Tag Archives: novels

Huge: When a Fat-Positive TV Series Transcends Its Source Material

Lynne Murray says:

I heard a lot about the TV series, Huge, before I found out it was based on a book by the same name. I watched the  clip of the scene that opens the series where the incandescently subversive Nikki Blonsky turns a fat camp weigh-in into a rebellious (and hot) striptease act.

I had watched all the episodes and the audio commentary before I learned the series was based on a book by Sasha Paley.

The book (unlike the TV series) should come with a trigger warning for recovering dieters. Reading it could easily bring up some unwanted flashbacks to Diet-Think. Each chapter begins with a list of what was eaten (usually not much) and how much was exercised. One camper tells another to be sure to record what she just ate, saying, “If you bite it, you write it.” The level of body snark is off the charts, with constant jealousy of thinner campers and descriptions of disgust at larger ones.

Slightly easier to endure is the rebellious Wilhelmina, who declares that if forced to go to fat camp, she will try to gain weight simply to embarrass her parents, but it’s hard to sympathize with her cruel treatment of … pretty much everybody. All the other characters live in a toxic atmosphere of anxiety around food, body size, and social isolation relieved by unsuccessful attempts to get with the cool kids or avoid the fatter kids.

Rebecca, an insightful Amazon commenter puts it well:

I ordered Huge after falling in love with the utterly endearing ABC Family series of the same name. Screen adaptations rarely live up to their original source material, so I was expecting big things (no pun intended) from Paley’s novel. But if you’re like me and are interested in seeing how the book compares to the television show, you’re going to be disappointed.

Beyond the title, the name of the main character, and the fact that it’s set at a fat camp, the book bears few similarities to its TV counterpart. The show is everything the book is not–complex, charming, layered, sweet, funny, sad. The characters, so real and so vulnerable on screen, are nothing more than cardboard stereotypes on the page. None of the show’s most interesting personalities (Alistair, Becca) are present in the book. There is no camper-counselor flirtation that parallels the George-Amber storyline, nor is there any mention of the fractured relationship between the camp director (here a bubbly redhead called “Melanie”) and her father. Pretty much all of the elements that make the TV series sparkle are noticeably absent, leaving us with a straightforward “summer camp” story, and not a particularly interesting one at that.

The TV series Huge is funny without turning the characters into fat jokes and heartfelt without forcing stereotypes on the characters. It tells a screen story that centers around and humanizes fat people, something that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before in television or movies. The actors  are all amazing. The audio commentary provides some insight into the casting process; I was so touched by the statement in passing that the cinematography highlighted the actors’ beauty and that is a rarity for fat actors. The insight, brilliant execution and loving attention to detail illuminate the project as a labor of love, as well as a family affair–the primary authors Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley are a mother and daughter and Paul Dooley, the actor playing the camp director’s father is Holzman’s husband and Dooley’s father.

Holzman, Tony award winning author of the book for the Broadway musical, Wicked, and creator of the ABC TV series  My So-Called Life and her daughter talk about casting in this interview:

In L.A., with everyone trying to be as skinny as possible, how was the casting process for this show?

Winnie Holzman: For eight to 10 weeks I was saying in casting, “That person is not fat enough.”

Savannah Dooley: Casting this show was a big challenge. It was a terrifying process. I was horrified. I am a critical person. I obviously have strong feelings about how fatness is portrayed in the media. So when I hear about a show like this, in my mind I’m already thinking, how skinny are these “fat kids” going to be? We can’t half-ass this. We have to have someone who is big enough. We have to have people who look like real people.


Winnie Holzman: Yes, exactly, full-assed (laughs). We did end up finding them in L.A.

Savannah Dooley: It means so much more being able to give actors this [chance] because of the limitations Hollywood is already going to be putting on them.

Winnie Holzman: We felt it. We felt right away this feeling of gratitude that we could be a part of something that would give opportunity to kids.

Savannah Dooley: Something that has frustrated us, for my whole time growing up, was the token fat character that was always a joke.

Winnie Holzman: That is a big, inspirational part of our show. We are busting through that. That is a lot of what the show is about. It is about these people who are outsiders who are finally finding a place for themselves in the world. They are feeling themselves for the first time as themselves and not just as the fat person.

Watching Huge has the profound effect of normalizing the actors’ fat bodies. I once spent a week at a NAAFA convention and, with a similar total immersion effect, the media conditioning of decades faded away. I could see my fellow fat people (and myself) as simply human without the wrongness that we have learned to attach to large bodies. That experience alone is worth more than its weight in gold and I would urge anyone who hasn’t seen the series to watch it if only for the “size acceptance in a box” factor.

Ironically, the fat camp setting of the book may be the only place where viewers will accept a story with so many fat actors, because the teenage campers are seen as trying to overcome fatness. (When I searched online for information on the fat camp phenomenon, Wikipedia was one of very few sites I could find that was not an actual ad for or article endorsing fat camps.)

The question of why the ABC Family television network wanted Huge is answered by looking at the website which, as of 2010, offered answers to nutritional and exercise questions for those “wondering if a bagel or muffin is healthier” etc. My best guess is that ABC wanted a slightly edgier take on teen body image issues and ideally hoped for a bite of The Biggest Loser payday. Unfortunately, ratings were not spectacular enough to get the show extended past its first ten episodes.

Fortunately the DVD edition makes Huge accessible long term. The series broke new ground. I hope others will learn from its excellence just how to dramatize fat characters with depth and insight.

The Challenge of Writing Fat-Friendly Fiction

Lynne Murray says:

I have a new novel called Bride of the Living Dead coming out from Pearlsong Press. Although this is a romantic comedy rather than a mystery like my Josephine Fuller, Sleuth of Size series, it led me to once again examine all the issues about writing fat friendly fiction.

The main thing I have found is that, as a category, fat friendly fiction doesn’t exist. The reason for that is plain and simple–books centering on fat, self-accepting characters have not (yet!) generated the kind of sales that make mainstream publishers sit up and take notice.

If an author’s aim is to solely to get books into the hands of those who already want fat heroes and heroines, then it’s important to face the reality that such a target audience has not yet become even a small niche market. Sadly, it’s more like a few ledges at the back of a couple of established niches such as cozy mysteries, romance, and humor.

Even publishers who offer novels (usually chick lit or romance) specifically aimed at plus-sized readers often do so with books that feature self-bashing women on perpetual diets and novels where the fat heroine must lose weight to get the guy, win the job or fit into the dress.

Genuinely fat-positive novels do pop up from time to time, and reading them is a rare pleasure. Writing them is still a radical act.

Stereotypes about fat characters arise because authors keep giving them limited roles to play. We all know the roles and the plots: The evil fat mastermind, whose craving for power is only exceeded by his craving for food. The miserable fat slob who is the butt of everyone’s jokes. The out-of-control glutton whose appetites can only be controlled with tranquilizer darts. The fat friend of the hero/heroine who only exists as a sidekick. The miserable fat loser who diets, becomes thin and finds happiness. That’s pretty much it. Let me know if I’ve missed any.

[Note from Debbie: Here is a superb post on fat stereotypes, and Lynne gave me a great moment to link to it.]

There is no reason why fat characters can’t inhabit any sort of story and play any kind of part and there are some stories that can only be told about fat heroines and heroes. These plotlines popped up when I started writing this stuff in the early 1990s. Some examples of stories that never get told because they didn’t match into the above stereotypes: One family member gets off the diet bandwagon and must stand up to those who remain true believers. A fat, female evil mastermind whom no one suspects because fat women are so uniformly ignored. Fat friend of hero/heroine whose story is so much more interesting that we move over and follow it instead.

Getting rid of the illusion that an eager market already exists for fat fiction is important to writers (such as myself) who are going to write about fat-positive characters anyway, goddammit. I firmly believe that that there are many readers who might be interested in such stories who don’t even know it yet, but there has to be a compelling reason to pick up the book–the story.

If the goal is to reach a broader audience it becomes doubly important for writers to think carefully about what kind of fiction they are writing aside from the fat positive aspect.

One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received on novel writing was from long-dead writer, Jack Woodford, whose 1943 book Why Write a Novel? offered reams of obsolete advice and a couple of gems, such as: “Write what you read.”

Or to be even more brutally honest, “Don’t waste your time trying to write the sort of thing you never read.” This happens amazingly often when writers, in our innocent arrogance, pick up something in a genre we don’t know at all, and proclaim, “This is crap, I could do better than this.” Possibly so, but you’ll have a much easier time of it if it’s something you enjoy reading to begin with. In other words if all you ever read is science fiction, you’re probably not going to succeed writing romances, and vice versa. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many people waste years they could have saved if they followed Woodford’s advice.

For those of us who must dance on the edge of the cliff writing positive fat characters, it pays to know as much as possible about the sort of story they will be inhabiting and what other books in that genre can serve as inspiration.

I was reading 80% mysteries when I decided to write about a sleuth of size who doesn’t apologize. My role model in exploding stereotypes was the late, great Joseph Hansen. His 1970 detective novel Fade Out introduced Dave Brandstetter, a death claims investigator in a Los Angeles that Raymond Chandler would recognize. Surviving partner of a 20-year gay relationship, and as decent, capable and honorable as any detective who walked Chandler’s mean streets, Brandstetter is fully formed character. This article compares Hansen’s accomplishment to Michael Nava’s equally brilliant novels, but Hansen was the trailblazer.

In a wonderful essay in Dilys Winn’s collection Murder Ink (out of print but cheaply available used and well worth the purchase simply to read Hansen’s “Homosexuals: Universal Scapegoats” piece) Hansen describes how he set about to explode the stereotypes and what some reactions have been. He concludes:

I have changed a few hearts and minds.
When writers fall back on ugly stereotypes, they betray their trust and make an already tough life tougher still. Whether mysteries or not, honest novels allow us for an hour or two to escape the confines of our familiar selves and, in effect, become someone else. Rarely in life can we know a real human being as completely as we come to know good fictional characters. When a writer scrupulously models his characters on the way men and women really are, he opens to his readers the opportunity to widen and deepen their understanding of others and themselves, and this can only make the world a gentler place for us all.

Finding fat-positive fiction to read can be a challenge. At this point it’s essentially word of mouth. As I mentioned earlier, most books publishers don’t want to lose the dieting readers by emphasizing self-acceptance too loudly, so very often truly fat positive fiction comes from smaller presses, such as Pearlsong, which specializes in Health at Every Size literature. Other examples are Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Gray series from Midnight Ink and Andrew Fox’s work. Fox’s Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of Fat White Vampire were from Ballantine, and his latest, Good Humor Man is from Tachyon Publications.

Readers get the word out that book X, Y, or Z has a size-positive character. Readers share information on Amazon’s “listmania,” and on blog sites such as

Dangerously Curvy Novels: Abundant Heroines, All About Romance: Plus-Sized Heroines , and Paperback Diva: Plus-Sized Heroines

My own experience listening to readers of the Josephine Fuller series has ranged from touching reactions when people enjoyed the books to people being puzzled or disbelieving that such things as fat acceptance can even exist.

One woman at a readers’ group told me my Josephine Fuller character was “conceited” because she imagined that several men in Larger Than Death found her attractive. Clearly this was impossible, so it must be an arrogant delusion on her part.

But my favorite reaction was from a woman who told me, “I disagree with the idea that it’s okay to be fat, but I enjoyed the story anyway.” It’s a start.

Some people are still learning that positive stories about fat characters can be fun. As a writer it’s my goal to write such stories, as a reader, I’m always on the prowl for more of them to read.