Warning: mad wives should not be kept in attics

15 May 2008

By Kate Long

Literary events - readers' days, library talks, writers' panels and such - are usually a grand day out. They're a chance to meet the people who buy your books, to hear feedback, maybe compare notes with other authors, to get out from your lonely office and socialize with real people rather than the imaginary ones in your head.

Sometimes at these events you hear amazing personal histories, and moving accounts of how your writing has touched someone's life. Sometimes there is wine. 

But very occasionally, a gig becomes tricky. Someone throws a question at you and you just don't field it right. Afterwards, on the way home, the perfectly-framed answer drops into your head, but by then it's too late. The audience have gone home thinking you're an inarticulate fool.

A couple of months after my second novel, Swallowing Grandma, came out in this country, I was faced with such a moment. The book group had gathered round a big long table, my microphone was on, and the host smiling encouragingly. Then came the question: By having a heroine, Kat Millar, who suffers from bulimia nervosa, was I not encouraging young teenage girls to try out for themselves that deeply damaging habit? Was my novel not endorsing it as a viable weight loss stratagem? Had I not, in fact, written a harmful book?

The accusation caught me off-guard; all I was able to manage on the spot was that the novel wasn't aimed at young teens, I actually had given a list of health warnings associated with the disease (which included the fact it could be fatal), and that any reader wanting to emulate a disastrous case like Kat Millar would have to be very odd indeed. 

I don't know whether my answer convinced, or not.

Since then, though, I've had time to think properly about the issue of characters behaving badly, and to what extent it is the responsibility of the author always to show those characters' crimes catching up with them. Did the person at the book group have a point? Ought writers always to spell out the full and extreme consequences of any destructive behaviour covered during the course of their fiction? Should some novels carry a health warning? Here, in the true esprit d'escalier, is the answer I ought to have given:

Lots of people do live and function with eating disorders, just as they do with other forms of mental illness or destructive behaviour patterns. Statistically speaking, there is a good chance Kat will recover from her bulimia completely (though it might take a few years and she'll almost certainly have wrecked her teeth in the process). While repeated and prolonged bingeing and vomiting can fatally weaken the heart muscles, the reality is that the vast majority of sufferers go through a phase of bulimia and come out the other side. So to portray every fictional character with an eating disorder as on the inevitable road to death would be inaccurate, sensationalist and finger-waggingly unconvincing. The main consideration for me was not in any way to glamorize the condition, or to underestimate how degrading it must be to kneel over a toilet bowl and get splashed in the face by your own vomit. I should have thought it was perfectly obvious this is not a great way to carry on.

A novel is not a public information film. If it were, every time a character picked up a cigarette, the author would be obliged to show them later dying of a smoking-related illness. Anyone glimpsed taking recreational drugs would have to end up ruined and in the gutter. Those who slept around would need to be visited by a nasty disease. In fact, if we're going to take the worst-case scenario every time, our characters probably ought not to attempt to cross the street in case of rogue traffic. Let's have the whole lot of them sitting at home, behaving themselves.

Characters need to take risks and make mistakes or they never learn anything, and that journey of discovery we make with them is one of the chief joys of a novel. So let them be foolish and mean, wicked and crass. Let them behave in ways which make us want to give them a good slap, or have us shouting at the page. For myself, I'm prepared to trust my readers to judge for themselves which behaviour in my books to condemn, which to approve and which, in the end, to forgive.