Mary H. McFarland
Sep 2, 2009, 8:44 AM
Post #16 of 19
Margaret, I'm not sure of the age of the math teacher, so you bring up an interesting point. That is, how old is "ancient" when you're in your twenties, as my students mostly are? And how is that reflected in fiction as well as in our interaction with more youthful authors than ourselves?
I have a feeling the math teacher was a bit older than thirty, and I presently lack a compass for determining what is ancient. I tend to think anyone over ninety is probably starting to qualify!
But what did you write in your twenties and how did you interact with others in the writing community? When I was in my twenties and a graduate teaching assistant, anyone much older than thirty was "ancient" to me. Older folks simply didn't exist: I looked through them, so I had a tendency to disregard their importance in my life. For example, one professor in the English dept. was writing and publishing scholarly works on Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, but I only saw him as an old man (he was in his late thirties) who was basically decrepit. The only time I made for him was when I had to sit in his class.
Also, when I look back at what I wrote then, I note that it was very self-absorbed, judgmental of older persons and the obese, or just about anyone who didn't fit my idea of perfect. I lacked empathy not because I was mean and shallow, although I came across that way in my short stories, but because I had not lived long enough to know how to be compassionate or to love others without regard for age, weight, physical abnormalities, etc. In short, Margaret, I had not suffered deep loss, so I had no comprehension of the corresponding emotions of compassion or empathy.
I can see the irony now: I do feel deeply compassionate for all others, and this shows up in my writing which, thank gawd, has changed significantly. Ironically, I'm now the old fart, and who knows what my students say about me? One thing in my favor, though, is that I've developed a keen eye for the kind of superficial, self-absorbed writing that I did in my twenties, and I eschew it.
But I fear, as you might be implying, that some of the literature that tactlessly maligns the aged and the obese is not written by those in their twenties. I've read tons of work in which the intrusive narrator, NOT the characters themselves, shows a sophomoric preoccupation with those who are fat, bald, old, ugly, etc., and I do find it offensive on many levels, one of them being that its purpose is to disempower. To me, this type of writing is the distinct mark of an amateur. Conversely, I admire authors like Wally Lamb, who unobtrusively integrate the disabilities of their characters, whatever they might be, into the context of the story, and they do so in a way that elicits compassion rather than disgust.
I really like your idea of tracking references to obesity and aging: I can actually imagine a book coming out of a project like that. I'd buy it. I wonder where this seeming preoccupation by some authors will take the direction of fiction. The "large woman" of 150 pounds in A Lesson Before Dying is troubling, as are the BL references to "ancient" grandmothers. These are most likely inadvertent, but although done subconsciously, they are nevertheless, disempowering to the groups they define.
I find it problematic personally, trying to portray characters accurately while avoiding writing that would offend sensibilities, especially as I'm all for describing characters realistically when story calls for it, including those who are obese, aged, or in any other way handicapped or infirm. However, I think the more sophisticated writers avoid the blatant use of these references when they add nothing to the story and when they simply serve the purpose of conveying the author's discriminatory point of view.
I'm so glad you've raised this question, Margaret, because as I write my response I'm thinking of my characters in both of my current works of fiction. I'm asking myself, How will readers view my development of this or that character? You've posed a truly provocative question, and I am thinking through my own writing process, my choice of diction, and much, much more. This is invaluable to me and, I hope, to anyone sorting out a response to your question.