A flawed character

Posted on February 15, 2012 by

After deciding to torture myself with a selection of Flannery O’Conner’s short stories (Good Country People, Parker’s Back, and the infamous A Good Man Is Hard to Find), I was left with a feeling of awe. Not only was this woman a writer who managed to hide subtle lessons within brutal pretexts, she was also clearly a writer before our time.

In all three of these stories, the narrative revolves around a highly flawed, but outwardly moral, female character or characters. These were all women that the editors here would describe as “Christo-feminists” (as we must insist on inventing new words for old memes, so that we can claim to have discovered something original), but which O’Conner more generally viewed as simple hypocrites. Women who were completely oblivious to their own sins and imperfections, at the same time as they heaped scorn on those around them for theirs. We have the aging nag, the naive nihilist, the self-righteous gossip, the manipulative nice girl, and the pious bitch. All the usual suspects.

So why do I say that this is before our time? Think about it. When was the last time you read a popular recent novel or short story where the protagonist was a woman and she was cast as wicked? Did she die a horrible, screaming death right after repenting of her sins? Was she abused and mistreated and you thought, “Perhaps she will now turn from her evil ways,”? Did she get her comeuppance and you sighed with relief, and hoped for a better future for the tortured male character? Did her character improve as the story progressed — as she discovered and eliminated her inner failures?

I can’t think of any. Modern novels are usually aiming to be “bestsellers”, rather than teachers. Even when some women in the story are portrayed as “bad”, such as in the popular The Help, there are always other “good” women to alleviate the reader’s burden and the story is told through those “good woman” eyes. In the world of publishing today, authors are specifically encouraged to create stories in which readers can place themselves. A sort of “choose your own adventure” book, in which the choices have already been made. The female readers aren’t supposed to be looking through flawed eyes, as that might cause them to reflect upon themselves.

Furthermore, since women make up a plurality of book consumers, most main characters are now female. Even male authors increasingly use female protagonists. A particular brand of female, to be exact.

They are bland, perfected, or simply helplessly tossed about by the various (usually male) antagonists. The Twilight series is the best example of this, but also the Disney movies and the chick romances. You quickly wonder at the sheer banal predictability of Bella, and the manner in which her flaws are twisted to appear as “charming quirks” and her errors always lead her in the right direction in the end.

We have lost something important, I think. We have lost the art.

Posted in: Book Review