I was very happy to learn I would be a guest blogger on Powells.com ? I would be happy to have pretty much anything
to do with the venerable Powell's. While thinking about what I wanted to write about, I started looking at the entries of past guest writers, and I came across this lovely excerpt from Michelle Wildgen
"I found myself saying that literature, producing and consuming it, was an act of empathy, maybe one of the most empathetic acts possible, and that the world seems so short on empathy, on the simple ability to imagine a life outside our own towns and skins, that if anything we need more of it. It was an off-the-cuff response but I actually still believe it's true. It's like talking to as many people as you can, who see the world in as many different ways [as] possible."
I suppose it's ironic that even though this quote is about reading and writing serving as ways to experience other perspectives, reading the quote itself held, for me, the comfort of having my own experience and opinion reinforced. I've been thinking a lot about empathy and literature lately: the reviews of my new novel, The Rest of Her Life, are trickling in, and though everyone seems pretty happy with the writing and the plot and the pacing, there have been just a few rumblings of discontent about the 'unlikable' protagonist, Leigh. I would be interested to know if other writers feel the need to defend a created character as if she were a loved one. I do think it's protectiveness I'm feeling, not defensiveness. I know I was astounded when I met readers of my first novel, The Center of Everything, who claimed to love the book and the easy-to-like young protagonist, Evelyn, but who would speak mercilessly about Evelyn's mother: words like 'selfish,' 'stupid,' and 'irresponsible' were often used in connection with Tina. But I love Tina just as much as I love Evelyn, and I can't help but think that readers who judge Tina so harshly really don't understand the book at all, at least not the one I intended to write. Yes, she makes some bad decisions. Yes, those bad decisions lead to temporary bouts of poverty and stints on welfare that her daughter finds humiliating. But Tina does get her act together eventually ? she does it slowly, and she takes several wrong turns along the way, but one wrong turn in particular leads her to finally gain the self-esteem she has lacked her whole life, and really, I think that lack is what led to all the wrong turns in the first place. She does all this while rearing two very willful children, who she loves unconditionally, even when they don't seem to love her.
I wondered if some of the judgment of Tina was linked to her going on welfare, even temporarily ? there's a huge amount of stigma there. But the allegedly 'prickly' protagonist of my new novel is decidedly middle-class. Leigh, like Tina, grew up with a difficult family, but she is, in some ways, the opposite of Tina. She has lived her life very carefully, making sound decisions in marriage and career with the sole purpose of providing a better life for her children. And yet she is completely unaware of how, even in the safety of her remodeled Victorian, she might be fostering the same resentment in her daughter that she herself felt growing up. To me, the idea that she is unaware is an important distinction ? as one reader put it, Leigh is never intentionally cruel to anyone. The book follows what happens after Leigh's daughter accidentally runs over and kills a pedestrian, and so I had to do some legal research; I thought it was interesting how the law, when defining guilt, makes a distinction between negligent driving ? a not-so-serious offense ? and reckless driving ? a more serious offense ? based on whether the driver is aware of the hazard she creates. Both can cause equally tragic consequences, but in the eyes of the law, negligence ? which might be caused by ignorance, confusion, distraction ? doesn't deserve the same wrath.
So I will say this in Leigh's defense ? she makes her mistakes with her daughter because she doesn't see herself making them. And when her mistakes are pointed out to her by so many people, she forces herself to take a good hard look at herself. Really, how many people can you say that about? She is insecure. But I have to say, if you are going to avoid spending time with anyone who is insecure, you are going to miss out on some really interesting people. By the end of the book, I don't think Leigh is any more flawed them I am, or most of the people I know and love. I empathize with her because of her history, but I respect her because she really does want to be a good mother, and she's open to change.
Maybe I'm on the wrong track here, but the most notable common denominator between Leigh and Tina is that they are both mothers, and I think it's worth asking if this is why they are judged harshly. I'd be interested to know what readers think.