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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.

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Matt Stewart Matt Stewart's debut novel, The French Revolution, has been called "wildly imaginative," "brilliant," and "an excellent achievement" by people he's not related to. He's mildly infamous for posting the book on Twitter first. You can grab his free French Rev iPhone app via his website, Twitter up, Facebook in, or simply share pleasant thoughts.

31 Responses to “Finding Fat Lit”

  1. This raises some interesting questions, Matt. Where *are* the characters who might be more reflective of a majority of readers? You’re right — I can’t think of a work that might be about struggles with obesity … but even more interesting, I can’t think of a character who just happens to be overweight who isn’t also a baffoon, a source of comedy in some way, a sidekick, or a villain, etc.

  2. Have you read Lummox by Mike Magnuson?

  3. Becky Palapala says:

    I’ve never felt compelled to write a fat character, or from a fat character’s POV.

    But now that I contemplate it, I find myself uneasy in the same way we are cautioned to be uneasy about writing cultures, races, dialects, etc. that are not our own.

    I have never weighed more than 140 lbs, soaking wet.

    I mean, is it a coup of character channeling or a presumptuous insult to write something that personal and intimate about a subject a writer knows nothing about?

    • Matt Stewart says:

      Becky – you’re lucky! Skinnyism is a problem I’d love to have.

      That said, if we’re not going to write stories for fear of offending people, we’re never going to get anywhere. Even if you’re lucky enough to NOT be fat, you’ve certainly interacted closely with friends/family grappling with their weight. This is one of the most easy-to-research topics in world history.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well, I agree about offending people, really. But there’s fear of offending people, then there’s PC niceties. I mean, I’m not personally sure there’s much of a difference, but a lot of people are convinced that there is.

        And it’s easily researched to a point, but at its heart, it will remain an outsider perspective. I mean, I keep thinking of Tyra Banks in her fat suit, weeping with obese guests about the horrible treatment she received, and thinking the intent was noble but the overall outcome more or less face-palm hideous. Maybe I have skinny-person guilt. You, know, like white guilt.

        That said, I did read a novella for my Italian class whose protagonist was a food-addicted, overweight police detective. It was called “Delitto in Piazza del Campo.” Unfortunately, if you don’t read Italian–and at about a 2nd grade level–it really probably won’t be too riveting.

        Oh. And there was that Bridgette Jones lady. Light fare (pun!), but nevertheless.

  4. James D. Irwin says:

    There has to be a joke here somewhere about ‘weighty tomes’ or something. I’ve just spent about five minutes trying.

    Seriously though. It strikes me that ‘fat fiction’ would be quite a niche market with a limited appeal to people who haven’t struggled with weight. Our favourite characters tend to be ones we can relate to, or aspire to be like.

    Obesity is also quite a personal thing. It would be hard to write a believable obese character without having been obese— otherwise you just end up with lazy stereotypes.

    And as we all know fat people are too busy eating buckets of fried chicken in front of the TV and taking up multiple seats on planes to write stories about their pastry-filled lives and sugar saturated struggles. (This, of course, is an example of lazy stereotyping from a grotesquely skinny young man.)

  5. Richard Cox says:

    I’m glad someone mentioned She’s Come Undone. Wally Lamb is an amazing writer. In Franzen’s league, I think.

    Although I would argue there’s no need for a novel to be known as “Obesity’s Freedom” or whatever. I don’t think of Franzen as the “family issues” novelist. I don’t know if novels need to be placed into such categories, do they?

    But I totally agree about the relative scarcity of novels with obese protagonists. Why aren’t they represented as a proportion of the real population? Maybe because obese writers don’t want to address these issues? But that doesn’t seem right either because alcoholics and drug users certainly don’t seem to mind addressing their addictions. Or maybe publishers aren’t buying novels that focus on obesity because they think readers don’t want to buy them?

    This is an interesting piece. Thanks for posting it.

  6. Sarah Maizes says:

    It’s a really interesting premise. In Jennifer Weiner’s book “Good in Bed” the protagonist is far from obese, but the obstacles she faces are brought on by how she views her weight. She does a fantastic job though. Great read…Light (ironically).

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. […] lot of time to post this morning, but I caught  this over at Mark Athitakis’ blog, which led to this over at Matt Stewart’s Nervous Breakdown: Nobody’s writing novels about fat people […]

  9. B. Adu says:

    I jotted a few ideas off the top of my head, on the kind of things I’d be interested in reading about. I’m sure there are more but none of them involve ‘fat people’s battle with their weight’. Snoozzzzzze .

  10. Matt Stewart says:

    It can be done–authors have to want to do it. Ironically, I just picked up SOLAR by Ian McEwan, and there are some pretty entertaining scenes about deciding whether or not to eat that extra chip.

  11. BuffPuff says:

    I would say that the reason there aren’t many books with fat protagonists in either literary or popular fiction is because we live in a highly fat phobic culture. If we didn’t, literary agents wouldn’t feel the need to pose questions about the commercial appeal of same to the readers of their blogs. Having said that, a quick shufti at my own bookshelves yields a few titles – The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, (yep, really; literary novel, fat protagonist), Two Girls; Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, Coversations With the Fat Girl by Liza Palmer, The Dieter by Susan Sussman, A Matter of Fat by Sherry Ashworth, What they Did To Princess Paragon and Fag Hag, by Robert Rodi, (in which the fat characters are secondary but, in both instances, essentially drive the narrative); a Bloomsbury anthology of fat fiction entitled What Are You Looking At? plus several of Jennifer Weiner’s novels, including Good In Bed – the title of which one agent suggested she might change to Big Girl, presumably to act as some kind of caveat lest some unsuspecting reader thought they might be purchasing a book about a regular human being.

    In all the books I’ve ever read featuring a fat protagonist, weight/self image has been an issue of some kind and self loathing writ large. Art, after all, imitates life and it’s near impossible, as a fat individual, to make one’s way in such an openly hostile environment and not have those issues come up. This is particularly true of women, who regularly bond over their perceived physical shortcomings, particularly when it comes to issues of food and weight and regardless of what size they are. Why do you think Bridget Jones’s Diary – a book about a neurotic, weight-fixated ninny, who isn’t actually fat – struck such a massive chord with the public?

    This, however, is where art and life seem to part company. What there aren’t many of are novels in which a fat female protagonist is permitted to find love, happiness or success without losing weight by some means first, (broken heart leading to convenient loss of appetite/fortuitously timed sickness/Weight Watchers), or where they’re only permitted to find happiness with another fat person because, let’s face it, no one else would have them, (and, yes, this is sarcasm). I tend to avoid these like the plague. As a fat woman whose self-esteem improved in leaps and bounds the moment she decided to make peace with her body and quit the infernal diet-go-round for good, I have a major problem with that kind of tired, patronising pish. It’s not dissimilar to the state of gay fiction back in the pre-Stonewall dark ages – you could publish it, film it or put it on the stage … just as long as the characters you were portraying were shown to be wretched, embittered, lonely and seething with self-hatred, preferably enough to hang themselves in the final act.

    Personally I don’t believe my fatness (or my health, for that matter), to be moral issues, nor do I consider the kind of titanic struggle to which you allude, (and to which my younger self would certainly have related), to to be a virtue or anybody’s duty to society. I would also contend there is considerably more to the fat experience than starving, weighing and hating on oneself like a walking – sorry – “waddling” cliché or, thanks very much, serving as a metaphor for mass consumerism or the downfall of Civilisation. There are other, way more interesting stories to tell. I think there’s more than enough written about the misery of pounding treadmills and pastry avoidance to be found outside of fiction. If you want comfort, go read a weight loss bio or blog; if you want validation for your heroic dedication, write your own. If, on the other hand, you want to stop being crotchety, food-obsessed and self-destructive, make yourself a sandwich. You’re a grown up.

  12. Erika Rae says:

    Interesting idea – and certainly one I haven’t given much thought to before. I remember reading Bridget Jones’s Diary and thinking she must be quite plump, but at the end of the day, that was it really – plump. Not obese.

    I do think most people read books as an escape and like to image themselves in the shoes of a sexy young heroine or dark, witty hero. Even so, done right…this concept could really fly.

    It’s funny you bring this up, actually. Just yesterday NPR was talking about a latino soap opera that is focused on health. It discusses everything from healthy eating to prenatal care to health insurance. Apparently it’s quite the hit. So there you go.

    • BuffPuff says:

      Fat people make up a significant part of the populace and they read books too. And the unconscious message a fat reader extrapolates from Bridget Jones’s incessant self-denigration is that she herself is inherently unloveable and beyond redemption. (Remember Bridget notes her weight every time she makes an entry in the diary). The reasons she gets that message is a) because she knows she weighs maybe half as much again as Bridget, and b) because the real world tells her that every day of her life.

      Journalists used words like “balloon” to describe Renée Zellweger’s physical self-transformation in order to portray the wretched girl. The real world believes Zellweger became fat to portray a fat character, rather than a very slim woman who became average-sized in order to play an average-sized, self-obsessed neurotic. Any humour Helen Fielding intended in the fact Bridget wasn’t actually fat is lost in society’s own Bridget-like obsession. Remember, in addition, that my hypothetical fat reader also never gets to see films or TV shows with fat female romantic leads, and rarely gets to read novels about them either.

      I want to escape into a world where happy, confident women who share my physical attributes get to wear the manolos; ride in sports cars; sip Mojitos and have hot, rip-roaring sex with cool, handsome men now and again. Just as I baulk at the deeply ingrained notion that looking at images of skinny women modelling clothes made for other skinny women is “aspirational”, I hate the fact that I’m compelled to find escape in books set in worlds where women like me either don’t exist at all, are used to provide some kind of light relief or else to portray how much the heroine “let herself go” before dropping enough pounds to be considered deserving of the hero. The last thing I want from fiction is a health lecture. The second last thing I want in a book is some sad git whining on the rigours of bloody weight loss.

  13. Thalia says:

    Some fabulous books with fat heroes:

    Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout.
    Stevie Barrett in Such a Pretty Face by Cathy Lamb.
    Candace Shapiro in Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner.
    Heather Wells mysteries by Meg Cabot
    Josephine Fuller series by Lynne Murray
    Skye Denison of The Scumble River mysteries by Denise Swanson.

    I’m a mystery reader, so these are just mysteries. But there are many others. You just aren’t looking. Maybe you’re too busy criticizing yourself to open your eyes.

  14. […] title of this article, “Finding Fat Lit,” is promising. I was like, yeah! We need more fat characters! And […]

  15. LaTara says:

    G.A. McKevett’s Savannah Reid mysteries has a kick butt over weight heroine. I love her style and I like that the main character loves herself as she is, no she’s not a perfect size six, or zero (she’s more like a size 18). The books themselves are written in an amazingly witty style and full of a colorful cast of characters. The author doesn’t focus on Savannah’s weight but it’s clear she’s not that small. Neither am I and frankly I’d rather buy fiction from someone who writes about a person that’s in peace with their body and not at war with it.

  16. […] the main focus. On my search for literary fat positivity, I came across an article entitled “Finding Fat Lit” written by novelist, Matt […]

  17. Joanne murray says:

    I can think of three novels that, curiously, have not been mentioned –

    Final Payments, Mary Gordon
    A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark
    The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood

    Final payments is an amazing novel with food as a tool of vengeance and control. In far cry, a diet is a plot element. Edible woman is about one’s relationship with food.

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