Is female beauty in fiction really a problem?
November 5, 2013
The novelist Adelle Waldman—author of The Love Affairs of Nathanial P.—recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “‘A First-Rate Girl’: The Problem of Female Beauty.” In it, Waldman says the following:
You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.
This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French.
My brother Tim is an artist. He says that in the sixties, artists in all fields began to worry that showing exceptional talent was alienating to the audience, so they dumbed down their work. The goal was to make the audience think, I could do that! As a music journalist, I saw plenty of acts that had adopted this approach. I won’t mention any names, but there were hugely successful rockers whose music I found actually painful to listen to because of its I’m-one-of-you mass appeal.
Tim is…vinegary. His view is that he himself is so physically ugly that he has the right to make fun of unattractive people, the way members of a race use racist terms on each other. Tim describes particular entertainers as “pinups for ugly people.” They reassure ugly people that being fat, loud, stupid, mediocre, and coarse is fine.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to have mass appeal. But some of us like exceptional talent. What are we supposed to do? I don’t want to see an average schlub up onstage, playing some three-chord song about getting his girlfriend pregnant in high school. Sure, that’s other peoples’ lives. But it isn’t mine.
I love virtuosity.
It doesn’t alienate me or make me jealous or depressed. Virtuosity doesn’t damage my self-esteem. One of the world’s greatest bass guitarists is the Bulgarian gypsy Radi Kazakov, a self-taught genius who uses all four fingers of his picking hand and plays blistering runs that defy physics. Listen to the riff he burns through at 3:07 in that song.
My friend Stephen Jay is one of the most accomplished musicians who ever lived. His technical skill on the bass, his lyrics, and his melodies are unmatched.
Scott Thunes does something on the bass that no other bassist can. It’s ineffable and indescribable. Somehow he makes his bass deeply emotional. I listen to him because of his virtuosity, not in spite of it.
Radi, Stephen, and Scott make me happy that they’re so skilled. The world is a more beautiful place because they’re in it. Their superhuman skills don’t threaten me. You listen to your music, and I’ll listen to mine. I won’t criticize yours, and you don’t tell me that my tastes are “sentimental” or a “mistake.”
So is female beauty in fiction really a problem? My novel Chasing the Last Whale has run into technical snags. The publisher helpfully inserted formatting mistakes that weren’t in earlier proofs. It’s like Persian carpet makers deliberately putting in a weaving irregularity because only the divine can be perfect. My novel was perfect, so these mistakes had to be inserted.
Or maybe the publisher is just incompetent. Whatever. At this point all I can do is laugh at the unending series of calamities that prevent me from being a full-time professional writer. My plan is to just keep writing. Publish and forget. A handful of readers appreciate my work. That’s all that matters.
Chasing the Last Whale has two female characters, and both are beautiful. I made them beautiful because the novel is a fantasy. It is, in fact, how I wish life were. One of the women is a tall, blonde, lanky North Carolinian in her thirties, and the other is a twenty-four-year-old Latina. The blonde is a dancer, and the Latina practices martial arts. This allowed me to give them fantastic bodies too. Both have terrific bottoms that feature prominently in the story.
When Adelle Waldman writes, “In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French,” I have no clue what that means.
Beauty is indeed often just another quality that a woman possesses. Watch interviews with astonishingly beautiful young celebrities. Many times their beauty is the only quality they possess. They have no minds, no character, no sense of humor, nothing.
I made my beautiful female characters smart, funny, complex, flawed, heartbreaking, and exciting. The reason I made them beautiful was because I write for self-confident people who have good taste and who aren’t threatened or alienated by others’—FICTIONAL OTHERS’—good fortune. I’m under no obligation to make my fiction like real life. Waldman commends a writer named Richard Yates for describing a female character as a “tall ash blonde with a patrician kind of beauty.”
That’s enough to make me not want to read his novel. I should also admit that I’m not going to read Waldman’s own The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. The excerpts show that I’m not the intended audience. It wouldn’t be possible for me to finish it.
Waldman’s New Yorker piece is an extremely persuasive manifesto for why you shouldn’t buy her books. Don’t get me wrong: I hope she sells a trillion copies, makes $14 trillion, and lives happily ever after. But I think she’s emblematic of why the publishing industry is in such deep trouble. Mainstream writers and publishers live in a hermetically sealed environment, like those self-contained ecosystems.
That video is a perfect illustration of Waldman’s confusion: a high-tech, self-contained ecosystem displayed to the sound of some average Joe butchering a popular song with his karaoke machine. I’ve always hated karaoke. Even when I was drunk out of my mind, I despised it. That doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone; it just means that karaoke isn’t my thing.
On the one hand, Waldman lectures that wannabe novelists like me must appeal to the common man by not making the “mistake” of creating female characters who are “casually beautiful,” whatever that means. On the other hand, Waldman’s thoughts on female beauty leave no doubt that she sees her fiction as Extremely Socially Relevant and Insightful. She has the need to be an Important Writer who the cognoscenti will laud and toast with wine glasses that each hold the contents of an entire bottle.
Everything has its place, and one size does not fit all. Stop telling me how I should think, live, and create art, okay?
I see my fiction as entertainment. Period. What I’m most interested in is making people laugh and moving them emotionally. That’s it. I don’t care about social issues, the never-ending Battle of the Sexes, politics, and literary importance. Robert Mitchum described himself as a “starlet.” I’m a scribbler. And I like beautiful women. I intend to write a lot of novels; all my female protagonists will be beautiful.
Gustav Klimt is one of my favorite painters. Should he have made Judith 1 plain, in order that she be more like real life? Is Judith 1 too sentimental? Is it a mistake?
Finally, when Waldman’s debut novel was first published, she looked like this.
Now she looks like this.
Yeah, I don’t think female beauty is really a problem for anybody. People just like to pretend it is, for whatever silly, crowd-following, superficial, faddish reason.