Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Contract with Reader

Author’s Note

Years ago, I started to read David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Depressed Person” and thought: he got this so right, and I don’t want to read it.

In his MasterClass, Malcolm Gladwell gives advice along these lines: If you’re writing something complex, something readers will need time to make sense of, give them some candy too, something easy to consume and fun to talk about. He was referring to intellectually challenging nonfiction, but it made me wonder if I could apply the technique to my fiction. I’ve been told that my work is too dark, too painful. Let some sunshine in! multiple readers have advised. Could I balance the suffering with a bit of candy?

But how do you give readers a piece of candy when your narrator insists on throwing up any candy she consumes? How do you show the light that she can’t see?

I wanted to write a novel that would help people understand what it’s like to live with an eating disorder, with relentless, repetitive, obsessive thoughts. But a narrator with relentless, repetitive, obsessive thoughts is difficult to read. The mind of someone with an eating disorder is not just dark, but boring. If you deny yourself nutrition and then puke up anything you do eat, you’re going to have a lot of dull, exacting thoughts about food and your body, the same thoughts again and again.

How could I show how boring and relentless these thoughts can be without boring the reader? I didn’t want to write a novel only for people who share my narrator’s obsessions—those who read cookbooks for fun and spend hours watching “what I eat in a day” videos, so hungry their minds won’t focus on anything else. Those people already know what it’s like.

How could I leave space for readers when Mira, my narrator, has too many thoughts about everything, most of which are incredibly unpleasant? That’s what everyone kept telling me: You need to leave more space for the reader.

Getting that criticism felt awful. I felt bad for my character, embarrassed for her. She was too much, shared too much. She should keep her terrible thoughts to herself. Yet it felt like an unfair criticism, of her and me. She really does have too many thoughts. She wants to control what everyone else is doing and thinking. She can’t relax, can’t enjoy a piece of candy, doesn’t like sunshine. I felt defensive on her behalf. It was too miserable to read her thoughts? What about Mira? What about the rest of us who have minds like hers? Was she/I being hurtful by sharing her view of the world? That was basically my criticism of Wallace’s story, wasn’t it?

Which brings me back to Malcolm Gladwell. What was the difference between giving my readers some candy and sugar-coating an experience that I wanted to show in a way that was revealing and realistic? When I was younger, I’d have argued that it would betray my character and my own aims as a writer to take Gladwell’s advice. I wanted to uncover the dark, dirty mess of the psyche, of the world we live in. I thought that was the only way to tell the truth.

As I got older, I realized that relief and joy can feel as profound as pain and suffering, that the human state of being is a state of flux, not just in theory, but in my own experience. I began to feel the poignancy that comes when we feel and acknowledge the transient nature of human emotion.

So I tried to show how that worked for my character specifically. In my opening chapter, she wants to control not just her own body, but the other bodies at the bar. This impulse hits its apex when she watches a performance in which one woman makes a shrine out of another woman’s body. My character’s thoughts in response are hateful and misogynistic—she knows she’s being terrible and condemns herself for it, but her disgust and anger persist. Then we get our candy: a man proudly fucking a pumpkin on stage. At this sight, Mira is overcome with relief and optimism. It’s possible that a man fucking a pumpkin at a bar is the literary equivalent of candy corn or black licorice—not to everyone’s liking, but it isn’t just a fun aside. She’s genuinely feeling joyful right then, and I wanted to shine a light on that joy.

At the end of the chapter, she’s not lying to herself when she says she’s ready to embrace treatment. She’s not candy-coating. It’s real in that moment—she’s thinking clearly; she’s motivated, but this mood and conviction will not last either.

Ironically, one of the nonliterary things I learned in writing this novel is that candy and “junk” food are not unhealthy indulgences you should strive to avoid, but a delightful part of a full life. It’s only a problem if that’s all you eat.


JILL ROSENBERG is a graduate of Vassar College and the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her short stories have been published in the The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, swamp pink, and other journals.