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Susan Stinson

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12:30 pm: Restoring Numbed Zones to Feeling
I'm writing about this. If you'd like to answer, I'm interested:

Why do fat girls need fiction?

Why does anybody?

If you read fiction, how do you do that?

Where, when, how did you start?

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From:daisydumont
Date:May 14th, 2006 05:28 pm (UTC)
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this fat girl started reading fiction when she was very, very young. (writing it too. *g*) i loved Heidi and fairy tales and, later on, pop novels about nurses and horses. i kept reading fiction all the time until i hit maybe 40 and stopped, not sure why. nowadays, almost all the fiction i read is amateur fan writing online, and it fills a specific need -- it offers a world away, an escape hatch. i'm serious when i say it beats taking lots of medications for depression.

not sure that has anything to do with my size. when i was very thin about 7 years ago, i read little of anything at all. hmmmm.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC)
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Oh, that's interesting, to read it so much for so long, to stop, then to go back in the form of fan fiction online. That you and wild_irises both raised whether reading fiction has anything to do with size makes me see that I need to shape how I talk about that very clearly, so thanks.
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From:wild_irises
Date:May 14th, 2006 06:39 pm (UTC)
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I have read fiction addictively since I was no older than three, and perhaps younger. I'm convinced it doesn't have anything to do with my size.

I need fiction because of the ways in which it is true, and the ways in which it is safe. I need fat girl fiction because I need to see myself in the world.

How's that for glib?
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 07:07 pm (UTC)
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It's interesting. I hadn't thought of fiction as safe -- I think of it as very emotionally adventurous, but I see how it could work that way. And, you know, this is in process, but I don't think I have any strong feelings about whether fat girls as a group need fiction more than anybody else or because we're fat (although I do think reading it does a lot of things that are profoundly useful for fat women), I just want to make the case that we need it.

One of my models for how I'm thinking about this is Adrienne Rich's passionate essay on the meaning and uses of poetry in the introduction to What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, which I love.
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From:bounce_n_jiggle
Date:May 14th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)
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totally off topic but i changed my lj layout. are you able to read the comments on my posts now?

xox
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 07:08 pm (UTC)
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Yes!! Crystal clear -- so sweet of you to change it!
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From:oneroom
Date:May 14th, 2006 08:32 pm (UTC)
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I can't remember a time I haven't read fiction. I learned to read when I was four, mostly so I could finally read that damn fire station book on my own. (No one would read it to me as much I as I wanted them to.) I remember reading it to my grandfather as many times as he would listen.

I just read an essay by Mihaly Czikszenmihalyi about the idea of "flow." MC asserts that when we're flowing, we're in a sort of joyful out-of-timeness. I read fiction for that. I read fiction sitting in a chair by an open window so I can feel and hear the breeze differently.

Have you read Martha Nussbaum? She says we need fiction in order to understand each other. MN suggests fiction enables us to understand each other better than almost anything else - and that sort of understanding of that which is deeply other than me is necessary to my being empathetic and just.

I can find my Nussbaum article that gets to the heart of it for you, if you'd like. I can't remember which book it's in, but there's one that really gets at her love for literature.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 09:44 pm (UTC)
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Empathy is one of the things I'm talking about in the essay I'm working on -- I haven't read Martha Nussbaum, but I think she's right, that fiction helps develop this in profound ways that we need so much. I'm on a pretty tight deadline with the essay, but, if it's not too much trouble, I'd love to see the Nussbaum article that gets to the heart of it (if it's in a form that makes that possible).

And, even if I don't get to read it before I finish -- I've already been reading all sorts of amazing things that make me all worked up and giddy and wanting to post them all on lj and read them aloud to my friends over the phone instead of writing the thing -- I'm very interested in this, and would love to read it whenever.

Like the idea of flow very much. Maybe I've told you about The City and the Stars -- think that's what it's called -- by a philospher whose name I've forgotten, who talks about every moment having a temporal dimension and also an eternal one -- this makes kind of experiential sense to me, but it's so hard to convey -- what you just said about flow touches it directly for me, and yeah, fiction gets me there.

And, that breeze, those changes. I love to read sprawled on the grass in the sun or shade in a cemetery across the street from me.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 09:45 pm (UTC)
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Do you need my email? su2aniz (at) hotmail (dot) com
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From:oneroom
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:07 pm (UTC)
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It's the first essay in the book I linked, and it's called "The Literary Imagination". I don't have it in emailable form right now... here are some good quotes, and then I'll try and find it in emailable form.

p. 5-6, she's explaining why novels and not some other kind of writing: "Unlike most historical works, literary works typically invite their readers to pu tthemselves in the place of people of many different kinds and to take on their experiences. In their very mode of address to their imagined reader, they convey the sense that there are links of possibility, at least on a very general level, between the characters and the reader.

...Another way of putting this point is that good literature is disturbing in a way that history and social science writing frequently are not. Because it summons powerful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles. It inspires distrust of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful confrontation with one's owns thoughts and intentions. ...Literary works that promote identification and emotional reaction cut through those self-protective stratagems, requiring us to see and to respond to many things tha tmay be difficult to confront - and they make this process palatable by giving us pleasure in the very act of confrontation."
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:19 pm (UTC)
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Oh! That's great! Especially the second paragraph -- so great.

I know that you have a TON to do, don't spend time looking for this for me at the expense of your own work -- and flow -- and all. I can call a couple of local bookstores tomorrow and see if they have the book, and, if not, I can order it for the future.

It inspires distrust of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful confrontation with one's own thoughts and intentions..."

It does. I love that so much. And then the pleasure in the very act of confrontation.

Thank you.
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From:oneroom
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:23 pm (UTC)
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This is one of my favorite essays ever. I'm so glad you like it!

I found an online copy, and am just trying to download it. If you have access to academic databases, you can search in the JSTOR database for the title words "literary imagination" and you'll find it right off. In the mean time, my slow connection is slowly downloading, and I'll email you the PDF when it's finally done! :)
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC)
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I don't have access to academic databases. I think I pretend in my head sometimes that I'm an academic, but no institutional affiliation is the truth. Thank you so much!
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From:oneroom
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:15 pm (UTC)
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p.9-10 FYI, she uses Dickens, Wright, and Forster novels as examples.

"There is one more feature of novel-reading that needs recognition at the outset: the novel's interest in the ordinary. As readers of Hard Times, we visit a schoolroom, a middle-class home, a circus, a working-class home, the office of a manager, the factory in which working people toil, an abandoned mineshaft in which many working people have met their death. Not one of these places would have been judged fit for inclusion in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles or of Corneille and Racine. ...But in reading Dickens's story, we embrace the ordinary. It is made an object of our keenest interest and sympathy. We visit these places as involved friends, concerned about what is happening in them. ...The novel determinedly introduces its reader to that which is in a way common and close at hand - but which is often, in its significant strangeness, the object of profound ignorance and emotional refusal."
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:25 pm (UTC)
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The ordinary! The ordinary! The ordinary! Flannery O'Connor says that fiction is made of dust (and that trying to write good fiction through just, say psychological insights, just doesn't work).

And, yeah, in its significant strangeness. I don't know, dust and marvels, both, the way dust flowers up sometimes into great showers of motes in light.
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From:arielblue
Date:May 14th, 2006 08:33 pm (UTC)
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I can't remember ever not reading fiction (that is, if you count Dr. Seuss books -- which is where I started, when I was 2 or 3 years old -- as fiction). I can't remember ever not needing it, from the time I was a skinny little kid until now when I'm a fat grown woman. I love non-fiction too (and in fact my current non-poetry reading is a very interesting history of Provincetown), but fiction gets you inside the characters in a way that nothing else can, and I learn all kinds of things about how human beings work. Maybe, in some ways, fat girls -- or anyone who's in some sense an outcast -- need fiction more because so many people don't want to get close enough to let us see first-hand how they work. Though I'm not entirely sure that's a valid theory, and I shy away from suggesting that fiction can be a substitute for emotional intimacy with other human beings (and certainly not that it should be, if it can be).
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 09:54 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, that need. It's so much a part of me that I get shocked when I realize some people don't feel it as an imperative. I can give up reading fiction when I'm writing fiction (and sometimes need to), but if I'm not deep in making a story, oh.

It's interesting, what you're saying about reading fiction and being an outcast -- I read that as a skill, not a substitute, as a way in to intimacy past cultural barriers.
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From:stillwell
Date:May 14th, 2006 09:59 pm (UTC)
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Such evocative questions!

As a fat child fiction of all kinds saved my life. At first my need was to escape, but later it became the imperative of seeking multiple possibilities. It was also a way of recognizing humanity outside of myself, even (and maybe, especially) when that humanity was something foreign and new. I think this is why we all need fiction - it illuminates truth.

I learned to love words and stories very young, with the help of a sister seven years older who was happy to lend me all the books from her summer reading lists (even ones I was supposed to be too young to read.) It was a long time before I let on to others how important fiction was/is in my life. I wanted to protect the feeling of having a beautiful secret *
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
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Mm, escape, seeking multiple possibilities, recognizing humanity outside of myself -- it is, it's a very beautiful secret.

It's an interesting thing, the privacy of reading, how it helps create that broad receptiveness and awareness and knowledge of, as you say, humanity outside of the self, even (especially), when that humanity is something foreign and new, but it's between two covers, and so contained, held there, and so the experiences a person has with a book aren't apparent to others unless they -- oh, those older siblings! -- have read them, too.
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From:deeleigh
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:17 pm (UTC)
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I didn't learn to read until I discovered the escapist quality of novels. Then I taught myself. I went from the idiot reading group to being able to read at the college level in a year when I was 8 or 9. At the time, I needed fiction to get out of my own head and out of my own life. It probably had to do both with being fat and with being in a bad family situation. I started with the Nancy Drew series and moved on to Susan B. Cooper and C.S. Lewis. I found Ann McCaffrey's dragon books in 7th grade and started reading science fiction, which is still my favorite genre. The novels I like best are idea-based and have well developed characters as well. Ursula LeGuin, David Brin, Neil Stevenson, Octavia Butler, and Connie Willis are some of my favorite authors.

I guess I starting reading science fiction because it was escapist in a way I liked (I didn’t just want to be someone else; I wanted to be completely outside of society as we know it) and kept reading it for the social commentary and the fun of “what if”.

I’ve always noticed how fat people are portrayed in the books I read. I'll stop reading an author if I discover that he or she is fat phobic, because they become someone who I don’t want to spend my time with. But, there are very few books I've read with fat protagonists. When I read a book I feel as if I’m sort of merging with the characters and the author. I think that having well developed fat characters could potentially help fat people to expand the way they think about their bodies, to try on new attitudes, and even to be able to visualize themselves doing and being more than they may have imagined before. I think that it could potentially open up new possibilities in people's lives. At the very least, it could help them feel less alone and invisible.

I don't read as many novels as I used to because I've got less free time, I've gotten pickier about what I read, and I've developed more of an interest in nonfiction. But, I bought Venus of Chalk at Indigo yesterday. They had it on the shelf. I really enjoyed your reading at FATA, Susan. I rarely read literary fiction, but I’m making an exception!
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:49 pm (UTC)
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Yes, you know, Kelly Link, who writes amazing science fiction/fantasy/all around dazzling fiction, lives in Northampton, where I live, and I don't know her well, but she told me about WisCon, an amazing feminist science fiction conference in Madison, Wisconsin, so I went a few year back, and I was just overwhelmed by this whole world of really interesting writing -- much of it, as you say, driven by ideas, ambitious ideas -- and the level of engagement the writers and the readers have with each other, and the tremendous quality of so much of the work. Dust and marvels, because even if you're going into other worlds, there's got to be convincing sensory details, or it just won't work (says me, anyway). Ursula LeGuin -- whose work I've long loved -- was at the WisCon I attended, and so was Carol Emschwiller, who is so funny and so fierce and such a brazen writer, and China Mieville, whose work I like, too, and, actually, so many really good writers, I could barely take it in -- Karen Joy Fowler, so many.

And, as a group, as a community, really engaged with each other and with the project of imagining seriously different cultures.

One of the things I've noticed that the ideas in my books -- and there always are quite serious ideas central to the writing -- seem to be -- what? -- less available to people intellectually than the ideas in science fiction are, because they're so kind of deep in the river of the story. Moving them towards the surface without interupting the novel's reality is an interesting project.

Anyway, thank you very much for this. And for buying Venus of Chalk -- how good to know it was on the shelf.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 14th, 2006 10:51 pm (UTC)
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PS Octavia Butler is one of the writers whose work I'm touching on in this essay.
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From:porcinea
Date:May 15th, 2006 12:28 pm (UTC)
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Oh! I was at that WisCon, too. I think it might have been my first. I've come every year since then. :-). This year is the 30th, so it's *PACKED*. (They capped membership at 1000, and have already met that.) *Too* exciting.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 15th, 2006 12:37 pm (UTC)
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How cool. I wish I'd had a chance to go back. I think about it every year. I really loved it, and wrote about it here.
From:peggynature
Date:May 15th, 2006 11:50 am (UTC)
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I haven't had time to read through all of the comments here, so I may be repeating someone else's sentiment, but I think I need fiction -- especially fiction that depicts a character I can intimately relate to -- so that I can place myself in a formerly impossible, or never-dreamed-of, contexts. This might come off sounding like an exercise in supreme self-involvement, but I feel like reading fiction expands my own notion of the possible. In a culture where, as someone (Lynn McAfee?) said, if you're a fat person, it takes enormous courage just to walk out the door every day, the ability to imagine yourself in different situations, doing different things, having different relationships might actually lend a bit of that courage.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 15th, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC)
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I don't think that's self-involvement, I think it's developing a capacity to imagine, and so to create, worlds different from the ones we have -- as you say, "expands my own notion of the possible."

Thank you.
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From:joy_disaster
Date:May 15th, 2006 07:51 pm (UTC)
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I need fat fiction so that I can feel included, as though I am part of the world, too. Even in an escapist novel about regency England or a futuristic planetary colony, I feel included when there are fat characters. What a sad world it would be without stories to read.

(that is, fat characters who don't go on massive weight loss regimens and then "burst forth from the cocoon" as their "true" thin selves, a beautiful butterly etc.)
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 16th, 2006 12:56 pm (UTC)
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Having experiences reflected, that feeling of being recognized, and stories as pleasure, as a hedge against sadness -- thank you.
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From:gordonzola
Date:May 26th, 2006 05:00 am (UTC)
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I missed this the first time.

I don't know if I have anything to add. It's a cliche but fiction takes me to places you can't go and teaches empathy. It allows me to envision other fututres than the ones I'm supposed to have.

How do i read fiction? Every night before I sleep even if it means losing sleep. If it's something really challenging or special, I will read it during the day and read crappy fiction at night. uh, is that what you mean?

I started very young. I've always read thanks to my parents. I remember having to keep a reading log in the early grades and the teachers thought I was exagerrating.

I can't answer for the fat girls.
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From:susanstinson
Date:May 28th, 2006 01:06 pm (UTC)
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Cool. Thanks.
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