Posted on March 13, 2012 by Catherine Austen
I received two letters from readers last week. The first was a thankful email from the parent of a reluctant reader, an 11-year-old girl who read Walking Backward and really engaged with the story. That was such a nice letter to receive! I answered it with a thankful email of my own.
The second letter was an anonymous typewritten page sent to my publisher accusing me of “picking on fat people” in All Good Children. That was not a nice letter to receive! It wasn’t a complete surprise — I knew my mouthy narrator would offend some readers. And it was kind of fascinating — I’m interested in how a text is rewritten by readers. But mostly it felt like an anonymous bucket of poop dropped on my doorstep.
This blog post is my response to that “disappointed fan.” It’s a long letter aimed at one reader. If you’re not her, feel free to ignore it.
Dear disappointed fan,
I was sorry to read your letter about my teen novel, All Good Children. Normally I would not answer an anonymous letter, but I suspect we are acquainted in some way, and I’d like to respond to your accusations.
I understand that you are hurt and angered by the portrayal of overweight people in my book. The book is set in a time and place where great emphasis is placed on looks, and it is narrated by a boy who thinks insulting things about all the people who wield power over him. The scorn with which Max calls some people “fat” is deliberate – a deliberate choice I made in developing my character. And I knew when I made that choice that the insult would hit some readers harder than others. (The same goes for the hatred with which some characters in the book call others “faggot.”) Some readers will feel themselves insulted every time the insult is used in the book.
I know what it’s like to be sensitive to certain issues, insults, and stereotypes, to the point where you feel outraged every time they come up, regardless of context. Everywhere you go, someone is making fun of someone else, and if you’ve ever borne the brunt of such insults, every new example of it is infuriating because it’s all part of the same cruel mindset that ruins people’s lives. I get that.
But I also get that sensitivity colours our perception. The text we read is not the text on the page, but the text interpreted by what we bring to it. And when you are keenly sensitive to an issue, you bring a lot to the text that isn’t actually on the page.
(I also know what it’s like to be incensed by something I’ve read and then have someone suggest, “Do you think you might be so upset because of [insert personal issues here]?” That annoys me terribly. But over the years I have come to accept that sometimes I really am so upset because of [insert personal issues here]. Sometimes I go a little crazy in my accusations only to have someone point out that actually I have it all wrong.)
So here goes…
You are wrong in claiming that “all the really nasty characters” in my book are fat – or that all the fat characters in my book are nasty. Neither of these is true.
The nastiest people in the book are the aggressive homophobic Richmonds, Dallas’s father and brother, both of whom are physically fit and neither of whom Max mocks based on their looks.
The next nastiest are the racist kids, Washington and Tyler. Washington is tall and fit, and Max does not mock his appearance. Tyler is tall but thin and Max mocks him as “skeletal” and “bony.”
The next nastiest are the nurse Linda (who is one of the mothers at the football game), the substitute teacher Mr. Warton aka Werewolf, and the principal Mr. Graham. The principal and the nurse are both overweight and Max mocks their weight. Mr. Warton is slim but unusually hairy, and Max mocks him for his excessive body hair. Max insults all these nasty characters for their habits and personalities as well as their looks.
So, though you “couldn’t help noticing” all the nasty fat characters, there are actually only two: Linda and Mr. Graham. There are a lot of nasty characters in the book, but the majority are not fat. Perhaps you did not notice them because Max doesn’t mock their size (except Tyler’s thinness because it is beyond what the culture aspires to). Instead, where they have other physical “flaws,” he mocks those. And where they don’t have physical “flaws” he doesn’t mention their appearance. But they are nasty nonetheless.
Most of the overweight characters in the book are not nasty at all. The security guard at the beginning of the story is not “really nasty,” as you suggest. She is just a woman doing her job. In fact, I’d say she’s extraordinarily patient to deal with a passenger like Max without being rude to him. The same goes for the man on the airplane across the aisle from Max – he is fat but not nasty. Rather, he’s pleasant and friendly. Max does not like either of these people – the guard because she is frisking him and the man because he is chatting up Max’s mother – but they are not nasty.
Because of the first person narration, you see these characters from Max’s point of view, and he views them scornfully as “fat.” It’s no coincidence that these scenes are at the beginning of the story, when Max is at his most arrogant, feeling superior to everyone around him and comfortable in his elite position. His behaviour in these scenes is obnoxious and his thoughts are insulting. It is not so much a case of my using overweight characters as “an easy stereotype for villains,” as you suggest. It’s more Max who is the stereotype: he is the sort of kid who makes fun of fat people.
(But actually Max is not as mouthy as he likes to think – in first person narration, the gap between what characters do and how they are presented applies as well to the narrator. But that’s another issue….)
So the first scenes include two overweight people who are not nasty but who are portrayed scornfully by the narrator. Later in the book, there are other overweight characters whom Max likes or is indifferent to – Xavier’s parents, Max’s teammate Bay, the reporter who likes Max’s art – and Max calls these people “large” or “big” and does not mock them at all because they don’t wield any power over him. None of them is nasty, either. You may not notice their weight or their character because Max does not portray them scornfully as “fat” and so they don’t trigger the same reaction in you.
All tolled, the book has a lot of characters who are nasty and a lot of characters who are overweight, but the two categories don’t overlap in the way you suggest. Where they do overlap – in Linda and Mr. Graham – Max is very nasty about their weight. I wrote this deliberately, not to insult overweight readers but to portray my narrator’s mind. Max is an arrogant teenage athlete in a fictional world in which embryo selection has entrenched the ties between looks and status, and his own looks mark him as being of lower status than others. (He is unusually short and is mocked by others because of it, e.g., repeatedly called “midget.”) He is among the elite yet not quite “fit,” and he places exceptional emphasis on body size, both his own – he assumes that everyone looking at him is thinking he’s too short – and others’.
Am I “picking on fat people” by having a narrator describe some overweight characters cruelly? I don’t think so. Authors are not their characters. Yes, I deliberately developed a main character who thinks insulting things about others and yes, I deliberately developed overweight characters for him to think insulting things about. But a sweet compassionate narrator who puts himself in other people’s shoes would not work in this book. I needed a protagonist who was the sort of kid that people want to medicate for better behaviour, one with a mocking sense of humour, one who doesn’t care about what is done to other people until his own number comes up.
I could have gone Hollywood and had no overweight characters for Max to pick on, or I could have gone schmaltzy and had a smart-mouthed teenage narrator who miraculously has nothing insulting to say about overweight people in authority, or I could have gone politically correct and had all of the overweight characters be nice and only slim characters be nasty. But I did not make those choices because they are not realistic to me.
Does that mean I care more about my writing than my readers’ sensitivities? Could be. Yes. When I write, I do not think about making readers feel good or bad. I think about crafting an authentic voice. I don’t use footnotes telling readers how to interpret what the narrator says or differentiating my views from those of a character. I know that readers bring their own background to a story, and there will be always readers who confuse author and character. That’s just the risk of writing, especially in first person. You have to accept that risk and write your own truth anyway. The book I wrote will never be the book someone else reads. It is certainly not the book you read.
Your letter stands out as the craziest I have received from a reader. I had a nasty letter from a woman who complained that atheists shouldn’t write for children, after she read Walking Backward, which has an atheistic narrator. Like you, she felt personally attacked and tried to school me on human dignity. Like you, she assumed she knew my beliefs and even what I was thinking as I read her letter. But she didn’t ask if I thought Christians were “incapable of human decency,” as you suggest I feel about fat people. Nor did she get cute, as in your question, “Have you suffered horrible atrocities at the hands of fat people?” And she signed her name. So your letter tops hers for crazy. (And I’m not even touching your closing statement about how I “should be grateful” that I don’t know what it’s like….)
I’m good with many types of crazy, but I’m not so good with anonymous accusations from people who think they know me because they interpret my writing a certain way. Your letter is way out there. And it’s mistaken.
But since you felt sad by reading my book, we could call each other even. (Don’t get sadder and write me another. Seriously.)
Category: authors, teen novels, writingTags: all good children, creative process, fictional characters, how to read a book
Catherine Austen writes books for kids and teens, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. She lives in Gatineau, Quebec.
Well said, Catherine. Books are miraculously personal, in a way that movies, let’s say, can never be. The reader inhabits the book and, if they’re suffering, for one reason or another, they often see their suffering — read it into the book — as you so accurately explain. But that can be the start of growth, of change. Let’s hope so.
Thanks, Tim. I have certainly read things into other people’s books, and I think it’s a growth opportunity for me to be on the other end of that. (I am not good with criticism and I fretted for days over that letter and how to respond. I couldn’t not respond.) I do find reading-as-rewriting a fascinating topic in the abstract but it’s unnerving when it’s my own book that’s being read. I don’t want to offend people – but I don’t want my fear of offending people to keep me from writing honestly.
Nicely said, Catherine. It’s so easy to leave poop on doorsteps when you remain anonymous, isn’t it? Just be glad the poop was delivered in a bucket and not in a paper bag set alight…and that you didn’t then stomp on it. 😉
Tweeted the link to this, btw. If I can’t bring you to Twitter, I’ll at least bring Twitter to you!
Thanks, Linda. (If it had been the paper bag kind, I’d have guessed it was from my teenage son.) I can relate to the feeling behind the letter completely, if not its delivery. Anonymity might make you more flippant, but maybe it’s better to send a letter anonymously than to sit home feeling sad about the whole thing and not communicate at all (which is what I usually do). I don’t know. Communication is not my strong point. (Says one author to another.)
Not wanting to offend people, but not wanting that to cost your honesty — that’s something I can totally relate to. It’s a tricky line to walk, and sometimes you’ve got to step over to one side or the other. And it’s got to be rough to have someone dislike what you wrote, not wholly because of what was written, but because of how they read it.
That you could put together a lucid, mature response to the letter in question is to your credit. And that another, encouraging letter was also received has to help balance the sting. (:
Oh, P.S., in case you didn’t know: My latest blog post features a review of “All Good Children” — hopefully the kind that will put a smile on your face.
Thanks, Danielle. Maybe I’m not so bad at communicating, after all! It is a tricky line to walk, and I like hearing that other writers relate to that feeling. I knew as I walked it that I might offend – but I wasn’t ready to hear that I did. (The other letter just made my day, though. It’s so easy to take a complimentary letter personally!)
I am going to go check out your blog right now. Because I know you like Max. In spite of his flaws.
This is a marvellous rebuttal, Catherine! Incredibly thoughtful. All Good Children is one of my favourite books this year – I’m so sorry that you were made to feel “pooped on.” I think I’m even sorrier that this reader’s personal issues prevented her (?) from fully appreciating the nuances and complexities of your beautifully crafted characters and story. Definitely her loss!
Ah, thanks, Christie! From one perspective – I just got home from a yoga class so my perspective is all relaxed and at one with the poop – it’s interesting as a new author to experience the desire to control how people read my work. Because I want them to get it like I do. And they won’t. (But when someone does, or comes close, it’s AWESOME!) On the other hand, I love it that people can have opposite impressions of what happened in a book. It really is a fascinating thing.
Well, on one hand, I think someone who doesn’t have the balls to put their name on a box of poop before leaving it on your doorstep doesn’t even deserve a response. However, I think this response by you is well articulated and wonderful.
It’s too bad, as Christie said, that this reader’s own issues got in the way of him or her “getting” your story. But then again, I suspect that this person probably has a lot to work through before he or she will really “get” a lot of things. As with most scenarios like this, that crazy letter says a lot more about them than it does about your manuscript.
Thanks, Ishta. I appreciate all the comments here – because I did feel bad for having offended this reader, and then I wondered if my response would just offend her some more. (The “How to Read a Book” cover is a bit snarky.) So it is reassuring to hear people agree that the letter was out of line and my response is reasonable.
But I don’t want to gang up on my disappointed fan, either. It was a crazy letter, for sure, and I didn’t feel it was right to just swallow it. But I needed to respond to her not only to defend and explain myself, but also because I can relate to her feeling of being saddened and infuriated by what she felt was yet another example of the prejudices all around us. It’s a really sad feeling. And if you can see that sometimes your own sensitivities are making you sadder than what someone else intends, then you can start to be less sad.
We all have issues and blind spots to work through, I think, and it’s often some unwanted challenge that helps us work through them – so maybe her letter and my response will turn out to be helpful on both sides in some small way. Or maybe it’s all been just a pain in the butt. Hard to say.
Max is a 15 years old, objectionable teenager in a world where humans are artificially selected and genetically engineered for looks and intelligence and medicated to control behaviour. Unlike Dallas, his “expensive genes” didn’t kick in. His character is wonderfully snide and mocking. He focuses on superficial appearance when introduced, and rightfully so — he is a product of his environment, and this adds to his realism. This was the correct path for the book to take. Max is even desensitized to the deformed babies and adults of Freaktown (possible subject of another anonymous letter). As his character develops, I believe Max does realizes it is a false and superficial standard for judging character and worthiness.
People/Teens read books at different levels of mental involvement and bring different perspectives and divergent viewpoints. As an adult, I never feel very close to the main character, Max, maybe I am too distant from being a teenager. I suspect a young reader would identify with him much more and that is intentional. I abhor the notion espoused by the letter writer that every main character should be delightful, flawless and politically correct. Such a superficial stereotype would only lead to uninteresting, pretentious and stilted prose.
Thanks, David. You get it. (And yeah, as you say, teenagers relate to Max more than adults, it being a teen novel and all.) I don’t think you need worry about any flawless PC characters coming from me.
I enjoyed the book immensely, and I’m glad to hear I don’t need to worry. Now I can deeply exhale and wipe the sweat off my brow (symptoms of the vapors). 🙂
If there was a “like” button for comments, I’d press it. Thanks, David.