Notes on bitchiness and compassion

I spent most of my time at AWP walking the bookfair or staffing the Willow Springs table (where I met four of the fiction writers we’re published since issue 63, which was awesome), but I also made some time to go to a few of the panel sessions offered. My Smart Girls and Ambition panel was interesting but not all that useful, and the Pleasures and Peculiarities of Literary Editing was a few steps beneath my skill level (though it inspired an idea for a panel for next year), but the one that stood out to me was All-Around Bitch: The Challenges of Writing Unlikable Female Protagonists.

Take a piece like “Hunters in the Snow,” said the presenters, and try to picture those characters as female instead of male. Often, strong female characters are labeled as unbelievable, and fewer people want to read stories about bitches than they do assholes. Now, the presenters recognized some books that have succeeded with “bitch” characters, but there is still a bit of a double standard in literature (which I’d guess stems from the double standards in real life, but that’s a post for another time and another blog).

Modern literature doesn’t deal with heroes and villains—or rather it shouldn’t. They read a quote from a Morrison novel, about how a character could have been “a good bad man, or a bad good man,” and really, everyone has both good and bad in them. So why then is there so much push for kind, submissive, patient, etc., main female characters, for women who are only moved to violence after some great upheaval in their lives?

This is where one woman on the panel (I’m not sure which since the session was so packed I had to sit on the floor and couldn’t see a thing) mentioned how she always gives each story/novel she writes a “compassion read through.” She reads the piece with only two things in mind: How can she dirty up her nice characters and how can she offer more compassion to the “bad” characters.

I’m incredibly drawn to this idea, even where it diverges from gender lines. Looking back at my favorite books, even ones that aren’t literary in nature, they all share this trait of having complex characters. Take Lolita. H.H. has humanity that you can hold onto, and when you begin to sympathize, you can almost feel complicit along with him. There are similar things at work in Gaitskill’s stories, or in Stacia Saint Owen’s Auto-Erotica (which I just finished yesterday). I don’t think it’s good for us as writers to only write our characters with “good” traits we identify with, nor is it good to write the opposite of that. As writers, as artists, I think we have a bit of a responsibility to, when we look at something ugly, to look closer rather than to look away—and vice versa.

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