The Big Story

Writing at the Nervous Breakdown, Matt Stewart would like to know why, in a nation that’s increasingly obese, we lack novels that are about being fat, or that feature fat characters:

Nimbly presenting the moral implications of obesity, while crafting sympathetic characters, is an undeniably tall order. But not even trying is worse; obesity is an issue too commonplace to ignore…. I have to think there’s an untapped market here, that the American public hungers for perceptive insights about struggling with obesity, the sort of poignant, deep-trawling meditation that only a novel can provide.

Stewart is already aware of A Confederacy of Dunces and Jennifer Weiner‘s novels, and the article’s commenters offer a few more suggestions, including Wally Lamb‘s She’s Come Undone. The book I immediately thought of was Rick Moody‘s sprawling 2005 novel, The Diviners, which stars Vanessa, an overweight film and TV producer whose very size is intended to make her a metaphor for America’s gluttony for attention and entertainment. Which is to say that Vanessa isn’t intended to be a realistic portrait of being fat, and Moody makes that clear early on: After leaving an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, Vanessa heads to Krispy Kreme, where “she is destined to have a doughnut that melts in her mouth, a doughnut that tastes like the happy ending of a romantic comedy as purveyed by a vertically integrated multi-national entertainment provider under German ownership.” So.

But if Moody isn’t crafting a realistic portrait of obesity, what of it? Novels “about” being fat might be lacking for the same reason we don’t have many novels “about” working out a lot. (Harry CrewsBody being an exception that proves the rule.) The body, in itself, isn’t especially fascinating fictional territory. But self-consciousness is, which makes me think that the book Stewart is hoping for might be Zoe Heller‘s 2009 novel, The Believers. It’s a book that’s admirable for a whole host of reasons, but in one of its characters, Karla, Heller does a brilliant job of evoking the shame and embarrassment many overweight people are taught they ought to feel. In one scene, a casual question from a coworker about her being on a diet sends Karla crying to the restroom, where an inevitable session of self-scrutiny follows. (“Her nose was swollen and glowing, a joke-store accessory. Her blouse had ridden up, revealing several intersecting lines of pink and white crenellation where her waistband cut into her belly.”) Were Kelly just the novel’s Representative Fat Person, she wouldn’t be an especially memorable character. But Karla’s size is a way for Heller to get into questions about anxiety and belonging, and if nothing else Heller is smart enough to know that making her into a hero doesn’t involve sending her to the gym.

5 thoughts on “The Big Story

  1. Mary Gordon’s FINAL PAYMENTS comes to mind, but in that book the narrator eats compulsively for psychological reasons and then gets rid of the weight (or is expected to do so) almost effortlessly once she reaches a state of healing. That’s not how it works, unfortunately. If I remember correctly, LADY ORACLE by Margaret Atwood does something similar.

    Why isn’t food addiction as interesting as any other kind of addiction? There are plenty of novels about alcoholism and drug addiction. Too every-day, perhaps? I myself like “quiet” novels with small, realistic dramas. I’m also a fan of THE BELIEVERS.

  2. Are you familiar with the Fat Acceptance movement that’s been gaining ground? If not, Kate Harding’s blog “Shapely Prose” ( is a good place to start.

    You bring up a really interesting topic that has perplexed me for quite a while. For a long time we’ve seen this happening on the small screen – the call for under-represented groups to be more represented on television shows, because that’s what our country really looks like. So we get shows like HUGE, and more gay and black characters, etc. Which I think is great. And now this call for fat people to be more represented in fiction. Which actually makes me pause, for a moment, not because I have anything against fat people being represented in fiction, but because I’m so much more interested in fiction as an art form than I am television. And I’m not necessarily interested in fiction that has diverse characters just for the sake of being diverse. But I would be interested in stories about those characters as people not wholly defined by whatever aspect of their identity is normally underrepresented. And if they are wholly defined by whatever aspect of their identity is normally underrepresented, then I want a story about WHY, how it came to be that way, how it affects them, etc. I guess, these calls for more fat people or black people or whomever in fiction sometimes make me nervous, because your token novel about fat people might just feel like that.

    I really hope I haven’t offended anyone, and I apologize for my hastily written and un-thought-out comments.

  3. (A few other authors/books? Daniel Pinkwater, Fay Weldon, Susan Stinson. Mystery series: Nero Wolfe, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Blanche White. Armistead Maupin’s Wren Douglas [from Significant Others] is a great fat character whose identity is bound up in her size.)

    Stewart seems to actually want to know why there isn’t more fiction about people trying to be thinner, which is different than fiction about fat people, although a reasonable question, given that most every American is engaged in some drama about food and weight.

    I think part of the reason you see endless discussion of size, food, and fat in the non-fiction world and perhaps proportionally less in fiction, is that despite–or because of–our national obsession, people don’t have decent perspective on or even really information about issues of size. As in Stewart’s piece, where the rhetoric with which he chooses to frame the discussion (“waddling down the heavily reinforced road to Fat Fiction Town”; “hideous 239 pounds”) points out that people are usually in such personal pain they project their own feelings into the smallest bit of it.

    The “narrative” that the discussion of food and weight in the non-fiction world often describes–one in which we are all basically too big and trying to get smaller, once and for all–falls apart under the slightest story-telling scrutiny, but we are still extremely invested in it. It contains a lot of fairytale, vaporous fantasy and self-absorbed shame, and only a few acceptable paths to follow, and that (I agree) doesn’t make for “especially fascinating fictional territory.”

    I think there are more fat people in fiction than Stewart believes, although I agree there aren’t enough. I also think we generally assume characters are thin, unless told otherwise, either repeatedly and/or meanly, because that’s what we want. Another complication in analyzing what’s already out there in the written word is the often complete failure in using clues to depict fat bodies. Wren Douglas, who is a great character, and whose body is described in happy detail, is still ultimately a gigantic “192 lbs”, which makes no sense given the other descriptors. It’s strangely common, because it’s so incredibly common everywhere, in or out of fiction.

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