Sunday, 24 June 2007

A Good Song Among Many

The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.

It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.

Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.

Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.

I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.

I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”

No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.

Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.

And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Tales as Beautiful As They Are Good, Though They Are Neither One

The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.

I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.

When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)

There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.

I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.

Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.

I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Real Fantasy

Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is one of the books on the Newbery list I have most dreaded reviewing. When it comes to qualities that make a book the hardest to review, this novel has all the bases covered. I have read and reread it so many times over the past 20 years that it’s difficult to dredge up any even quasi-objective thoughts or fresh impressions about it. I love it and pretty much everything else McKinley has written, and I’ve already covered one Robin McKinley book in an earlier review, so my reserve of non-groupie-like praise for her work has already been exhausted. However, I am in a reviewing mood today and this review has to be written sometime if I’m ever to get through the Newbery winners list, so here we go.

I first read The Hero and the Crown 20 years ago, at the age of 13. I never related to Aerin, never felt I was like her, never wanted to be her nor even to be friends with her (even supposing that she would, theoretically, have wanted to be friends with me), never imagined myself a part of her world as so often did with my favourite books. All I knew was that she and Damar sucked me in and roared and clashed and happened all around me.

The Hero and the Crown, to try to sum it up briefly and without spoilers as per the reviewer’s rule book, is about Aerin, the daughter of a king of a country that is half magical fantasyland and half medieval. Aerin a bit of a misfit, though I hate to use the word, because it might lead to my using “ragtag” and “lovable” and because it smacks of Disney movies involving bands of lovable, ragtag misfits and I don’t want Disney or anything it spawns even that close to anything McKinley ever wrote.

So I’d better say that Aerin is somewhat at odds with her environment because her mother was a commoner who was suspected of being a witch and because Aerin has the kind of crankily independent personality that would pretty much guarantee her being at odds with any environment, anywhere. The people of her land and most of the royal household look askance at her, and she looks askance back. Aerin grows up in a melee that never knows what to make of her, and so she has to take matters into her own hands and make something of herself – retraining a lamed war horse of her father’s and inventing a new way to ride, learning how to use a sword, discovering a formula for dragonfire-proof salve, exterminating dragons, becoming a saving presence for her cousin and heir to the throne Tor, and eventually mustering all these acquired skills in defense of her country and people at a time of great dangers.

McKinley is probably incapable of creating a princess that is anything like the popular storybook conception of one. For Aerin’s world McKinley even ditches the word princess in favour of her own original royal hierarchy and terms. Aerin and her cousins are all ranked as first and second sols and solas and there are some political manoeuvrings and attempted sola climbing. Aerin, by the way, was born with more than her fair share of her father’s political acumen, though mostly she can’t be bothered to use it. Galanna, Aerin’s cousin, is more of a fairy tale stock character (specifically in a nasty stepsister sort of way), but even she is has some intelligence and depth and her tussles with Aerin are satisfyingly evenly matched, bring out the worst in both of them, and usually end in some kind of draw. McKinley shows the same inventiveness when it comes to Aerin’s heroic actions. Aerin's achievements are never unproblematic, and never win her the unqualified adoration of her people as it might in a lesser book. Luthe, the mage whose help she seeks (a mage being a sort of wizard with advanced training), finds his magical practice a complicated and troublesome thing and is just as subject to mistakes and impulses as any else in the book.

The last review I wrote and another one I am working on now have left me pondering the role of fantasy in our lives, and the qualities which make it satisfying. It seems to me that the more richly detailed and nuanced a fantasy is the more absorbing it will be. A princess may be as beautiful as she is good, but that won’t make her interesting. A reader doesn’t know – or want to know – Princess Goodie Gum Drops the ways she does Aerin, with her badly darned stockings and her rueful take on life. The paradox of fantasy is that the more real it seems, the more completely one can escape into it. A good fantasy world must be as rich in detail and as multilayered as the real world we inhabit. McKinley understands this, and that is why The Hero and the Crown and all her other books are unfailingly a world in themselves.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Chewing on Chicklit

On a recent trip to Value Village I came across a copy of Jemima J: a novel about ugly ducklings and swans, by Jane Green. I distinctly remembered a discussion about the book on the old forums. Everyone was united in loathing. So I spent the few dollars to buy it, thinking happily that there would be a lot of scope for ridicule in it and I could have fun trashing it in a review.

And then I read it. It really wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I’m not saying it’s good, mind you, just that it’s not completely unreadable and its failings provided me with some food for thought. In review terms this is what’s known as damning with qualified negatives, as in “You know, Madonna didn’t totally suck in Evita.” Am I recommending you read this book? No, go watch Evita instead. What I really want to do here is muse about some of the issues with Jemima J, and with chicklit in general.

I’m not widely read in this genre, but I have read a sampling: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones duo as well as her earlier (promising if not quite there) Cause Celeb and later (terrible) Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination; the first several books in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret; Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance, and probably more that I have forgotten because they were forgettable. I suppose I could do a feminist critique of these books and complain about how they reinforce stereotypes and trivialize women’s issues and how no one writes this kind of stupid crap for a male audience and so forth, but I won’t. My main problem with this genre is that I expect it to be fun and involving and that it so seldom is.

Not that such books aren’t enjoyable in spots. Helen Fielding does have a remarkable talent for satire and in the first Bridget Jones book she sends up the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of office, family, friendship, and relationship politics in a way that had me in hysterics more than once. The first Shopaholic book was genuinely fun in a confectionary style, with its pitch perfect comic rendering of behaviour out of control, and the attendant denial, procrastination, magical thinking, and resolutions broken again and again. I couldn’t help liking that in Jemima J Jemima accomplishes exactly what she attempts, and as for Elegance, well… so I'll put up with a lot to read about clothes and style. Bite me.

But as much as I enjoyed the fun parts of these books, I can’t give these writers a free pass for their sloppy literary technique any more than I can condone the life of the party driving drunk. By all means write a fun, frothy book, but don’t get lazy and flout the rules for writing fiction, which are always in force, no matter the genre. The characters must be multi-dimensional, the factual content adequately researched, the conflicts compelling, the plot believable, the prose competent, and so forth.

And I’ll go beyond this standard list of literary requirements and make a special request of chick lit writers: Please, please, PLEASE don’t create any more stupid, vapid heroines who fuck up everything they touch. It’s not cute and it’s not funny and it’s the single biggest failing and irritant of this genre. The second Bridget Jones movie was generally considered not as good as the first, and I believe this to be due at least in part because the second book wasn’t as good as the first. Helen Fielding borrowed the plot of Bridget Jones' Diary from Pride and Prejudice; for Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason she seems to have flown solo, with the result that both she and Bridget ran amok. I know a lot of women who were almost offended by the second movie. Bridget is supposed to be an ordinary woman, perhaps even an Everywoman (at least for the single, thirty-something crowd), and ordinary women expect an Everywoman to be much like themselves: intelligent, generally competent, and capable of both letting things slide and cleaning up well. We do not at all like the implication that ordinary women don’t know how to do their jobs properly, make basic decisions without the aid of their friends, or dress up becomingly for a special occasion. I spent the entire reading thinking alternately, “Can’t you do anything right?” and "How stupid can you be?" And let’s not even get into the notion that a 5’6” woman who weighs 140 pounds is fat.

But at least the Bridget Jones sequel wasn’t as bad as the Shopaholic sequels. It’s the same gag over again. And over again. Oh, and here it is again. Becky shops, and keeps shopping. And gets in financial trouble again. And pisses off her boyfriend/fiancé/husband again. And learns how wrong this all is. Until the next instalment. Rinse, repeat. Kinsella seems to be suffering from her own form of compulsion and is now up to her fifth book, Shopaholic and Baby. I can only hope she manages to stop herself before she reaches Shopaholic and Great-Grandbaby, in which Becky acquires a raft of designer walkers and false teeth and a bankrupted Luke moves out of their home to go live with their granddaughter, who is a voluntary simplicity guru.

It’s really no fun to read a book when one spends one’s entire time tapping one’s fingers waiting for the heroine to Get It. The premise of Elegance was a good one, but its execution wasn’t. I loved that a reading of a vintage book of fashion advice inspired the heroine to change her life. This is how inspiration works. It can spring from many sources; the simplest thing can galvanize you simply because you are ready to act. But there was something so conscious and mechanical about Louise’s journey. The book’s chapters are so topical, like a self-help book. Louise proceeds too neatly and efficiently from Learning Not To Settle to Learning Not to Spend Time with Toxic People to Learning Not To Be Afraid of Change, and the lessons she learns are just too clear cut and obvious. Her progression should have felt more organic and messy, like real change and growth always does.

In Jemima J, Jemima is at least not completely clueless. Nor is she a chronic mess who cannot develop any sort of self-control, a la Becky Bloomwood Branden or Bridget Jones. Over the course of the book, she loses 100 pounds, makes some new friends who care about her and falls in love with one of them, takes a trip to Los Angeles to meet a gorgeous man she met on the Internet, and sees her career options open up. Her friends assure her she’s a talented writer. She’s not. She’s a hack writer with a basic grasp of editing, but she has the ability and the work ethic required to churn out work to specifications, and in the world of fashion journalism to which she aspires, that will take her far. (Hey, it worked for Bonnie Fuller). And I liked that she has the self-discipline to do what’s necessary.

But… the novel isn’t funny, the characterizations are flat and stereotypical, and the plot twists are contrived. I’m less than enthusiastic about Green’s employment of dual narrative voices. She switches back and forth between Jemima’s first person narrative and an omniscient third person narrator. In the hands of a more skilled writer this could be an interesting way to structure a narrative. In Jemima J, it’s simply clunky, like a driver who can’t figure out what gear to use nor how to shift smoothly between them. The reader, to extend the analogy, winds up feeling like a confused and motion-sick passenger.

I’ve also read a number of criticisms on the net about the unrealistic elements of this book, and definitely agree with some of them. I don’t think Jane Green got the weight loss right. I’m going to hazard a guess and say Green has never been obese and that her research about it was cursory. Her depiction of Jemima’s weight loss project just does not have the ring of authenticity. I’m afraid those of us who have had to struggle with the occasional extra ten or twenty pounds are too prone to think we know all about what it’s like to be overweight. We don’t. Being 20 pounds overweight is nothing like being 100 or more pounds overweight. I struggle with my weight, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with such physical limitations and so many daily humiliations, to not be able to find anything in the stores to fit me, to live with the kind of abject self-loathing some obese people do, to have people avoid eye contact or glare at me because I sat next to them on the bus. This thread on MetaFilter about what it’s like to be obese made this clear to me. I can easily walk four miles in an hour regardless of what I happen to weigh. I don’t know what it would be like to feel as though my knees are full of broken glass after walking a couple of blocks. A blog linked to in that thread, Clemie’s Reasons Why, almost had me in tears because it seemed so tragic that such a young, intelligent, personable woman could be reduced to such abject shame that some days she hides when there is a knock at the door rather than have anyone see her.

Jemima loses 100 pounds in approximately three months, which is surely very unlikely if not completely impossible. Sure, she might have lost 30 pounds that first month, but she would have been VERY lucky to lose three or four pounds a week for those last twenty or thirty pounds – one or two pounds a week would be much more realistic. Dieting plateaus are inevitable no matter how disciplined one is, and her rate of loss would have gotten slower and slower the closer she got to her goal, especially when her goal weight of 120 was very thin for her 5’7” frame There’s also no mention of skin sag or stretch marks – I find it hard to believe that at that rate and amount of weight loss there was none.

Jemima does not buy any sort of a transitional wardrobe as she downsizes, and I don’t see how that could have been avoided, even leaving aside the consideration of how it would have made her look. In my experience 10 pounds (lost or gained) = approximately one clothing size. A hundred pounds lost would mean a drop of 10 clothing sizes. Since Jemima wears a size eight at her goal weight, her original clothing size would have been a 28 or thereabouts. Even if I'm way off in my estimate and her old size was say, an 18 or a 20, her old skirts, pants and underwear would have literally fallen off her before she hit her goal weight.

Then there’s the fact that she met a gorgeous L.A. fitness studio owner named Brad via the net. Some reader reviews I have seen on the net scoff at the idea that such an attractive man would use internet dating. I’m not incredulous. Extremely good-looking people do use internet dating services; I’ve met some of them myself. I don’t find it hard to believe that a man like Brad, who turns out to be very shallow (even more so than everybody else in the book, amazingly), would resort to Internet dating to meet a “perfect” girl who looks the part he wants her to play in his life. What I do find impossible to believe is that Jemima spent months regularly communicating with this man via telephone, internet and fax (the narrator comments that Brad proves during this time “to be the one light of her life”) and never realized how one-dimensional he was until she met him in person. Such a prolonged communication would soon peter out unless there were some serious metaphysical rapport to sustain it, and the two participants would get a very good sense of who the other was. That said, Green does depict the gradual deflation of Jemima and Brad’s relationship fairly well. It wasn’t quite necessary for her to throw in a coup de grâce plot twist that would put a definite end to it, especially one that wasn’t all that believable, but never mind.

Green also does reasonably well with Jemima’s adjustment to her weight loss. I recognized it from my own experience – for awhile you feel streamlined enough to take flight, and are giddily euphoric… and then you get used to it and you realize that weight loss isn’t magic, that it hasn’t essentially changed who you are or made your life complete. Jemima also has the late bloomer’s experience of social life and makes mistakes most women make at a younger age than 27, such as mistaking great sexual chemistry for love.

One of the notable things about this book is that it actually tries to document the experience of a fat woman. It doesn’t succeed at all well, and there are some truly offensive elements in it, such as the idea that it’s a shameful fetish for a man to find large women attractive (why is this any more kinky or weird than having a thing for redheads?) or the idea that Jemima must lose weight to find love and be happy (I know a number of overweight women whose partners adore them). But the book tells a story about a fat woman. And the fact that such a fourth-rate book is the one of the few I can think of that are about an overweight woman is very telling. Something like half the population of North America is overweight, yet in our novels and movies fat people are either completely absent, or relegated to being the sassy best friend, the comic relief, or the pathetic mess who must slim down before she can enter into the world of the people who are loved, who have successful careers and friends, who register with the rest of us. This says something about the disconnect between our collective imagination and our reality, and leaves me pondering the nature of fantasy and its appeal for us.

I may have daydreamed about being a princess as a child, but now my most satisfying day dreams are those that lie in the realm of possibility. Whether creating my own stories or watching or reading someone else’s, I don’t like being the caustic, disinterested observer, thinking, yeah, right, that would never happen. I like being able to enter wholly into a story, feeling both able to relate to the characters and able to experience a new world vicariously through them. And I know it’s difficult to create work of this calibre in any genre, but for some reason writers who write for a largely female audience (those who produce romances, chick lit, and the new and equally horrendous genre of “mom lit”) seem to get a special license to churn out garbage, probably because there’s a market for it. While we don’t necessarily get the fiction we deserve, we do get what we pay for.