After announcing that she and Maurice are engaged, Grandma says to Ruth, “I didn’t want to be alone, so I didn’t let you go when I should have...I should have pushed you out of the nest when it was time for you to go” (163). Do you agree with Grandma’s assessment, or do you think their living arrangements were more mutually beneficial? How does her relationship with Ruth evolve over the course of the novel?
8. Both Little Dave and Ruth have physical scars which are visibly apparent, but to what extent are they internally scarred as well? How do the ways in which they’ve been wounded shape their perspectives on the world—and how they view each other?
9. Turn to p. 299 and re-read Ruth’s description of the three major themes in literature. Which would you apply to The Next Best Thing? Is the novel more about man versus man—or man versus himself?
10. Why do you think Ruth is devastated by Cady Stratton’s weight loss? When Dave tries to console Ruth, saying, “There are pretty girls who can’t get out of their own way,” Ruth responds: “But nobody identifies with them.” With whom do you agree, and why?
11. How are traditional notions of beauty and sexuality challenged in the novel? Which couples get “happy endings” and what does that happiness look like?
12. Discuss what the words “compromise,” “collaboration,” and “concession” mean to you. Are they simply variations on the same concept, or do you think there are distinct differences between these terms? As a group, can you agree upon an example of each in the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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