Lynne Murray says:
The Greeks had a word for it–deus ex machina. Playwrights who got their characters into an unsolvable predicament would trundle out a piece of stage equipment, a crane or mekhane, to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.
The god characters would then solve the mortals’ problems.
Fat characters in fiction often inspire the author to bring out what I call the diet ex machina. Divine intervention is now considered lazy storytelling, but fat is generally considered so detestable that writers have to work very hard to get most readers to identify with a fat main character. The most popular solution is to diffuse fat hatred by bringing on the Magical Diet Fairy who transforms the fat character into a thin character.
What’s that? Successful dieting in the long term is about as likely as a Greek god coming down to solve our problems? Sadly, that doesn’t figure into the equation.
Of course, there are books with unapologetically fat heroes. I recently collaborated with Peggy Elam at Pearlsong Press to compile an updated version of a comprehensive list celebrating fat friendly fiction. This list is a work in progress. If we’ve missed a book, please leave a comment on the page so we can add it. [If anyone would like a printable one-page list of fat-friendly authors by genre suitable for taking to the bookstore or library, leave a comment here and I'll send you one.]
When the list was complete, I announced it on Facebook and one of my friends shared the info with her own Facebook friends, adding the warning: “Check it out..whether pro fat or not..some good reading…”
I was a little startled at the “pro fat” phrasing, because it makes it sound as if these books promote fatness. Then I realized that for many people just reading about fat characters at all is disturbing. Putting together an entire list devoted to fat heroes might be interpreted as an invitation to the reader to become fat. Worse yet it might be–horrifically–a suggestion that “it’s okay to be fat.”
By that measurement, yes, I am pro-fat. I’m also in favor of all people to accepting and honoring their bodies unconditionally: fat, thin, disabled, old, young, whatever.
How did I get here? And why do I feel good about it?
I took this path in my writing because I couldn’t tolerate one more fat joke in a novel. Worse yet, the real stories of life-sized humans were not being told in current fiction. I just could no longer stand the lying myths that constituted the only way fat people were represented.
In the field of “quality literature” or “mainstream fiction,” novelists such as Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins, mirror the mainstream myths about fatness and its cures by saying, Julie Orringer’s review offers problem and cure in one sentence: “Edie Middlestein, the novel’s larger-than-life protagonist, is killing herself by overeating, and her family can’t bear to watch.”
A writer can build her reputation by examining and displaying her disgust at extreme obesity (as there is in detailing other ways readers wouldn’t want to be, such as senile dementia) indulging in body negativity as sort of a Biggest Loser body-bashing for intellectuals.
I was surprised and happy when Laurie pointed out the article that prompted this post, “Obesity as Metaphor” by Hannah Rosefield. Rosefield’s piece examines four 2012 books that take very fat characters as their subject. (Some descriptions Rosefield quotes in her article might be triggering for those of us who avoid fat-hateful prose.)
Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, Heft by Liz Moore, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, and Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter all have protagonists who are double or even triple their “healthy” weight. They are super obese, or very nearly so. Super obese is one step beyond morbidly obese; it is the technical term for someone with a body mass index above 50.
Arthur Opp, one of the narrators of Heft, is … six foot three and somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds. A retired literature professor, Arthur hasn’t left his Brooklyn home in a decade. Edie Middlestein, the Midwestern Jewish matriarch in Attenberg’s multigenerational family saga, weighs 332 pounds and is about to undergo her second obesity-related operation. Butter takes its title from the nickname of its 423-pound, 16-year-old narrator. Sick of being bullied and ignored, Butter decides to step into the limelight and announces his intention to eat himself to death live on the Internet.
These four novels constitute an emerging and very modern genre, one that explores the physicality as well as the psychology and sociology of obesity. They describe what it’s like to move as an obese person, to approach buildings and furniture and vehicles in which you simply don’t fit: how quickly you sweat and tire and lose your breath.
As Rosefield notes and quotes, these authors all include a heaping helping of disgust along with their detailed observations of physical ways in which fat people move, dress, eat, drink and interact.
When an author’s language masks contempt as observation it’s a more covert agenda than the simple “lose the weight, win the boyfriend” fairy tale. But the underlying assumptions come through loud and clear: “Fat is bad. Extreme fatness is very, very bad. All fat is caused by dramatic overeating and laziness and demonstrates emotional or mental disease. Weight loss is the only path to repairing the damage and living a meaningful life.”
Rosefield provides an unusually insightful examination of the uses of fat as a metaphor:
It’s not surprising that these four novels portray fatness as inherently unhealthy and unattractive. The obese body has to be these things, if it is to function as a metaphor both for the outsider and for economic guilt. In using the obese body in this way, Heft, The Middlesteins, Big Ray, and Butter invoke the conventional obesity discourse — that is, of obesity as undesirable and unnatural, both the cause and the product of psychological distress.
But another discourse exists, one which disputes the terms and the values we apply to fatness. This discourse … rejects the medicalization of fatness, refusing to see it as an illness, or the cause of illness, and objecting to the use of labels such as overweight (over what weight?) and obese.
I was delighted to see Rosefield quote from Marilyn Wann’s foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, concluding the quote with Wann’s diagnosis:
If you believe that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly, then you are not doing fat studies work… You are instead in the realm of advertising, popular media, or the more derivative types of visual art — in other words, propaganda.
Rosefield turns back to the four authors whose novels she is examining. She includes spoilers which I am also including (ha, ha, ha, I don’t care, write a hateful book, suffer a spoiler!):
Kimball, Moore, Attenberg, and Lange probably would not see themselves as writing within the fat-hating, body-shaming discourse that Wann identifies. But their novels make many of the same assumptions. Butter, Edie, and Ray all suffer from obesity-related health problems, which lead to the death of the latter two. It is seen as imperative that all four characters lose weight in order to enjoy a fulfilling and healthy life; all four are unhappy, and eat to compensate for emotional dissatisfaction. Unlike chick lit novels such as Good in Bed, where fat characters have to change their attitude to be comfortable in their bodies, the fat characters here have to change their bodies if they are to be comfortable in the world.
It’s troubling that these novels take such a uniform and conventional approach to obesity. If it is not to become quickly sterile, an obesity-focused literary genre must expand to include examples that show other ways of talking about and being fat.
After reading all this, you might need an antidote; that’s one of the things the fat friendly fiction list linked above is for.
(Thanks to Cheryl sat on Fat Studies Mailing List for the Attenberg article.)