Nobody’s writing novels about fat people confronting their weight. And that’s a problem.
I started waddling down the heavily reinforced road to Fat Fiction Town when a journalist asked me about the protagonist in my debut novel, The French Revolution: a wildly overweight former pastry chef/current copyshop cashier who’s surly, stubborn, hilarious, slightly evil, and by far my favorite character.
@scottjames: I think you might get a little flack for your descriptions of the morbidly obese. Do you have a hidden cruel streak?
@mjfstewart: I’ve struggled with weight my whole life & tried to describe that battle colorfully. Also, it’s a metaphor for the historical French Rev
That got me thinking: how come I haven’t read more novels depicting the trials of fat people? Not that we don’t have some classic Fat Tales: A Confederacy of Dunces is the ultimate Chubby Man adventure, and I also thought of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Roseanne Barr, and, by extension, John Goodman, and then Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor (which, oddly enough, may tell the most supple, and entertaining, weight-confrontation story of them all).
Still, most of those works aren’t novels; they’re visual media that miss out on the complex thoughts and emotions of obese people grappling with their heft. I mulled this over for a few days, and couldn’t conjure up a single novel depicting protagonists engaged in the vicious mindgame of combating their flab. (I’ve since down the required Googling and learned that there is actually a super-subgenre of fat fiction, notably including Jennifer Weiner, best-selling author and self-appointed Franzen assassin. And since there’s nothing better for sales than a fight with Jennifer Weiner, I’ll just note politely that I hadn’t heard of her book before, and that my Twitter followers would kick her Twitter followers’ collective ass in a tickle contest.)
If there’s one thing we can almost always agree on—Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim, Jennifer Weiner or New York Times—it’s that eating is wonderful fun. Today’s food tastes better than ever, frequently featuring organic ingredients and international flavors and mind-splittingly creative recipes and lower prices. Eating is social, interesting and instantly gratifying; it is one of life’s simplest joys.
Which makes resisting that temptation hellacious. Losing weight is a battle of will, a war of informed decisionmaking against animal hunger. It is a searing societal story; it is a deeply personal story; it is, sadly, often a moral story. The battle of the bulge is as intrinsic to 21st century American society as love and death, family and career, technology and terrorism.
I’m a major yo-yoer myself, having bounced between a zippy 182 pounds and a hideous 239 pounds over the past decade, and every time I set my mind on losing weight it takes over my life. I eat differently. I schedule my day differently. I’m usually uncomfortable, which can make me a little short, and lead me to do stupid, self-destructive things, like lob a missile over Jennifer Weiner’s bow. And I think about food pretty much constantly.
Millions of Americans go through this agony every day; 68% of us are overweight or obese. Yet we have few literary insights about obesity to help comfort us; zero provocative tales about the plight of the salad-muncher for us to identify with during bleak dieting times; hardly any entertaining stories about hitting the gym which might propel us to suck it up and go to pilates class after a long workday. We turn to Oprah, or The Biggest Loser, or Weight Watchers—but not fiction.
Why not? Writing about fat people is dangerous ground, certainly; the fat reader market is a big one (pun intended), and we can get surly. 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’m sure I missed some obvious fat-themed novels (please enlighten me in the comments), but 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.
Imagine a serious, smarting vivisection that gets the whole country talking, obesity’s Freedom. It’s time for Fat Lit to get its Franzen treatment, and lots of other fictional treatments too.