Writer’s Quote Wednesday – Claire Messud

the woman upstairs

I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

The sexist question above was posed to Claire Messud by Publisher’s Weekly regarding the main character in her book The Woman Upstairs and I absolutely love her answer.  She killed it.

Of course Messud wouldn’t have been asked the same if Nora were a man.  Male characters are allowed to be complex, brooding, frustrated, angry, downright brutal, and they are praised as anti-heroes or complicated bad boys.  Take some of those same characteristics and apply them to a female character and it tends to confuse people.  Why?  It’s completely perplexing to me.  Guess what world?  Women in real life are complex and complicated!

There are women who can be unspeakably cruel, even violent, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (an extreme example, of course), but many of us have experienced the aggression of a truly horrible textbook mean girl.  Some mean girls reform themselves by the time they grow up, sadly others grow into meaner women.   In contrast, there are women who live with a simmering rage boiling right beneath the surface, like Nora. There are women who live with addiction, depression, obsessions, or other forms of mental illness. Rachel in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Allison in All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner come to mind.  And there are girls who quietly, bravely, survive, or crumble, under terrible circumstances, like young Kambili in Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi or Pecola in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

I enjoy reading, and writing, about complex female characters.  I praise women who are brave enough to create them.  Maybe one day, if more women feel bold enough to speak about their dark histories, struggles, or eccentricities in the real world, people won’t find it so jarring to find a complicated woman in the pages of a novel.

As an aside, I actually would want to be friends with Nora, I think she would be interesting to get to know.  But I’m a complicated woman myself.



19 thoughts on “Writer’s Quote Wednesday – Claire Messud

  1. Ah, it’s depressing, isn’t it? Female characters are supposed to be sweet and on the look-out for the man they marry, and women writers are supposed to write fluffy stories where everybody lives happily ever after.

    A brilliant answer to an awful question – she did kill it 🙂

  2. I agree: great quote! But even more than that, great post! Your take on the quote is right on. I was around when the term “Women’s Lib” entered our vocabulary, if not yet our lives, but one would think in 2015 we’d be beyond such attitudes and assumptions. Sexism is a meme I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I write about a troubled young woman trying to find herself in late 60’s San Francisco and ponder the differences between then and now. Also having been a therapist, I am aware that people are not comfortable with what I consider REAL women with real personalities and problems, particularly if they manifest as victims (even when they’ve been horribly victimized), with addictions, or, heaven forbid, have sexuality-related issues. Thanks for the post, Jenn. And thanks to Blogging 101, which opened the door to my discovery of your blog.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your kind words. My mother says I was meant to be young in the 60’s; I would like to think I would have found my way to San Francisco!

  3. Oh, and regarding Harper Lee’s recently published book . . . It’s not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The story of its publishing, including why it was not the version first released rather than the one we have all come to know and love, is very interesting. To get the story, read Ursula Le Guin’s clarifying and insightful views on it at http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/08/03/a-personal-take-on-go-set-a-watchman/. Ursula is so great, always telling it like it is. (I have the youtube video of her gutsy speech when receiving the National Book Award on my blog, if you’ve not yet heard it).

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