Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Wider Reading | Fiction | The Unbearable Meaningfulness of Being Overweight (In Fiction)

I mentioned to one of my fellow editors over the weekend that London is a city full of intimidatingly beautiful people. Well, in the summer, it gets worse. All of the models who pass for female inhabitants start wearing astounding dress-things for walks in the park; all of the men slip into white T-shirts that are too small for them, solely for the purpose of oppressing me with the size of their biceps. In London, I feel so ugly I keep thinking a policeman’s going to come up to me and ask me if I have a licence for that face.

Joyce's Bloom.

It was always my plan, this week, to write about ‘wider reading’ by discussing the role of the overweight hero or heroine in fiction. (Phil Brown’s splendid Wikipedia piece has managed to make this interpretation of the theme seem not only flippant and tasteless, but also bland.) But there is, I think, something there. Beth Carswell’s written an interesting piece about how a character can never simply be overweight; there will always be significance in that, usually the implication that the character is greedy or idle. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that, even if it’s used sympathetically. Leopold Bloom’s stoutness, at least in part, represents that he is a man driven by his desires and his appetites, setting him up for his famous day in which he is consistently led astray. Many female readers identified with Bridget Jones’ eternal drive to get her life together, as exemplified by her attempts to lose weight. Even Rumpole of the Bailey’s girth spoke to his jolly sense of mischief and his Falstaffian ebullience. Carswell argues, too, that fat children in fiction are almost always divided into two specific groups; bullies, and victims of bullies, to be hated for their size, or to be pitied for it, which is a good point - the Piggies and the Dursleys, for example.

We discussed this for a while, and couldn’t really come up with any characters in fiction who are overweight without their weight being used in any way to typify them. In TV, however, and in film, there’s quite a few – Charlie Kane being the most famous of all. And that’s got to be partly because of the immense talent of actors like Orson Welles, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and James Gandolfini, to name a few, who have never been willing to play ‘the fat guy’ (as many lazy comedians do). So the visual arts do win out over prose there, I’m afraid, though it isn’t an absolute victory – could an overweight actress really get serious dramatic roles, or would she be more likely to end up in these sorts of films?

But there’s another reason, too, for this sort of thing. In the movies, a cigar can just be a cigar, because there are a great many people working on them, and some of those people are employed to fill in the little set details that don’t actually matter. Prose, the vast majority of the time, isn’t like that. There’s just one person, all by themselves, trying to create a world out of syllables – and, whether they know it/like it or not, every syllable is significant, because you’re using it to show your reader a little more (even if all you’re showing them is that you’re a bland, unimaginative douche). Every detail is a prop in the theatrical sense, not the cinematic – it’s there as a tool to give a sense of a world where there shouldn’t be a world at all.

So I’m issuing a challenge myself, though this is less a call to arms than a tentative cry of,

“Shall we just have a quiet night in, then?” Writers; come up with a story featuring a character with unusual physical qualities. They might be overweight, or have a hunchback, or be very short, or even be entirely disabled. But this characteristic must have no bearing on their personality or the themes of the story whatsoever. Neither may the story be an earnest and signposted attempt to show that obese/disabled/in-any-way-different people are just like ‘us’ ‘normal’ types; that, in my opinion, is cheating (not to mention patronising).

Or, if you prefer, I’ll even widen the field; the challenge is to write a story, a sentence, a word, that has no significance, no meaning to it, no intent behind it, whatsoever. Harder than you think, I think.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor


  1. James Harringman14 July 2010 at 09:53

    With regard to your last challenge Mr Ware, I will lay down the gauntlet in a sense and say 'impossible'. That's not my word/sentence/story, it's my opinion on the matter - even neologism and nonsense still carry intent. Although if anyone can do it, I think they will be entitled to a free Silkworms Ink t-shirt of their choice. So...any takers?

  2. Eh, if a writer can't attempt the impossible, why bother? The pleasure's in the trying.

    And there is some difference, of course, between the word which is meaningless to the reader and the word which is meaningless to the writer...

  3. And, if you're a believer in that kind of thing, the trick might be meditative 'unconscious writing' to such an incredible (some might say, impossible) extent that the words actually come out 'pure', unsullied by meaning, conscious or subconscious.

    "Nine in the third place means
    One pushes upwards, into an empty city."


  4. "Suddenly he realised that he had been here before, but couldn't quite remember where, perhaps in his younger, skinnier days before the gout."

    This means nothing to me.

    Oh Vienna.

  5. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

    Now send me my fucking t-shirt. NOW.

  6. I dunno, Jane...there's a bit too much paradox in there for that sentence to be completely without significance.

  7. You appear to have mistaken me for a woman.

  8. Happens to me all the time on the Internet.

    Fair enough, anyway; my apologies. Let me start again.

    I dunno, Alan (Greg? Marmaduke?)...there's a bit too much paradox in there for that sentence to be completely without significance.

    Isn't there?