by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, June 19, 2009 10:04 AM
Last week, Robin Abrahams, etiquette columnist for the Boston Globe
and author of the new book Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners
, wrote on her blog
that she was asked three questions at a recent speaking engagement:
1. Has anyone told you that you look like a female Spock?
2. Can you explain why you don't want to have children?
3. Are you going on a book tour?
As an etiquette maven, Robin was bound to declare that generally speaking, the first two questions are rude and the third perfectly appropriate — even a thoughtful expression of interest in another's life and work. But as a regular person, she says, "The first two questions delighted me beyond all measure, and the third made me miserable." Why? Well, like many first-time authors, Robin found that her publishers didn't think a tour would "make sense," and like many authors at all stages of their careers, she doesn't have "the temporal, financial, or organizational resources" to arrange one herself. Thus, the seemingly innocuous book tour question only reminds her of "the discrepancy between [her] dreams of greatness and the adequate but not stellar present." Sing it, sister. Marianne and I did choose to self-fund a tour, which has been a blast, but if one more person tells us we ought to go on Oprah, I'm going to lose it. Oprah, really — you think that would help move books? I'll just give her a shout, then.
As someone who started working in the publishing industry at 22 and only left it to pursue a career as a writer, I've been around authors for most of my adult life. Most folks haven't. Which means most folks have no clue that the average first-time author isn't offered a chance to tour on the publisher's dime, or that she probably blew a substantial percentage of her advance on drinks the night the book sold, or that if sales aren't good right out of the gate, she might never become a second-time author. People assume that if you've published a book, you've arrived — as though every publishing contract comes with a legally binding promise of three more, a six-figure check, a suite at the Ritz in a dozen cities, and Oprah's cell number. The reality is more like this: Marianne and I were extremely fortunate first-timers. Based on the strength of our blog traffic, we had our choice of agents, sparked a modest bidding war, and snagged an advance that kept the lights on for longer than 15 minutes. But we still didn't get a fucking tour. We will still not be on Oprah. We still have to work our fat butts off to sell this thing if we want there to be another.
And if we are lucky enough to publish a next book or books, chances are, it will go pretty much like that every single time. The number of authors who break out of the so-called "mid-list" is laughably small, relative to the number of books that come out every year. Our friend Robin Marantz Henig has published eight books, and a couple of weeks ago, she sent me this video by Dennis Cass, with a note that said, "Watch it and weep. It's kind of like watching The Office for writers, it's that kind of cringe-making." If you want to know the difference between fantasy and the reality of the book biz, go watch that. Then watch it again. Then never let the name "Oprah" escape your lips in an author's presence again.
This means, among other things, that authors have to become shameless self-promoters to survive. A corollary is that we also become shameless promoters of our author friends, knowing they've got our backs, too. If you've read Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere and are thinking the name Robin Marantz Henig sounds familiar, it's because she gave us a blurb — blurbs from people you know are the rule, not the exception, in the industry. As Courtney E. Martin put it in Publishers Weekly back in April, "Let's be honest. Rare is the blurb that genuinely evolved from an established writer sitting down with the manuscript of a new writer (not a former student, best friend's child, or shared agent's new golden boy) and being inspired to offer a few words on the quality of the work." (For the record, I am not friends with Courtney at this writing, though we do run in the same bloggy circles.) And hey, if you happened to notice that that video by Dennis Cass (whom I also don't know, though I do appreciate that he wants me to be more awesome) was also linked from Robin Abrahams's post? That's because I sent it to her, after the other Robin sent it to me. Abrahams is a friend, too. And you'd better believe that when I started writing this, I thought, "Oh, that post Robin did would be a good beginning — and hey, it's a chance to flog her book to a new audience!"
This is what authors do, for each other and ourselves, because we know too well that no one else will. Courtney Martin's latest pick for her "Not Oprah's Book Club" video blog series, for instance, is J. Courtney Sullivan's new novel, Commencement. After acknowledging that both Courtneys are currently co-editing an anthology, and thus Martin is reviewing Commencement "with absolutely no objectivity," she goes on to give a ringing endorsement — so ringing, in fact, that I immediately ordered the novel. Because it sounds awesome, and I don't think Martin's personal relationship with Sullivan is evidence that her opinion shouldn't be taken seriously — with a grain of salt, perhaps, but not unseriously. Friends help each other out, but at the same time, friendship can't be the only criterion for a plug; if any of us promoted crap books just because we liked the authors personally, our own reputations would suffer. And as your reputation goes, so go your book sales.
by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, June 18, 2009 10:09 AM
So, fat people have sex, too.
That might seem like a pretty out of the blue statement, but I just wanted to let you know. If you've ever read romance novels, you'd probably never know it.
I do read romance novels — I read the big historicals and paranormals and all that stuff, but what I really love? Are the Harlequin Blaze 4-titles-a-month novels. I don't judge you for what you read, so bear with me here. *grin*
After you've read a chunk of these a month for several years, certain patterns make themselves kind of obvious. And one of those patterns is that, perhaps in pursuit of realism, romance novels are touching a lot more explicitly on body hatred. Sometimes this is okay. Most of the time, this is a disaster.
If you're not familiar, let me describe the heroine to you. She is white. On super rare occasions in the Harlequin variety, she is half Asian. In some historicals, she is half Native American. She is either incredibly slender and self-conscious about her lack of breasts or she is super curvy and self-conscious about her "ultra feminine" body. She is not comfortable being naked. She is not fat, though she often thinks she is. If she were fat, as some heroines have been in their dark and secret pasts, she'd never have sex.
Harlequin Blaze is the series most occupied with being hot and sexy. So authors have started talking about this stuff — using the heroine's body fears as a way to create intimacy with her male (also white, unless he's half Native American, and generally ripped) partner. In other words, she is uncomfortable but his desire and devotion make her feel beautiful.
And, you know, that's all well and good if maybe a little codependent. But then you get the books where the heroine is constantly involved in bashing her body in more obvious ways or participating in bashing the bodies of other women. My favorite (and by favorite, I mean the one that makes me most angry) example of this sort of thing is a series of books by a writer named Jill Shalvis.
The most notable are Flashpoint and Flashback. Both of these books are part of the American Heroes: The Firefighters series. These books are set in Santa Rey, a charming California town where the firefighters are the hotness and an arson investigation is consuming lives.
In the first novel, Zach is the stereotypical fightfighting hottie and Brooke is the feisty EMT who is supposed to be our strong female character. I might argue with that portrayal (especially since the characterization of both Brooke and Zach is pretty weak in this one), but what really burns me is a passage toward the end of the tale. Zach has just been injured in a fire when we get to page 158.
Brooke and Dustin [the other EMT] were still unloading their patients at the E.R. when word came from the fire scene that they had the flames eighty percent contained, and the injured firefighters had been evacuated safely.
And on the way to the hospital.
Brooke took her first deep breath since she'd heard the words firefighter and down in the same sentence. She and Dustin tried to wait but an emergency call came in for them — a woman with chest pains needed assistance.
While Dustin drove, Brooke called Aidan [another firefighter].
"Blake's in surgery," Aidan said, sounding tense and stressed. "Badly broken leg."
"A concussion, broken wrist and a few second—degree burns. I know that sounds bad, but he's going to be okay, Brooke."
Relief hit her like a tidal wave, but she couldn't lose it because they'd arrived at their call, where she and Dustin found a three—hundred—and—fifty—pound woman stuck in her bed, needing assistance to the bathroom.
"You said you had chest pains," Dustin said.
"Right. I do. But I think it's heartburn."
"Are the pains gone now?" Brooke asked.
"Ma'am, we still need to bring you in to be checked—"
"Okay, so I never had chest pains. I called because you people won't come out unless it's serious."
They were speechless.
"Would you hand me my TV remote?" she asked them. "Oh, and that box of doughtnuts?"
Brooke stared at her. She'd missed being at Zach's side for this, for a woman who couldn't reach her damn remote so she'd called 911? She handed over the remote but not the doughnuts. "Ma'am, the 911 system is for real emergencies—"
"It was a real emergency."
Dustin still couldn't speak.
"Hey, I'm sorry, but Grey's Anatomy is repeating and I missed it the first time around."
"Medical emergencies," Brooke said tightly.
The woman finally had the grace to look a little abashed. "I know, but who else am I going to call?"
"You could do it yourself." No longer speechless, Dustin was clearly furious. "Consider it your daily exercise."
They left there in silence, and it was several long moments before either could speak.
"That didn't just happen," Dustin finally said.
But unfortunately it had, and they had another call, and then another, and it was several hours before Brooke could get another status check on Zach. By that time he'd been released from the hostpital and was at his house, supposedly resting.
1. The fat woman serves absolutely no purpose in this story other than as intended comic relief. She is solely intended to be an object of ridicule.
2. You aren't supposed to empathize with her to any degree — no, she is set up as a hindrance to Brooke being at her lover's side while he is in the hospital after being injured at a fire. You can go ahead and hate this fat person, getting in the way of things that are, you know, actually important.
3. Her remote? Seriously? AND DOUGHNUTS? Are you fucking kidding me? Can you play on any more fat stereotypes?
4. She's immobile enough, at 350 pounds, that she can't get her own damn remote/doughnuts? Now, I weigh 300+ pounds and, I have to tell you, I am limber enough to kick some serious ass (and to have some pretty awesome sex). This is the sort of thing that Kate was talking about yesterday.
5. Her daily exercise? Yeah, because EMTs should absolutely be portrayed as being snarky to the fat people who call them for help. That's really quality medical service right there.
There is so much wrong with this passage that it completely overwhelms the way the rest of the book is entirely mediocre. And yeah, that's a cheap shot, I admit. But it's also true. This is the only way an actually fat character generally makes it into these books — as an object for ridicule.
by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, June 17, 2009 11:58 AM
When I was working on a novel as my MFA thesis, I sent a draft to one of my older sisters. Her first bit of feedback was that I needed to change a main character's weight from 300 pounds to 200, because
You and I know what 300 pounds looks like, but most people don't. If you say 200, readers will picture 300. If you say 300, they'll picture a stereotypical representative of The Obesity Crisis — unfathomably enormous, constantly eating, nearly immobilized, and probably mere moments from an ostensibly preventable death. They'll lose sympathy for her.
The worst part was, she was right about all of it. That didn't mean I was willing to make the change (and it's a non-issue now, since that novel went into the proverbial desk drawer), but it's absolutely true that, for many people, the perception of what 200 or 300 pounds "looks like" (to the extent that there's uniformity among people who happen to share a weight) bears only the most tenuous relationship to reality. (For the record, here's 200-pound me and 300-pound Marianne.) And for many readers, a female character any fatter than Bridget Jones will come off as highly unsympathetic. (Unless, of course, the narrative builds toward her miraculous weight loss — i.e., redemption.) Truly fat women in books and movies are most often villains, mammies, overbearing mothers-in-law, or unlikable tertiary characters (think the irritable secretary with a box of donuts in her desk drawer). The chick lit boom brought us a handful of chubby to moderately fat heroines — the aforementioned Jones, Jemima J., Cannie Shapiro, Heather Wells — but you almost never see a non-thin female character in a mainstream novel whose weight is not a major issue for her. Jemima and Cannie struggle with their weight and eventually lose a lot of it. Bridget yo-yos within about a 10-pound, not-really-fat range, and only considers liking her slightly plumper self when a man comes along and says he does. Two of Meg Cabot's three novels featuring "average-sized amateur investigator" Heather insist that she is "not fat" right in the title. You hear? Not fat! Don't even think such an awful thing! Also, why the hell are a bunch of mysteries titled with references to the protagonist's weight in the first place? (The third is Big Boned.) I know bodies are often central to detective novels, but come on! (See what I did there? I'll be here all week, folks! No, really, I will.)
I got to thinking about this subject after reading a recent discussion about books at the plus-size fashion and fat politics community Fatshionista. Wally Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone, got a lot of attention there, both positive and negative. On the pro side, it's one of the few contemporary novels in existence that invites the reader to empathize with an actually fat heroine and offers an honest portrayal of some of the discrimination and mistreatment fat women routinely suffer. On the con side, it is yet another narrative of self-hatred leading to redemptive weight loss; it presents a 257-pound body as freakishly gigantic; and it gets details wrong in ways that actual fat people will immediately recognize, even if the average thin reader doesn't. (No, trucks don't actually tip to one side when someone weighing 250-odd pounds hops in. Have you ever seen a truck driver, for Pete's sake?) And worst of all, even as we're meant to empathize with Dolores Price, we're also subtly invited to sneer along with her tormentors. I pulled out my old copy of the book — which I read (and, I should say, loved at the time) long before I came to terms with my own fat body — and only had to go as far as the cover copy to be disappointed:
Beached like a whale in front of her bedroom TV, she spends the next few years nourishing herself with the Mallomars, potato chips, and Pepsi her anxious mother supplies. When she finally rolls into young womanhood at 257 pounds, Dolores is no stronger and life is no kinder. But this time she's determined to rise to the occasion and give herself one more chance before really going belly up.
Are you kidding me? The publisher can't even describe a book about a fat protagonist's (pretty darn tragic) life without throwing in multiple weight-related wisecracks? Fat jokes are accepted so uncritically in this culture, we're even expected to find them appropriate when they're directed at a character we're supposed to root for. I mean seriously, Dolores might ultimately be sympathetic, but she's still a fat chick — let's not get carried away!
Unfortunately, one of the reasons all of those awkward and/or self-loathing and/or defensive fat heroines anchor bestselling books is that so many women relate to their constant weight anxiety and body shame. I could write a novel about a basically happy, active woman who weighs 200 or 300 pounds — or even just 150 — and all but a very few readers would likely suffer cognitive dissonance. "Fat and happy? Zuh?" Women might find the message "Size 12 (or 14) Is Not Fat" empowering, but what about "Size 24 Is Not a Death Sentence"? "Size 26 Is Not a Guarantee of Loneliness"? "Size 28 Is Not Incontrovertible Evidence That You're a Lazy Freak"? Marianne and I know from experience that too many women find those messages frightening, not inspiring. They're so focused on the dream of being thin that the idea of being simultaneously fat and happy is unthinkable. And books that revolve around a 140-pound woman's obsession with her "excess" flab, or cast a 300-pound woman as the villain, or compare a 250-pound young woman to a "beached whale" only reinforce the message that pretty much any amount of body fat is weird and disgusting. So the cycle continues. Those of us advocating for body acceptance have a long way to go before sympathetic, realistic fat characters start showing up in fiction with any regularity. But in the meantime, we can find hope in one Fatshionista member's comment about She's Come Undone:
I will say that reading that book changed my life. I was 19 and suffered from ongoing, intense depression and self-hatred and... it scared me [so much] that I identified so intensely with the self-hatred of the main character that I decided to stop hating myself."
by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, June 16, 2009 10:06 AM
When I graduated with a degree in English, I thought I had left the endless acedemic debates about authorial intent
and reader response theory
behind. The text was the thing, and that seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me. The practical application of that theory served me well in my professional life.
But then I started blogging. Specifically, I started blogging about fat issues, fat activism, and body politics. And, oh, the interpretative tension that emerged!
To be super concise: The theory of authorial intent indicates that the true meaning of a text must take the author's intentions and motivations into account while reader response theory places the burden of interpretation on, as the name suggests, the reader. The principle relationship is between the reader and the text. The author, as Roland Barthes would say, is dead (well, Barthes would probably say a lot more but the tl;dr version is that the meaning of texts can only be seen through the lens of the reader — the birth of The Reader as an entity necessitates the death of The Author as the primary giver of meaning to a text.)
With a published text, like a book or a film, there is no supplemental discussion. George Lucas can give us alternate versions of Star Wars all he wants, but for anyone else? You're lucky to get a revised edition. So you'd better say what you mean and mean what you say, as the saying goes. Readers will engage with that text and you won't be there to give them links or cross things out or explain what you really meant.
But closed, finished texts like TV shows that don't exist anymore or completed works of art occupy a very different narrative place than a living document like a blog.
When I started blogging, my blog entries were more like static texts. But as readers turned into commenters and comments led to discussions, the blog became a very different place. A dialogue is a collaborative effort, after all. And because it is always changing, through more comments, through edits to the original post, through supplemental posts, blogs can be a very challenging text to view as a whole and analyze (should you feel so inclined).
That's when the idea of authorial intent reared its ugly head again for me. It played out every time someone asked for clarification or if I really meant x, y, or z as my main point. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't — but there was an opportunity to make it clear, the more fully say what I meant and mean what I said.
I was getting pretty comfortable with this. Living and evolving texts aren't always comfortable places to hang out but that's usually a good thing. There's a lot to learn in that sort of environment. As a writer, I particularly appreciate it — being called on your lazy writing is a bit of free editorial input directly from readers.
But a few months before the book was published, back in January, I started following an internet event called RaceFail09. (There are a couple of summaries here and here that are comprehensive sources for links for this ongoing event.) This whole thing grew out of a discussion of writing craft, out of a professional author forgetting that meaning is determined by readers, thinking her intent was enough to offset criticism. And as I have continued to read — and as the book was published — the tension between authorial intent and reader response theory has ratcheted higher.
You see, this new media/Web 2.0 thing requires a whole new way of negotiating bodies of works. The book that Kate and I wrote? Is a closed text. It exists in a form that is not likely to change (perhaps a 10th anniversary revised edition? *grin*). But our blogs are alive; the content that we provide and that commenters supplement changes every day.
That's where the clash comes in. As a writer, I can't expect readers to treat a closed text the same way they treat the blog. If a blog exists to facilitate discussion, a classroom where we all sit in a circle and speak about a topic, a book exists as a lecture hall where one person (or, you know, two people) speak about that topic while other people take notes. It's two different performative kinds of authority. As more authors become more accessible through blogs and appearances, readers have unprecedented access to conversations with them, which means more opportunities to ask and call to task.
Authors need to keep this in mind. Blogs aren't static texts. Your words will — and should — be challenged if someone has a question. You can't treat a blog discussion the same way you treat an article about your book. I can't forget that the person who picks up my book has only that text, only those words. I can't forget that blogging is a lot more open, a lot more directly connected to the reader. And the book that Kate and I wrote is fair game in these blog discussions.
That can be a difficult pill to swallow, from a writer's personal perspective. To accept our own metaphorical deaths? I mean, where's the fun in that? How do we negotiate that in the face of a closed text while existing as a living writer in a place like a blog? Once a book is published, I don't think the author necessarily knows anything more about the real interpretative meaning of that text than the readers do. How can we balance that with the interactive posts where we share motivations and intent?
I want to say readers bear responsibility in this equation. But I don't know that they actually do, not any more than they have already taken on by reading and speaking to us. That seems like a pretty important role right there. And readers occupy their own difficult places — the accessibility of authors is double-edged. The insight provided by blogs, the chance to get to see more aspects of a writer as a person, can really ruin that author's works from an enjoyment standpoint. Reading an author's blog can be a real risk.
At the end of the day, at the end of this post, I don't know that there is a resolution to this tension. As writers, I think we need to inhabit this uncomfortable place and make it our own. In the immortal words of Tim Gunn, we need to make it work.
The interpretation game isn't limited to finished works anymore. That's really pretty powerful. And awesome.
by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, June 15, 2009 2:03 PM
In an interview
that made me want to be her best friend, actress and writer Nia Vardalos recently told US Weekly
(as a response to being called "overweight"), "Hey, just say fat. I love the word fat....It's actually not a naughty word. We give it a power it actually doesn't have." Hear, hear! On my blog
, in an essay
I contributed to a recent anthology
, and in the introduction to the new book
I co-authored, I've explained in detail why I agree wholeheartedly with Vardalos. The short version is, "fat" is actually a pretty simple and straightforward way to describe folks with more adipose tissue than average; it's only loaded down with a bazillion insulting connotations — lazy, stupid, sloppy, undisciplined, etc. — because of cultural attitudes toward fat people, not because of the fat itself. Just as Vardalos said, we give it a power it actually doesn't have.
But man oh man, do we ever give it that power. Because the F-word can be such a bombshell, I've had to develop a stock stranger-friendly answer to questions about the book or the blog: "I write about body image and self-acceptance." Everyone loves that line. Having a positive body image is so important for young girls! Self-acceptance is so important for all of us! It is a great thing you do, Ms. Harding! Just as they're about to nominate me for a humanitarian award (or, you know, at least walk away with a decent impression), they ask what the title of the book is. And then I have to say it: Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body.
Wait, the What-O-Sphere?
The very first working title of the book, of which I'm still inordinately fond, was Results Not Typical. But I say "inordinately" because pretty much no one else liked it, and our agent made us think of a new one before she'd send the proposal out. Title number two — which remains on the Australian edition — was Screw Inner Beauty. The idea there is that fat women, on the rare occasions when we're told not to hate ourselves, are inevitably encouraged to focus on our "inner beauty" — the logical corollary being that outer beauty is a lost cause, what with the revolting fat and all. Marianne and I aren't interested in helping women like themselves despite whatever fat they may be carrying; we're interested in helping women like their bodies at any size. But that, admittedly, is a little high-concept — "Screw Inner Beauty" sounds more like a book of fashion and make-up tips, right? So along comes another request to think up a new title. And after a bit more brainstorming, we heard that the publisher was superkeen on the word "fatosphere" (fun fact: it only got the hyphens to make the original cover design more readable), which we and our fellow body acceptance bloggers were using to describe our little corner of the internet. How did we feel about Notes/Dispatches/Lessons from the Fatosphere?
"We can't use the word 'fat,'" I said. "The women who need this book most would be mortified to buy a book with the word 'fat' in the title. And certainly, nobody's going to buy it as a gift — 'Hey, I got you this because you're fat!'" Not so long ago, even I hesitated to take a copy of Wendy Shanker's The Fat Girl's Guide to Life up to the counter at a bookstore. The last thing on earth the average fat woman wants to do is draw attention to the size of her body, even from a random cashier and only for the length of a quick transaction. I had a strong gut feeling that that title would threaten sales, for the very reasons why we needed to write the book in the first place. But I got outvoted and, in the interest of not being a pain in everyone else's butt, shut up about it.
Was it the right call not to fight harder for a non-fat title? I'm still not sure, honestly. I mean, not being a pain in everyone else's butt is, generally speaking, a wise career move. I used to work in publishing and made a vow to myself 10 years ago that, if I ever made it to the other side, I would not be that whiny, clueless author who throws a tantrum over a title change or the cover art or the editing of my oh-so-precious words; I would trust the experienced professionals to do right by my book, recognizing that they'd worked just as hard as I had and wanted it to sell just as badly. And speaking of those professionals, it was pointed out to me that our fellow Penguin Group author Jen Lancaster has sure done all right for herself with titles that include the words "fat" and "big ass." (Of course, there is the whole "she's Jen Effin' Lancaster" factor working in her favor.) But I still can't help thinking of all the women who feel like I did just a few years ago, who might pick up a copy of the book in a store and take a surreptitious glance at the back cover copy or table of contents, then put it right back, too embarrassed by the thought of paying for a book with the word "fat" on the cover. Thinking about those women breaks my heart — not just because I want their money, but because I want them not to be so ashamed of that stupid little word, so controlled by it. We give it a power it actually doesn't have. Which is exactly why Marianne and I wrote the book.
Also, I do want their money. There's that. Yippee for online booksellers!