Fat Writers: On Privilege, Ableism, and Humanity

female hands with pen writing on notebook on grass outside

IN AN ARTICLE discussing multi-million dollar advances for debut authors, Knopf editor Claudia Herr told Entertainment Weekly that Stephanie Danler “would have [been] paid … the same money” for Sweetbitter, even “if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at.”

The cringe-worthy moment has launched a firestorm of discussion about the position of fat writers in today’s publishing market, and — by extension — the place fat women occupy in society at large.

Some might want to dismiss the problem with Herr’s comment on the basis of its flippancy. “It was just an off-hand example. Calm down. There are starving children to worry about.” But Herr’s casualness is the problem, as The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg explains:

This is such a telling quote in so many ways, and says a great deal about what types of writers so many of the gatekeepers in publishing are looking for – often, although not in this case, unconsciously. The “if she weighed 500 pounds” part is so clearly a hyperbolic flourish, as if Herr was thinking, what’s something really outrageous, something that no great writer would ever be, to make it clear how much we don’t let someone’s looks influence the size of their advance, as if to say, Can you imagine a brilliant writer who also weighed 500 pounds. It’s the “or purple” of “I don’t care if you’re black, or white, or purple”: This would never happen, but even if it did, I wouldn’t care.

Herr’s comments become more contentious when one considers how monolithic the publishing industry is. A survey of 34 U.S. publishers revealed that more than three-quarters of their employees are white and female. Men account for about 40 percent of U.S. publishing’s executives and board members, and only 5 percent of children’s books published in 2014 were about black characters.

Those numbers do not account for publishers, writers, and characters of other races, those who live with chronic illnesses or disabilities, people of size, or those who are part of the LGBTQIA community. It’s difficult to say what percentage of the 50,000 books published each year are by or about people from these marginalized groups, but there’s one metric that we can use to gauge their prevalence, and it paints a grim picture.

When novels come out that feature marginalized protagonists — I’m thinking here of Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Beast by Brie Spangler, and Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton — they and their authors will likely receive added attention, simply by virtue of being anomalous. That’s not anything to hold against these titles, or their writers or characters.

After all, if books regularly featured happy people of size, transgender romantic leads, and mixed-race protagonists, we would not feel compelled to write about them. We need diverse books, and we need buyers to know that the ones that exist do, in fact, exist. Media attention is the best — practically the only — way to get the word out. When Jonathan Franzen publishes a new book, it is his fame, not the novelty of his identity or his characters, that drives media hype.

You don’t have to look far to find hyperbolic comments that list difference after difference. Check out the comments on any social media post about an all-black or all-female cast, and you’ll see something to this effect: “What’s next? Superman played by an obese, autistic, transgender, black-Asian, quadruple amputee?”

The person who makes this statement intends to create a kind of unicorn: a person marginalized — literally — into nonexistence. Each difference creates a barrier between the speaker and the hypothetical subject. As each layer is added, the subject becomes less human, until their existence becomes an impossibility — the aforementioned unicorn — in the commenter’s mind.

To the speaker, it’s ridiculous to think that a mixed-race, transgender person of size, who has had all four limbs removed and been diagnosed with autism, could possibly exist. But common sense tells us that people occupy every imaginable intersection of marginality. To pretend otherwise is to double-down on the already pervasive media erasure that limits minority visibility.

In the same way, Herr’s hyperbolic comment about writers of size ignores the reality that fat women face. As Lindy West writes in The Guardian:

Society’s monomaniacal fixation on female thinness isn’t a distant abstraction, something to be pulled apart by academics in women’s studies classrooms or leveraged for traffic in shallow “body-positive” listicles (“Check Out These 11 Fat Chicks Who You Somehow Still Kind of Want to Bang – No 7 Is Almost Like a Regular Woman!”). It is a constant, pervasive taint that warps every woman’s life.

Fatness is not something that a person can shrug off, like a fashion faux pas or a minor traffic violation. That does not make fat people ridiculous or impossible. Fat writers exist. Roxane Gay, Lena Dunham, Sarai Walker, and Brittany Gibbons, among others, write critically-acclaimed bestsellers. Publishers and editors would do well to pay attention.