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Books I Hate.

May 21, 2008

Today I saw an article about an interview with Jessica Weiner and I immediately catapulted into a semi rage. Confusing Jessica Weiner, with Jennifer Weiner, the author of at least two books I cannot stand and more that I will never read. The reason I cannot stand JW’s books is because, even 6 years ago when I read the first one, her weird weight issues really pissed me off.

It seems, that in order for a book to have a happy ending the character must fulfill their Fantasy of Being Thin. At least in the world where JW writes.

The book “Good In Bed” which I guess was supposed to be revolutionary in that it focused on an “overweight” female character, and treated her like she was an acutal person, has often been recommended to me. I hated this book, not because it was about an overweight woman, but because the overweight woman does not find happiness until two things happen:
1. She loses weight.
2. She finds a man.

Now I read this book a long time ago, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m oversimplifying her weight loss stuff, this is what I vaguely recall. I don’t really recall the book saying specifically that she couldn’t be happy until she was skinny. However I think it is important to note at the end of the book she is thinner than she was originally, even after having a child. It is not so much that the weight loss is important in her journey to happiness, in fact I vaguely recall some of it being the result of depression, it is that it exists and theoretically is supposed to make the ending just THAT much happier.

(Again possibly totally wrong. But that is the conclusion I drew the first time I read it, and I don’t want to re-read it in case that conclusion is correct and will result in me throwing things. So if you think I am 100% off, just comment and I will believe you.)

EDITED: It turns out I think I am confusing the end of Jemima J with the end of Good in Bed. (Jemima J by Jane Green.) So I hereby replace Good in Bed with Jemima J.

My question, mostly to the author, was Why? Why couldn’t the fat girl have stayed the same weight she was at the beginning of the book and lead a happy life?

I recall better the movie “In her Shoes” which could have been totally awesome. The story about two sisters with all kinds of issues and their family. Having a sister who I am very different from in a lot of ways, I really relate to this movie, and I cry a lot. But weight loss comes up here again, and again, one of the sisters is not happy until she has lost weight.

Again, it is not that she tries to lose weight, or that she says she can’t be happy until she lost weight. She gets a job as a dog walker, and gets in better shape as a result, and has a total career change and is generally much happier. Totally great. But she loses weight, and it comes up in the movie, now she is pretty and thin, and engaged and everything is great. Total FoBT.

I guess my general frustration is that JW’s books, the two that I have read, while purporting to be about real fat women, completely feed into our desire to be thin. (Not to mention female stereotypes. Here is my manifesto: I have a Vagina, and I don’t really care all that much about shoes. )

So, thoughts, do you think I misread these books completely? Any recommendations for better, more fat friendly literature, any genre is welcome. (I prefer books with strong female heroines, just saying.)

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22 Comments
  1. Art3mis permalink

    I didn’t particularly care for Good in Bed (so I haven’t read any other books by Jennifer Weiner), and I think your memory is mostly correct. However there was one positive point, I think. As far as I remember, the main character meets her future husband at the beginning of the book, and he is obviously immediately attracted to her (I think he has a fat sister or something). He remains gently puzzled throughout the whole book because he doesn’t care whether she’s fat or thin. But then they met because he is the leader of a weight-loss group she attended… so very mixed messages.

  2. lizb permalink

    I do think you are partly off on good in bed… the storyline is not 1. lose weight 2. find guy get happy, it’s more 1. girl wants to lose weight 2. meet guy (nothing happens) 3. all sorts of stuff happens 4. guy tracks girl down, tells her he liked her from the first meet 4. they are happy together 5. she gains weight back

    point 5 is the important part – she wasn’t happy trying to be crazy thin (which after all sorts of stuff happens, she becomes both crazy and thin) – she got happy when she stopped trying and settled into her more natural weight.

    You are partly right, because, for sure, she is thinner at the end than when she started, but I’ll take good in bed over jemima j any day of the week.

    As for in her shoes – don’t get me started on what the movie left out or changed…

  3. This is how I feel about the book “She’s Come Undone” being purportedly fat-positive. You have fat young woman who is an in-betweenie until she gets raped, she gains a ton of weight as a “response” to the rape, almost commits suicide because it’s so horrible being teh fat, gets institutionalized where she forces herself to view food as maggots or somesuch to stop eating it, and eventually finds happiness when she’s “hot” again (though not with the first guy who thought she was hot, which I considered to be at least a cursory injection of realism into the story).

    The bad part is, I read this book when I was a fat teenager and I really truly believe it’s one of the things I thought about a lot during my fall into starvation. Not in a good way, either, but in an obsessive, scared way.

    I have yet to read a work of fiction I consider truly fat positive. F**k it, maybe I should just write one. After the sci-fi novel is done. 😉

  4. Arwen permalink

    Hmm. I definitely had a very different impression. I would credit “Good In Bed” as being one of the first books I read that made me realize how little fiction had my experience in it, and it helped me find FA. I remember one part where the fatties were challenging all the bullshit diet advice (been there done that fat anyway), the protag saying we’re fat not stupid, and feeling a gasp of not being alone here.

    I think those books would be marketed as “chick lit”, so there is a genre specific man and shoes thing going on. Critiquing “chick lit” is a different discussion and I hate the label: but I totally understand the frustration with the genre. I believe in meeting books on their terms, though: and on the genre’s terms I think Weiner’s both more intellegent and more challenging than many of her peers, and her protag considerably more complex. Having a fat girl in those genres is a mitzvah: there are fat girls who read those books. So within the context of the genre, (which is not a primary genre for me), I thought it was pretty radical, and within that context I was quite impressed.

    I read “Good In Bed” as containing a pretty complex analysis about the protag’s internalized self-loathing getting in the way of seeing herself. She was a complex character, not in any way perfect – and she pushed people away, struggled with her own fat-phobia and misogyny, and wasn’t that the one where she was trying to sort having a gay mom? It wasn’t FA political, though — the responsibility for freedom was located in the protag’s consciousness, not in society. It’s been years for me too, but I thought the point of the dieting was that it was awful for her, an eating disorder causing sickness for both her mind and body, and that her fat wasn’t what was causing her suffering and that it was being regained as the eating disorder resolved. At the end she writes an article saying she’ll never be thin but she will learn to love herself — it was a fat’s woman article, not a skinny woman’s article.

    (Actually… I have the book on a shelf here. ‘Twas a gift of another fat woman for the purpose of self-acceptance. This ending article written by the protag is a manifesto of self-acceptance of a self-described 16, so by the end she’s at least back up to inbetweenie:

    “There were a thousand words that could have described me – smart, funny, kind, generous. But the word I picked, the word that I believed the world had picked for me, was fat…

    ..In realizing, finally, that I am valued, treasured, loved, even if my story doesn’t have the Hollywood perfected ending where I lose 60 pounds and Prince Charming decides he loves me after all … I will savor the taste of my food and savor my life …”

    etc.
    The thing she’s not claiming is fat aesthetic value. She loves the strength and capability of her body, not fat as sexy. But I think that it’s pretty solidly in the fat does not equal unlovable or bad camp. )

  5. Lizb, I remember that her weight loss wasn’t portrayed positively. But she definetly talked about how she was still thinner than she had been at the end of the book. And OMG Jemima J. I have blocked that book out, that’s how much I hated it.

    BigLiberty,
    I’m sortof working on a fat postivie sci fi novel. If only I ever actually got past the beginning.

  6. Joi permalink

    Recently read “Good in Bed” – and I’m a librarian-in-training, so you can totally believe me – and my understanding was that Cannie, the main character, loses weight by means of “accidental” starvation and neurotic exercise brought about by rage, grief, and depression. She gains it all back at the end. Maybe it is wishful thinking of me to assume she gains it all back, but my assumption is based on the narration and comments from secondary characters about her body.

    There’s now a sequel, and I think Cannie’s fat in it, too.

    It is my goal to find “chick-lit” featuring fat and happy female characters who stay that way through the whole book. Let me know if you have.

  7. Arwen permalink

    Or, in other words, the book isn’t fat pride, but it is fat acceptance. Thin would still be easier, thin is still somewhat what she wants. She challenges the Fantasy of Being Thin in all aspects except aesthetic, if you see what I mean. Happy and loved and healthy and fat? Check! Beautiful? Well, it’s the inside that counts. Like that.

    I imagine there are some of us in the FA movements who’ve always known society and not themselves are in error, and this book would be a step back from that space. However, for those of us who did LOTS of dieting, I think that this documents one path to get to self-acceptance from self-loathing.

  8. Lindsey permalink

    I’m not sure if you’re a fan of romance novels (I have to confess to being slightly obsessed with them), but one I felt was fat-positive (aside from the fact the the main character has slight body issues, but they’re not that bad compared to the vast majority of books, but that’s entirely IMO), was The Corset Diaries, by Katie Mac Alister. It’s certainly not the best book out there, but I personally think it’s worth a look. As the majority of her books are, it’s delightfully amusing.

  9. O.C. permalink

    I think “Good in Bed” was generally, kinda-sorta fat positive, in that the protagonist was shown as someone with value regardless of her size. And the weight loss was definitely shown to be the result of unhealthy behaviors, like walking all night and day without sleeping or eating. But what annoyed me about it was that it was badly written. I can’t remember specifics, but the copy I read had an extra chapter at the end that was a lead-in to the sequel, and when I got to that part I thought “Hell no I’m not reading another word of this junk.” There are too many other, better books out there to waste my time on the mediocre. Still, it coulda’ been worse.

  10. Arwen permalink

    Joi, she’s pretty clear on being an american size 16 at the end … “even if I’m never going to be smaller than a size sixteen”, in the “Loving a Larger Woman” article. Which I think in chick lit fiction counts as ginormous, since fictional characters are considered obese at 5’8″ and 150 pounds.

  11. “BigLiberty,
    I’m sortof working on a fat postivie sci fi novel. If only I ever actually got past the beginning.”

    Maybe we should collaborate. I’ve written all of one chapter of my fat-positive sci fi (it’s on my blog…wrote it a looooong time ago, and just neglected it to finish my main-focus novel). 😉

  12. Lume permalink

    I’d agree with Arwen’s first comment, as well as Joi’s analysis. I will say that I love the book, though. The scene mentioned above, where the group of women who want to participate in a trial for some weight-loss drug have a meeting with some condescending nurse who is shocked to find that they know all of her nutrition stats already, and that between them, they’ve covered every dieting program out there– that was a powerful scene for me, one that sticks in my mind. It was the first time I’d seen that attitude recognized from the fat side; since discovering FA (and I’m a total newbie), I recognize it as a reflection of the attitudes of medical professionals that First, Do No Harm details, though obviously a much less severe case. The group of fat women band together, and their resistance scares off the snotty nurse– I think that’s a solid example of self-advocacy in action.

    I think that the book largely runs in opposition to The Fantasy of Being Thin, particularly because the character explicitly notices the irony– that she has what she’s always wanted, she’s finally thin, and she has never been more miserable. She regains the weight when she returns to normal eating habits, although you may be right that she doesn’t gain all of it back. She ends up a size sixteen, which as far as mainstream culture goes, might as well be unspeakable– so, yeah, maybe this is best looked at as a gateway book.

    On the other hand, *Jemima J* can bite me. The ending “twist” was infuriating. I’m so glad I didn’t pay money for that book.

  13. I liked “Good in Bed” okay…sort of middling “chick lit” and definitely sooooooo much better than that horrid screed “Jemima J,” which I threw across the room upon finishing and possibly burned later. ((Also horrible: “Alternate Beauty” – which was sufficiently vomitous that I was forced to post a mean review on Amazon. And ditto on the hating of “She’s Come Undone,” which cured me of ever touching an Oprah book again.)) I read a couple other of Weiner’s books, but – despite having “fat” protagonists and mildly pro-fat plot points – the writing just wasn’t dazzling enough to keep me hooked.

    Honestly, a lot of fat accepting lit tends, in my opinion, to suffer from mediocre writing; there’s not much out there I’m willing to actually recommend. Having said that, I liked “Inappropriate Men” by Stacey Ballis (read another of her books and was only mildly into it; see above, re: mediocre); I also mostly liked Lori Wilde’s “Mission Irresistible,” though not enough to read anything else she’d written; and of course there’s Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Gray books, which aren’t my fave mysteries (sadly, the not-so-fat-loving Amelia Peabody series takes that spot), but don’t suck.

    And if y’all go and write some fat positive sci-fi, please let me know. I would be all over that.

  14. Christie permalink

    Though Cannie, the main character in Good in Bed, does lose weight near the end of the book, it’s the result of depression. The weight loss showed that “the fantasy of being thin” is just that: a fantasy. Even though Cannie lost weight, she was miserable. Peter, her boyfriend, met her and liked her as a fat women. And, most importantly, CANNIE GAINS THE WEIGHT BACK before the end of the novel. And she likes herself better that way.

    And Rose, the “fat” sister from In Her Shoes, doesn’t lose weight. She starts walking dogs and riding her bike. She doesn’t lose weight, but she does engage in healthy physical activity and becomes more confident. She doesn’t lose weight for the wedding, but she does wear a beautiful dress designed and made by her sister and grandmother. Weight loss isn’t that much of a theme overall. I’ve seen part of the movie, and what I’ve seen is different from the book.

  15. Robotitron permalink

    Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie, has a fat heroine. A lot of the book is the fight against the fantasy of being thin.

  16. I haven’t read “Good in Bed,” although it was recommended (and therefore loaned) to me by one of my friends. There are soooo many books that don’t portray their fat characters as happy. In my experience, I’ve only ever read one book where the girl fails to lose weight (although, if I remember correctly, she hated her size) and still gets the guy and the happiness (I think the happiness came first). I can’t remember it’s title, but it was rather obscure. It was very food positive, too. I remember that the guy fell in love with her because he loved how she ate.

    Anyway, I’m sick of fat-biased fiction. And maybe I’ll stay away from “Good in Bed.” Well written post. I enjoyed it.

  17. i_geek permalink

    Shinobi, have you read “In Her Shoes”? I didn’t think the movie did it justice at all. In the book, Rose doesn’t lose weight. She does start taking care of the body she has and becomes comfortable in her skin for the first time in her life, but she remains the same size throughout the book. The book also does a good job of shooting massive holes through the FoBT with Maggie’s life and back-story.

    Yes, there are shoes, but they aren’t a major player and even Rose’s shoe collection is explained reasonably in the book. *shrugs* I enjoyed the book. Happy ending, sure, but real life is so depressing sometimes that I use fiction as escapism.

    Haven’t read “Good in Bed” so I’ve got nothing there.

  18. JW’s latest is about Cannie from “Good in Bed” and her tenuous relationship with her daughter, alternating perspectives from Cannie to Joy. The fact that Cannie is a larger woman is almost a footnote.

    She has two other books that came out between this latest and “In Her Shoes”. The first was “Little Earthquakes”, which was about young mothers and their relationships with their spouse, their kids and each other, and “Goodnight Nobody”, which was a suburban mystery, of all things.

    All her books have at least one character that is fat and those characters don’t seem to be obsessed with losing weight. None of them have major transformations where they’re magically thin by story’s end.

    I like her stuff. Characters are complex, I get the gen X references, and ultimately I think her message is that friends and family are what matter most. Plus her last two books have not had the classic Happy Ending, which is a nice turn.

  19. Shauna permalink

    Am I the only one who read the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and saw not one but two of the main characters fall into depression, gain weight, and only become happy again once they’d lost it back? (Not implying causation here, but there was definitely correlation.) Which surprised me because I’d heard good things about the Carmen character and her weight.

  20. chick lit… ugh.

  21. I agree with you completely. The weird thing is that Jennifer Weiner (not Jessica Weiner, who is featured on my blog) is overweight, so why does she want her heroines to lose before they win?

  22. Mercy permalink

    Even in the movie of “In Her Shoes”, the guy Rose winds up marrying is interested in her from the beginning of the movie. Her losing weight doesn’t seem to be a part of her attraction for him –and they bond over love of good food. (And I have to say, I didn’t notice weight loss in Rose in the movie –I noticed fitness level going up, but not weight loss. And I thought it made it clear that the stepmother’s focus on her weight was totally innappropriate.)

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