In Praise of Flawed Women

Have I ever mentioned how many rejections The Forever Marriage received?

I’d like to give you a number but, frankly, I lost count. It was more than a year’s worth anyway. And they came from all quarters—editors who knew me and those who did not, big New York publishing giants and respected mid-size literary houses and tiny presses on the prairie.

The editor who had acquired my first novel, given me a generous advance and told me—even after she moved to a different publisher—that she intended to build my career turned it down flat. Her former assistant, the rising star who’d helped shape Wild Ride and asked for an exclusive read on whatever I produced next, also passed. Little was said except for a few words about how unsympathetic women don’t sell.

To be fair, it is true that my manuscript (now forthcoming novel) starts, page one, with a woman rejoicing as she watches her husband die. And many’s the early reader who handed my pages back to me with the note, “I don’t like her!” or something to that effect.

It is also true that after those first two stunning rejections (I’d been positive one of them would want the book), I went back and softened a couple details. I made my protagonist, Carmen, a little less sharp and judgmental. But just a little. The whole story was based, after all, on the premise that she was stuck in a loveless marriage and would be freed only by her husband’s death.

The manuscript went back out. This was now mid-2010. And my agent, Esmond, who’s brilliant, by the way, went rogue. He sent it to a mix of well-known women’s fiction editors and houses that favor quirky, dark, scientific stuff. He chose a couple real outliers, including one publisher so remote he had to print out and mail the manuscript—I mean in an envelope, with stamps and everything—as if it were 1979.

That’s when the rejections flooded in. I suspect Esmond kept the less constructive letters back. But he sent the nice ones in batches. And it was like reading one message in many different tones—the way announcements are made in a series of languages aboard international ships.

“I’m grateful to have read Ann Bauer’s accomplished novel though I am sorry to say it isn’t for me,” wrote one. “I found myself wishing her protagonist were more sympathetic, making me the wrong editor for it.”

“I’m afraid that while I appreciate the honesty Bauer brings to her characters, I found it quite difficult to sympathize with Carmen,” said another, “especially as we spend much of the book certain that she never loved Jobe.”

They continued this way, small variations on a theme.

The nicest rejection, the one from a very busy, well-known editor who was kind enough to write a long, personal note, read in part:

This is a novel with a really complex and interesting set-up and I really wanted to fall in love with it. The opening pages were so difficult to read because Carmen is so hugely difficult to relate to  — a woman who is, on some level relieved that her husband has died. And yet, very real too. And believable. So I read with interest. I am sorry to say (but may be a good thing) that I had a very visceral reaction to the novel. I really didn’t like Carmen. I kept hoping I would because she seemed like the kind of woman I SHOULD be liking!

Ann  Bauer is a superb writer. I know this is a weird pass letter but there you have it.

Esmond and I talked about Olive Kitteridge, which had won the 2009 Pulitzer with its prickly eponymous main character. We talked about the work of Lionel Shriver (pictured), whose masterpiece We Need To Talk About Kevin, is about a woman—the mother of a killer—who admits boldly to never loving her son; Kevin was famously rejected more than 30 times before it went on to be published, win the Orange Prize, and become a Cannes-feted film.

“I plan on another submission next week,” Esmond wrote. “Don’t worry. I think we’ll find a home for Jobe.”

But I did worry. I worried about my book. I also worried about myself.

Carmen is a fictional character and her situation is not mine. But her observations and irritable moments and less-than-generous impulses? Many of those are. When as a 20-year-old girl she encourages an awkward young man to buy her nice things…When she lies to him after they’re engaged and takes up with a smooth, sexy stranger…When as a 43-year-old with cancer she envies her own daughter’s youth and health…These are ugly deeds and thoughts I can easily imagine. They seem logical to me. Flawed but human.

I was surprised to find that other women my age did not feel the same.

Because oddly, the negative responses came entirely from females under 50 (which describes the majority of fiction editors). Men and older women tended to read my novel and cheer for Carmen. They didn’t necessarily like her, but they understood her. They rooted for her to become a better, gentler person—which eventually, in her own way, I really believe she does.

During the long year that The Forever Marriage was circulating, I sought out portraits of imperfect but redeemable women. I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Mary Karr’s Lit. I watched The Good Wife on TV. But once again, it was Lionel Shriver who provided the best insight.

Shriver’s ninth novel, So Much For That, features a shrewish woman named Glynis who is diagnosed with mesothelioma (a rare form of lung cancer) and uses her disease to wreck her husband’s dreams. Glynis is lazy and complaining and a flailer; when she discovers that her own mistakes triggered the cancer, she turns around and blames everyone else, including her husband, Shep. Even so, there are glimmers of goodness, moments when Glynis breaks down and you understand why her beleaguered husband has remained.

Late in the book, an old friend appears who has pledged all along to help: to make meals, to nurse Glynis, to move in if needed. But each promise was empty; after every one, the woman disappeared. As Glynis lies dying, the two women finally hash it out. The bitter one in the bed and the selfish fink of a friend—who, it turns out, was really Shriver herself.

In a column for The Guardian entitled, How I Failed My Best Friend, she told the story of her longtime friend, Terri, who was discovered to have mesothelioma right around the time Kevin was scaling bestseller charts. Shriver details, almost coldly, how she promised over and over to fly home and visit, only to get caught up in all the excitement around her suddenly successful novel and dodge her dying friend’s calls.

My first response when I read this piece was, “What a bitch!” My second was: “Yeah, I can see that.”

For me, the lag was maybe 3 minutes. I swore to myself I would never buy another Shriver novel, would NEVER PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THAT WOMAN’S POCKET, then quickly admitted that while I hoped I’d do better, I could not say with certainty how I would behave if faced with smashing, outrageous writing success and the pull of a dying friend.

Shriver was wrong and she knows it. She reaped all the benefits of Kevin, plus she wrote another hugely popular book about the very friend she ditched! I’m not endorsing her choices, but I do love the fact that she was honest about them. Because I think that’s where most of us struggle and fail.

As Esmond promised, my novel about an unfaithful wife was eventually picked up by an editor who loved and championed my imperfect heroine. And yesterday, my first pre-publication review came out in Publishers Weekly. It was smart and thoughtful and I appreciated everything the reviewer said, but the line that made me particularly happy was this: “With lovely prose and fine pacing, Bauer offers a sensitive portrait of a flawed woman coming to terms with a lifetime of regrets.”

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8 Responses

  1. Had the same issue with my Place Last Seen — everyone passed on it but George Witte at Picador — and even now, a decade later, people tell me that they didn’t like the mother character, thought she was unsympathetic — I find it maddening? incomprehensible? sexist — does anyone refuse to publish Roth or Updike or the Kundera because their characters are dicks?
    On the other hand, at my 30th high school reunion, a girlfriend told me how grateful she was that someone had written about being impatient with your kids, about how you always love them, but sometimes they drive you fucking crazy. So that was nice.
    (Just put in a preorder from Powells, can’t wait to read it.)

  2. Priya says:

    I read your post and said to myself, “That Carmen sounds just like me.” I have done and felt so many things in my life that have been purely selfish and mean and manipulative. I haven’t voiced them to anyone for fear of people looking at me in horror, and some things I can’t even think about for fear of thinking myself a monster. But we all go through that (I hope) and anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves. The fact that your novel has received praise from older women sort of proves that, in my opinion, because it takes age and wisdom (not necessarily correlated) to be that honest with yourself. It may be a hard book to read, but I look forward to it. If only to receive validation and hope.

    • Ann Bauer says:

      Thank you for this, Priya. And for your wonderful anticipatory review, which I just read and loved. You have a great, bold, honest voice.

  3. Jack El-Hai says:

    Ann, I’m often drawn to complex and unlikable female characters in fiction, and I wonder if the avoidance of these characters by editors is a recent phenomenon resulting from today’s marketing panics. Right now I’m reading Villette by Emily Bronte, and its female protagonist is decidedly weird and uncharismatic. Look also at sister Charlotte’s Wuthering Heights and its pair of mysterious and unlikable heroes.

    These novels have been around and loved for a long time, and I wish the same future for yours.

  4. Steve Rosse says:

    I’m thinking of “Atonement” by Ian McEwan. We all want redemption and you have to have done something wrong before you can be redeemed.

  5. Katy Read says:

    Scarlett O’Hara was flawed and unlikable, yet “Gone With the Wind” did OK.

    Wildly theorizing here, but maybe the resistance to flawed or unlikable women in fiction, movie comedies and elsewhere is a relatively recent phenomenon, somehow connected to women gaining economic and political power. It’s a subtle warning from society: OK, we’ll let you get ahead, but you’d better show us you’re a Good Girl.

  6. gaylelin says:

    I absolutely love a character I can hate! I suppose that makes me a minority.
    I’ve personally known a woman whose marriage was much as Carmen’s appears to be, without my having read the book … yet. I watch her enjoying life with a new man now and am happy for her. Besides, she got some big bucks for the years of service she gave to her late husband who was a macho alcoholic.
    If our inner thoughts were visible, I think we’d find that every one of us have traits that others would hate.