Rants & Raves

A Review by Lynne Murray

The reality of life makes us long for the escape of fiction.  In a made-up story anything we can imagine can happen.  It shouldn't be surprising that authors spin tales of heroes and heroines who match our current cultural ideal—athletic, sexually irresistible, brilliant and gorgeous.  For most authors that rules out fat characters, who are assumed to be none of the above.

There's a famous piece of advice from playwright, Anton Chekhov—if the writer puts a gun over the fireplace in the first act, the gun must be fired before the play is over, otherwise don't write it in.  Fat is the gun in that scenario for writers who think, "why make the character fat, if not to lose weight?" 

I want to read stories that are enriched with real fat characters who, like the real fat people I know, come in many flavors, and having survived being targeted simply by virtue of body size, fat people have invented brilliant coping strategies. 

Sometimes, authors will insert fat characters in order to sneer at them.  You see this in hardboiled mysteries where the detective shows his outlaw attitude and primitive sense of humor by insulting fat characters who cross his or her path.

People of all sizes, including large, solve problems and have adventures.  But many writers argue that readers, and particularly film audiences, cannot identify with a fat character. 

Even if a writer explores beyond the convenient stereotypes to create a fat hero or heroine, how hard will it be to find a publisher for the book once written?  Whatever the prejudice is in books, it's ten times more in films.  This directly affects book authors and publishers because a book with no hope of ever becoming a movie is potentially much less profitable.

Given the major material drawbacks, it becomes a labor of love and certainly a test of skill to create a fat character who is important to the plot and not simply a weight loss shill. 

There are two ways to deal with the character's size—directly or indirectly.

The indirect method (frequently used in genre fiction aimed at women) is to have the character be described as vaguely large—for all we know she might be imagining that she is fat.  She may suffer from disrespect by mean people over her size, but the state of insanity around body image is such that such cruelty could happen to anyone not notably thin. Most women of whatever size imagine that they are too fat.  So the author hopes that readers will identify with a heroine, like the reader herself, who is struggling with the issue.

One example is Denise Swanson's Scumble River mysteries.  Until someone told me, I had no idea that they had a plus-sized heroine.  Swanson explains her approach in an interview on her website.

My intent was that Skye be a realistic thirty-something—attractive but not a size six, and has a good profession but not necessarily made a lot of money... One reader said she found it unrealistic that a woman of Skye's "size" would have men attracted to her. I found this both infuriating and sad. ...[If Skye feels] attractive and acts attractive, then she will be treated as an attractive woman and have men ask her out... As to her weight, in my mind Skye feels good about herself, so she wears what she wants. Many authors with a large heroine make her unhappy and trying to lose weight, whereas other authors are size-positive but make her weight the focus of the whole book. I keep it in perspective: her size is just another attribute, like her hair. Skye shows that whether a woman looks like a Barbie doll or a Rubens painting, she can do anything and experience life to the fullest.  http://www.deniseswanson.com/

I certainly agree with Swanson about living to the fullest.  But I wonder if she's being too discreet about the series having plus-sized heroine.  I had heard of the Scumble River series and I've been keeping an eye out for out novels with big beautiful heroines, but it was sheer accident that I found out that the heroine was plus-sized.  Even reading Swanson's interview, "not a size 6" covers a lot of territory.  I have mixed feelings about that. 

For my Josephine Fuller series, I determined to take a direct approach, partly because I was fascinated with all the stories no one was telling about fat people and what really happens.

The most obvious unexplored plotline was beautifully foreseen by activist Lynn McAfee when she lobbied to ban "before and after" pictures in weight-loss ads.

We all know that virtually every dieter regains the weight eventually. If the advertisers were to be honest, they would show "before", "after", and "5 years later".  http://www.cswd.org/docs/mcafee.html

Now there's a plot for a novel!  Stories based on this Myth of Weight Loss always stop in the middle of the carnival ride—that's like stopping the Ferris wheel with the riders at the top and calling the ride over. The whole feast of negative emotions that lead people to diet in the first place come back big time when the unthinkable happens, the Ferris wheel returns to earth, and the person who lost weight returns to their earlier weight—or more. 

Here are some recent examples of sizeable characters in mainstream fiction:

Where Fat Girls Haven't Gone, by Staci Backauskas
Plus-sized actress Giletta Montrose lands a job hosting a new reality show called Where Fat Girls Haven't Gone.  I very much enjoyed the heroine's grace under pressure as she does—on national television—so many things that fat girls often postpone doing until some mythical thin future.

The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and other stories of women and fatness} edited by Susan Koppelman, foreword by Alix Kates Shulman
A great anthology of stories on women and fat written from 1895 to 1997.  Some of the earlier stories were a little daunting—two were about sad circus fat ladies!  I had to take them in small doses.  But the title story was wonderful.  http://members.authorsguild.net/hollis/work2.htm

Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Weiner
Weiner has developed such a passionate following for the heroine of Good In Bed that she brought her back for a cameo appearance walking her dog and wheeling a stroller in the second book.  In Her Shoes has now become a motion picture, with a drastic thinning down of the heavyset sister from the book.  These are size acceptance lite, but they are funny and engagingly well written. http://jenniferweiner.blogspot.com/

Conversations with the Fat Girl, by Liza Palmer
Publisher's Weekly makes an interesting comment about this book, calling it a new entry in "the ever-expanding category of light romantic comedies starring plus-sized heroines."  Yes, I get it "ever-expanding" it's a small fat joke in the middle of a review.  I am interested in reading this book, which features two plus sized women seeking romance—one of whom has weight loss surgery, the other does not.

Fat Chance, by Deborah Blumenthal
The description reads: "Plus-size Maggie O'Leary is America's Anti-Diet Sweetheart. Her informed column about the pitfalls of dieting is the one sane voice crying out against the dietocracy. She is perfectly happy with who she is and the life she leads. Until she gets the chance to spend some quality time with Hollywood's hottest star. Maggie knows she can't exactly show up looking like... well, herself. [LM note:  Why not?]  So she swallows her words and vows to become the skinniest fat advocate Tinseltown has ever seen."

This book reminds me of a quote from W. Charisse Goodman:

Many of the most virulent stereotypes about women in general have not been discarded, but merely transferred, so that the negative qualities once attributed to all women are now considered the sole province of fat women.
W. Charisse Goodman, The Invisible Woman: Confronting Weight Prejudice in America

The supposed activist heroine of Fat Chance ends up on a diet!  It sounds dreadfully like those old tirades that "those feminists are only squawking for equal treatment because they're too ugly to find a man." Yikes.

That said, Blumenthal does have a beautiful website, http://www.deborahblumenthal.com/, and she lists an upcoming young adult novel, Fat Camp (NAL), due in June, 2006.  I'll keep an eye out for it.

On the wildly original front, some books that use the F-word, and indeed explore fat subjects without resorting to stereotypes or clichés are—

Fat White Vampire Blues, and Bride of Fat White Vampire, by Andrew Fox

Venus of Chalk and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, by Susan Stinson

A pioneer of size-positive romances is Pat Ballard, who offers many on her website, http://patballard.homestead.com/Patsplace.html

Romances with large, in-charge heroines of color don't use the F-word in the title, but usually manage by the title to make it clear what the book is about—

All of Me by Vernice Berry

Big Girls Don't Cry (four stories of BBW love by Donna Hill, Brenda Jackson, Monica Jackson and Francis Ray)

The Way It Is by Patrick Sanchez

The Dangerously Curvy reviewers at http://curvynovels.tripod.com/ keep track of a wide range of genres of fiction with big, beautiful heroines.

Although published a few years ago, some books for teens are very powerful and still available—

Fat Chance, by Leslea Newman—a fat teenager influenced by a bulimic friend. http://www.lesleakids.com/fatchance.html

Fat Kid Rules the World, by K. L. Going—a suicidal fat teenager and a semi-homeless punk guitar genius save each other - http://www.klgoing.com/fatkid.htm

Life in the Fat Lane, by Cherie Bennett—a popular teenager mysteriously gains weight in a short time, changing her life dramatically. http://www.cheriebennett.com

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher—an alliance between a fat teenaged boy and a girl who has suffered terrible burns. http://www.chriscrutcher.com


© Lynne Murray