December 13, 2013

"When it comes to writing about anorexia, the only truly radical move, as far as I can tell, would be to show clearly just how profoundly boring it is..."

"... not sad or prurient or overdetermined," writes Alice Gregory in "Anorexia, the Impossible Subject," in The New Yorker (reviewing "How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia").
The very premise is an unappealing one: we’d like to believe that such unhinged myopia would have psychological roots in trauma or in some sinister personal history, but usually it doesn’t.... [A] voluntarily isolated person choosing not to eat until she’s addicted to not eating doesn’t make for a very good story....

If we really wanted to protect our supposedly susceptible youth, we’d paint anorexics as they are: slowly suicidal obsessives who avoid other people and expend ninety-five per cent of their mental energy counting the calories in green vegetables. We wouldn’t see them as worth reading about at all.
But readers choose books because they are interesting, and so whatever is written about well enough to attract readers is going to make the subject absorbing, exciting, glamorous. What things other than anorexia are actually quite boring but written about in books as if they were not boring? When else do we worry that readers will be tricked into doing things they should not do because the book failed to depict the activity as boring?

And yet... isn't Gregory is falling prey to the imitative fallacy?
Imitative fallacy is this: the mistaken notion that creating the feeling in the reader that is the same as the feeling in the character is the worthy intention of a story. That is my loose paraphrase of what is probably a lot of technical ancient Greek.  Which means, we create an imitation of life, not a story.  So, for example–if the character is bored, you bore the reader.  Or the character is confused, you confuse the reader.
The example of writing boringly to express boredom is such a typical way to explain the imitative fallacy that Christopher Lehmann-Haupt found this amusing and not boring way to talk about the imitative fallacy:
[T]he fallacy of imitative form... is the error of, say, writing chaotic prose in order to convey a mood of chaos: we were forever vigilant against this fallacy, although we often committed a variation of it, by writing boringly about interesting subjects!
What are some interesting books about boredom? I think of Kierkegaard’s "Either/Or," written about and quoted here by Roger Kimball:
He was... an unusually exuberant writer, by turns gripping, caustic, and sentimental. He could be extremely funny: “All men are bores,” he wrote in “The Rotation Method” (a key essay in Either/Or).
Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this... . The gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.
If everyone is boring, then all the characters in all of the books are boring, anorexics and overeaters alike. The authors may strain to depict them as interesting, but there are exceptions, where the author clearly shows you that the characters are boring, but the book is not boring. I'm sure you can name a few. I thought of "Madame Bovary." And so, I think I've established that Gregory was wrong to call anorexia "the impossible subject." I hope you won't be so boring as to contradict me. Eat a sandwich!


tim maguire said...

All addictions are ultimately boring to the addict. Someone once pointed out that your typical "last drunk" bottoming out story is, roughly, sitting at home alone with a bottle watching TV on a Friday night. It's not danger or shame, but loneliness and boredom that finally finishes off most addicts.

As for a book or movie depicting boredom...almost anything set in Victorian England.

Johnny Got His Gun. It can't get much more boring than being reduced to a lump of sentient flesh lying in bed.

Henry said...

Currently reading The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (hat tip to Althouse). Religious experience is really boring.

A singular conversion experience has some interest. One conversion experience after another is tedious. James knows this, of course, and turns the issue back to the individual:

A small man's salvation will always be a great salvation and the greatest of all facts for him, and we should remember this when the fruits of our ordinary evangelicism look discouraging.

Likewise, most accounts of illness are boring. But an ordinary person's illness is the greatest of all illnesses for her.

The Variety of Religious Experience is interesting when James is writing. It's boring when he is recounting the innumerable case studies he has collected.

mrs. e said...

I've not heard many last drunk stories invoke boredom as a reason to change direction. Danger, shame, loneliness and pain are the usual culprits. Boredom is something they'd see, later.

I think there's something else going on with this author - I find it interesting that she denies this compulsive drama (while she was in the disease), now, as boredom. Though it may look boring to her now, it didn't while she was in it. If she's trying to speak to others not yet out, she's not going to reach them, because they're likely not going to know what the heck she's talking about.

It's also interesting that she tries so hard to distance anorexia from other addictions. I'm sure there are differences, but her evidence seems purposely and superficially skewed.

Larry J said...

What things other than anorexia are actually quite boring but written about in books as if they were not boring?


wildswan said...

Maybe the writer is trying to say that drug addiction is interesting because you have to struggle to get the drugs and you encounter dangerous people whereas not eating you encounter dangerous chocolate cakes and have nasty encounters with a vicious glazed donut.

wildswan said...

It's all boring unless the person is a writer. When White writes about an imaginary sparrow flying around in New York City pretending to be a plane, it is interesting. When another person writes a true story about being the first to climb Mount Everest by a specially difficult route while hoping for an insight into life and not getting it, it is boring.

tim maguire said...

mrs. e, I didn't say it was the stated reason.

Virgil Hilts said...

I like to think that in heaven George Carlin is in charge of anorexia therapy:

traditionalguy said...

Downton Abby is about to start a new season, and all the afficiandos are already excited by the possibilities, boring characters vel non.

To beat boredom I re-read Jack Reacher detective stories.

The eating disorder suicides are a tragic problem among the young women. It is a mind over matter contest; and their minds would rather kill their matter than lose.

Broomhandle said...

There's an old Russian saying that goes something like,"the mind can have a conversation with the body that ends in death". I've seen people who are having that internal conversation and, while it's baffling to those around them, I don't think it's boring for the participant or those who love them.

David said...

In the very same issue is Alice Munro's Nobel Prize interview (available on You Tube.) One of the interviewer's questions is "What was so interesting about small town Canadian life," suggesting that some intrinsic fascination by Munro about small town Ontario (the place of her upbringing) was the inspiration for her writing.

Munro's answer is essentially that small town Canada was not particularly inspirational. It was simply what she knew. She does not use the word addiction but really describes being addicted to storytelling from an early age. Her story writing arose from this addiction more than anything else.

Surely there were many others with a similar addiction, but their expressions were boring. Her expressions were not.

Anyway, a very interesting post Althouse, with some references I had never encountered before. Thank you for it.

paul a'barge said...

Go to and read the article on "Why it's great to date a girl with an eating disorder".

Cheaper to keep her.

tomtildrum said...

"Eat Puke Love"

SOJO said...

The anorexics/bulimics that I knew (mostly in my teens and 20s) weren't boring. They were attractive and active models, dancers, and the popular girls in high school. And yeah, it would have been better to NOT have been anorexic/bulimic - especially better for their teeth.

It absolutely was tied in with social power then. Maybe it's changed.

Jupiter said...

"overdetermined"? Where did that come from?

bhollis said...