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Readers Weigh In: The Skinny on Fat in Fiction


In this month’s Avid Reader newsletter, I wrote about Fat in Fiction. I suspected readers might have a lot to say, and I was right – you did! It’s always a controversial topic, especially these days, when our society seems to be expanding and obesity is being monitored as a dangerous epidemic.

Some encouragement, some suggestions, some counterpoints, all appreciated and interesting. Thanks so much for writing in to share your views with us. And I now have some titles to add to my reading list!

Here’s some of what you had to say:

“The best fictional book about a fat person I’ve ever read: Fat Woman, by Leon Rooke. Vivid, gothic, bizarre, and very touching.
–M. Allen”

“One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis has some fun moments, but David Lodge in the Guardian calls it “his least likeable novel” and says that the main character “was in many respects a devastating and prophetic self-portrait.” Perhaps all the better reason to give this slim novel a go!

Brian”

“I have been overweight for sometime now and am trying to lose about 40 lbs. I see a lot of overweight people and it has become an obsession on television. But, here in Cheyenne, WY I have a friend who has a lot of family problems and she has become extremely overweight. She is so sweet and nice and another friend and I know she is not being treated nicely by other people in her office. It is terrible. And of course, when a person does lose “all that weight” well, they are welcomed back into the world. I wish we could cut the bias. Thanks much.
HelzHart”

” I would like to commend to you Dr Koppelman’s important work on the topic, which continues her very special contribution to literature, and was groundbreaking on the topic you cover.

Could you perhaps add it to your blog?
“The Strange History of Suzanne laFleshe” and Other stories of Women and Fatness
Thank you,
Laura

“Hi there,

I really appreciated Beth Carswell’s piece on fat in fiction, especially her critical take on how authors
use fat as metaphor and their limited vision for fat characters. I was surprised, then, that she didn’t
mention Susan Stinson‘s novels as the happy fat exceptions. Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, Martha Moody, and Venus of Chalk all have amazing fat characters and explore the fat body and fat in the social world in very complex ways. She’s one of the only writers I’ve read who can capture the great joys of the fat body and the pleasures it brings. I think your readers would love her books and I hope you can mention them in the future.

Best,
Lynne”

“While I don’t disagree with what you say about fat people in fiction, I don’t think they are a singular case. Beauty in general is usually used to represent good, and “ugliness” as evil or bad. Glasses are used hugely to stereotype children, and beyond that, what about all the hook nosed, beady eyed, etc. villains? These people have arguably even less control over their looks than overweight ones.

Fat is a hot topic because it is perceived that people can have some control over their weight. (I do think people are sent wildly conflicting marketing messages – so that both the food and diet industries can thrive – which is despicable.) In many cases fatness is related to emotional issues, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to use it to illustrate that kind of change in a person’s life. But, considering that many people are genetically disposed to be overweight, and that western culture at the present time fosters overweight, I agree that it would be very good to have stories that show that people are much more than a dress (or suit) size.
-Suzy”

“I just wanted to say thank-you to Beth Carswell for the article ‘The Skinny on Fat in Fiction’. I totally agree that in a world of ever increasing political correctness, where one by one one prejudices are identified and made socially unacceptable, weight remains one of the few remaining acceptable prejudices. But the prejudice willnever be challenged without articles like that. So thank-you Beth for taking up your pen (or keyboard!) and
contributing to the good fight!! And hey, perhaps an author will be inspired and write a charcter who has
curves with no agenda. Good work!
Rachel”

“Dear Beth,

I read your article, The Skinny on Fat in Fiction, and found it a little one sided. There are a growing number ofauthors using skinny for the same purpose. In fact extremely thin, spidery or anemic characters are just as often used as evil doers, or portrayed as defective of character. Thinness is used to denote creepiness, or moral decay as often as obesity is used for greed and lack of willpower.

But in the end obesity or anorexia are extremes. Most readers are neither (though I admit the ranks of the obese
are swelling). Fat and skinny are just devises to be used by an author to slow their heroes down, or add flair
to a villain. In children’s books especially, villains are often referred to as ‘dark’ or ‘swarthy’ characters,
yet we don’t hear complaints from the world’s dark and swarthy of mistreatment in literature. Perhaps those
who feel persecuted for their weight are simply more conscious of their appearance because of the western world’s
current obsession with celebrity worship?

I have no doubt that what you say in your article is true (I always thought JK was unfair with Dudley), but it’s
just as easy to look on the other side of the coin. Rob Grant’s novel Fat explores both sides of the argument in
a humorous and enlightening way. I note it’s not in your list however.

Regards
Chris”

“Two cents really is all this is going to be worth, but I wanted to say it anyway. I just read your article about
“fat” in literature… and would like to point out that, although current literature may look down its nose at
obesity, it only reflects our current American culture. J.R.R. Tolkien made his hobbits “fat in the stomach”
and fond of food without connecting that to any great character flaw.

Erika”

“Naval officer Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian‘s Napoleonic seagoing series is quite a bulky figure … but it
doesn’t stop him from doing anything or being one of the main heroes of the books.

A derring-do naval officer is hardly a fat stereotype. And Aubrey’s stature is by no means the central theme
of the books (it is just an aside, really). So here IS an example of a character who is “fat without it carrying
so much weight”.

Roly, Paraparaumu, New Zealand”

“Re: Beth Carswell’s piece The Skinny on Fat in Fiction:

It makes for interesting reading, but I have two quibbles with it. (1) For many people of size, their size issues are central to many of the dramas in their lives, and it may not be truthful to write as if they aren’t. and (2) She doesn’t mention Thayne Hudson’s book A Breath Floats By and although three of the main characters are fat (visibly so in the cover illustration), there is much going on in the novel unrelated to their weights, and it made for delightful reading. There are many other books that she should have listed, but didn’t. The irony is that the author of the article bemoans that more books don’t make weight play a minor role, but she doesn’t seem to know about this one.

Bill, Woodstock, NY”

“I agree, so many characters who are overweight are portrayed negatively. Unfortunately, the world of
fiction does not fit well with the world of reality. In the real world, there are more overweight people than
there are skinny people.

So where does that leave us? In the power of the skinny people? I think not! The overweight people
I know which includes me as well, are strong, intelligent people, who can take care of themselves
very well, thank you. We are overweight for various reasons, which really don’t matter. In the end,
who cares why?

As to losing the weight. Well, maybe. I may, I may not. That’s up to me, and what I am willing to do
to lose it. Those who are in the know, realize that it’s not what’s outside that matters, it’s what is in
the inside, the person’s soul, their character.

Well, thank you for allowing me to vent!

Anne”

“Being fat is unhealthy. And may it be a metaphor for overindulgence?

I also think our modern capitalist/consumerist society encourages obesity beyond its natural rate. Our modern system allows people to very little in exchange for
a lot of goods. In the past it took a lot more effort to produce and distribute things. So, our modern age is the richest and as a result the laziest age ever, I think. I think that may be the cause of a lot of obesity.

I don’t think its good to make fun of people, but maybe no one would be offended if no one was extremely obese.
So, I think we should get rid of obesity. – Timothy”

“For another approach to the subject, please add “Seize the Fire” by Laura Kinsale to your list of books on this
topic. The pleasingly plump heroine is somewhat distressed by her weight. The hero is extremely distressed
when she loses weight while they are shipwrecked.

Yvonne”

“Not exactly a classic book, (though it should be) but Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin has a fantastic
fat character in Abner Marsh, the riverboat captain.
James”

“You should add “The Fat Studies Reader” Edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay to your fact in fiction list – michael”

“Dear Ms. Carswell:
Bravo! Thank you for saying something that so many of us “fatties” have been trying to say, for a long time.
It needed to be said, and you did it exceptionally well!
Sincerely,
Arlene “

“Fat in fiction will stop being a big deal when it stops being a big deal to human beings. In other words,
it’s just part of creating a character, same as green eyes or deafness or deathly pale skin or
“Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look”. Fiction just records what we all think is significant,
only more so because writers are better at recording interesting details than we are.

Glad to get the book list though!

Julie”

“Hi:

I just read your article on fat characters in fiction. I realize that Canadian fiction and, in particular, French Canadian fiction, of ten flies under the radar. It is, however, worth checking out Yves Beauchemin’s novel, Juliette, for an example of a well-rounded (no pun
intended) character who happens to be overweight. She even gets to have a romantic relationship. – Sharon”

“No longer in print, I am sure, is the Mark Tidd series by Clarence Buddington Kelland. The main character is
obese by description, but has none of the other negative character traits you describe. I read those books
as a child and I am now retired; so you may not be able to locate a copy. OTOH, if anyone can find one, you can.
James “

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