Fat and Plain Authors: What Really Matters

When I was fourteen, I had a mad crush on a Catholic priest, a man who would, in time, ascend to leadership in Rome. He was so cute, even though he was older and—when I loved him best—had graying hair at his temples. The Father was a little tormented by life, but that only made me love him more.

His name was Father Ralph de Bricassart. You can see here why my love for Father Ralph was so intense:

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Father Ralph was played by the actor Richard Chamberlain in the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, and he was hot: hot when he was a young priest, enchanted by the prepubescent Meggie; hot when he was old and frail, his burning love for Meg—and his decision to stay in the church—only increasing his appeal. I wept when the series ended, Father Ralph dying with Meg’s head in his lap, the sexual tension between them still simmering after years of being together, and then apart.

Later, when I read The Thorn Birds, I had a clear image of what Father Ralph looked like, which made the vivid scenes created by the book’s author, Colleen McCullough, even more wonderful. Damn, that woman knew how to write about sublimated love, about consummated love, about repressed love. The book, set mostly on an Australian sheep farm called Drogheda, was one of the most deeply romantic books I’d ever read.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered, like millions of others who read McCullough’s obituary last week, that the author was a little fat and a lot plain in her looks. How could someone like that even write a great love story? I asked myself. How could she know what passion was like?

This was how her obit, published by one of Australia’s major newspapers, began: “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: ‘I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.'”

It’s good to know, of course, that any woman who is “certainly overweight” can also be “a woman of wit and warmth,” because, you know, those character traits don’t seem to be compatible. But it’s even better that the obit led with this information. We really do need to know what our female authors look like before we invest in their books, right?

And really, why lead with McCullough’s accomplishments: her award-winning writing being only a small part of the work she did. She also taught at Yale University for a time, and was a scholar in neuropsychology. But when we’re writing about women, it’s important to start with her looks, her personality, and her ability to attract men.

Maybe I just don’t remember: did Kurt Vonnegut’s obituary mention in the lead that he was somewhat of a douche who smoked way too much, but who wrote pretty cool books? Was C.S. Lewis eulogized as someone with a prosaically bald head and who smelled like an ashtray, but who created magical worlds nonetheless? When author Tom Clancy died in 2013, his entire obituary covered his success as a novelist, without one word about his appearance—even though an accompanying picture suggests his chin and nose might have been too large to really write convincing prose.

As is the case these days, a hashtag protest has emerged in response to the McCullough obituary: #FatLadyObit. Here are a sampling of a few tweets:

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This kind of social media activism is useful in calling attention to inequities that still exist—in this case, in how female and male authors are treated. And lest we think that this is an isolated case, we might want to remember how few female authors are actually represented on “best of” lists, are nominated for national prizes, are on the reading lists in our college classes, except for those specially designated “women’s literature.”

It’s too bad that one talented author’s death—and the tone-deaf obituary written to presumably honor her—has to serve as a reminder that such inequities still exist, and that we cannot simply honor McCullough for who she was: a scholar, a Yale professor, and an author who wrote exceedingly well.

In The Thorn Birds, McCullough writes this: “Each of us has within us something that just won’t be denied. Something to which we are driven even though it makes us scream aloud to die.”  She might well have been talking about her own efforts to succeed as a writer—something we might also want to acknowledge: you know, if she wasn’t so fat and plain.