Curious Science: ‘Can Writers Prevent Disease?’

This evening, I attended a talk on two of my favourite subjects, writing and science. It was held at my local council library, which happens to be located at Circular Quay, between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. I arrived early so I went for a little walk and took some photos. Here is my artistically blurred depiction of the Bridge:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night

Customs House, which houses the library, is a rather impressive structure itself. (I didn’t take any photos of it because there was a mob of seagulls loitering in a menacing manner on the forecourt, but this is what Customs House looks like.) The foyer has a glass floor and underneath it is an amazing 1:500 scale model of the City of Sydney, updated yearly, complete with tiny yachts and ferries bobbing about the harbour and tiny street lights that are turned on each night. I also checked out the current exhibitions, including Count Us Together, a small but fascinating collection of photos, posters and newspaper articles about the 1967 Referendum.

The writers-and-science talk was organised by a confusing number of institutions (“The City of Sydney Library joins forces with Inspiring Australia to host a Vivid event as part of the Curious Science series”) but aimed to discuss new partnerships between the Charles Perkins Centre and Australian writers. I was especially interested to learn more about the Charles Perkins Centre, because I happen to work next door to it, and often spend my lunch break in an adjacent courtyard, eating my salad sandwich and wondering what they actually do in that snazzy new building. It turns out the Charles Perkins Centre houses about nine hundred University of Sydney academics who are working on the problems of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other associated disorders. The Academic Director of the Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, explained that obesity has a range of causes and consequences. It’s not simply about people eating too much and not exercising enough, or even about will-power – it has complex causes that include poverty, education levels, agricultural practices, cultural expectations, the built environment and many other factors. Accordingly, the Centre employs staff from a wide range of academic disciplines – philosophers, medical specialists, architects, psychologists, physicists, agriculturalists and many more – who collaborate in a fluid, creative way in research and teaching. Given all this fluid creativity, it seemed natural that the Centre would seek to work with some writers, especially when a generous philanthropist gave them a lot of money for this exact purpose.

Their Inaugural Writer in Residence last year was Charlotte Wood, whose writing was described as “innovative and confronting”. I have not actually read any of her novels, even though she is a Very Famous and Serious Literary Figure in Australia, because each time I come across an interview with her, she’s saying something that annoys me – for example, informing readers that they are lazy and immature if they enjoy reading novels with likeable characters. (I’d thought she was also the Serious Literary Australian Author who’d sneered at YA novels, complaining they were all about Issues that were resolved in “candy-floss epiphanies” involving trite “growth and change moments”, but then I realised it was Anna Funder who said that.) Anyway, I was interested to hear how Ms Wood’s residency had worked, but her description was a bit vague. I think there were some formal meetings and presentations, but she emphasised that many of her most valuable interactions with the Centre’s scientists had been serendipitous meetings in stairwells and so on. She told the scientists about her novel-in-progress (she noted that this required a mind-shift of her own, novelists being notoriously reluctant to discuss their work in its early stages) and asked them lots of questions, and then she incorporated this new information in her work. For example, when she told a geriatrician that her planned novel was about three women in their seventies, he made an offhand remark that at least one of the women would have a mother who was still alive and in her nineties, which came as a surprise to her. Another scientist challenged her to include some evolutionary biology in her novel, which she did by giving one of the characters an elderly dog with dementia.

Her novel about aging – which is still a work in progress – does sound very interesting and I’m keen to read it. Mind you, Ms Wood did manage to make me roll my eyes (metaphorically speaking, of course) at least once, when she claimed that elderly women characters in OTHER books (and indeed, in our entire culture) are ALWAYS depicted as frail, incompetent and obsessed with the difficulties caused by their aging bodies and minds, whereas her book will be UNIQUE in that it will have women characters who just happen to be in their seventies and otherwise are as real and complex as younger characters, although of course she will avoid making her characters look like the ridiculously happy, healthy and wealthy people in glossy retirement home advertisements. Now, I can think of at least half-a-dozen well-written novels with real, interesting elderly women characters and I’m not even researching this area, so I don’t think it’s all that unique. But possibly I misunderstood what Ms Wood was saying or my listening comprehension had been biased by my previous impressions of her.

Then Alana Valentine, who’d been commissioned by the Centre to write a play about body dysmorphia, read some scenes from her work-in-progress. Ms Valentine interviews people on a particular theme – in this case, how people, especially women, prepare for their wedding day – and then uses their words to construct a play. The scenes involved a wedding dress couturière talking about a distressed customer being emotionally abused by her thinner mother and sister at her wedding dress fitting, and then a fat woman discussing her fear of even entering a wedding dress shop to look for a dress. The scenes were funny and sad and thought-provoking, and she read them very well. She’d been planning to drag audience members up on stage to enact another scene with her, but the session was running out of time and this idea had to be abandoned (to the great relief of the audience).

Professor Simpson was keen to note how the Centre’s scientists had benefitted from the partnership with the writers, by increasing the scientists’ awareness of a different form of creativity. However, he stressed that this was not the sort of thing that could be measured in relation to Key Performance Indicators and that the writers weren’t being called upon to ‘communicate science’ in any kind of didactic way. The Centre is also considering partnerships with other creative types, including visual artists and musical composers. One audience member asked whether Ms Wood had felt the residency put a lot of pressure on her to ‘deliver the goods’, which I’d also wondered about, but Ms Wood felt that it had been no more than the usual novel-writing pressure (that is, hoping it will all work in the end) and in fact, the Centre had provided a free and inspiring atmosphere and the scientists had been generous and helpful in sharing their knowledge.

No one actually answered the question of whether writers can prevent disease, but that was okay. It was an interesting discussion, I learned some things and I got to take a nice walk around Sydney Harbour.

I should probably also mention that my new book, which will be out later this year, is all about science and medicine and is set in the University of Sydney. More about that later.

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.

Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.

On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.

This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.

*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.