On the Case for Meanness in Fiction

“One should always be kind . . . in case it might be the last chance. One might be killed crossing the street, or even on the pavement, any time, you never know. So we should always be kind.”

This quote is from Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella The Driver’s Seat. You should not pay any attention to Lise, the character in that book, when she says we should always be kind. She is psychotic, and also sad, and lonely. This—her sadness and loneliness—does not mean you should feel sorry for her. Muriel Spark, who made Lise psychotic, and sad, and lonely, certainly doesn’t. Listen to the way Spark predicts Lise’s future death: “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s neck tie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park, in a park of the foreign city to which she is traveling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.”

Do you hear any sympathy, any empathy, any kindness, in that description? If you do, you have brought that shit with you. You should get rid of that shit as soon as possible. Muriel Spark wants you to, or would if she were not dead, and so do I, and so does your fiction. That shit might be good for you, as a person, but it also might be bad for you as a writer.

What is good for you as a person is often bad for you as a writer. People will tell you that this not true, and some of the people who will tell you that are also writers, but they are bad writers, at least when they try to convince you, and themselves, that the most important thing for a fiction writer to have is compassion. Flannery O’Connor suggested in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960) that compassion was perhaps the most overrated of all the fiction writer’s supposed imperatives: “It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exactly critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use.” In other words, O’Connor suggests that compassion—as shown by a writer by way of her fiction—is important only to nitwits and cowards.

Maybe some of you don’t agree with O’Connor. The novelist, essayist, and John Calvin spokeswoman Marilynne Robinson doesn’t agree with O’Connor. Robinson argued a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine that Flannery O’Connor was an example of a religious writer who failed to describe goodness. Robinson is right. This failure, and the pain, and the anxiety, and the art, produced by this failure, are just some of the reasons O’Connor is great. Though Robinson doesn’t think so. Robinson says, again in the Times Magazine, “Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me” (“The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson” October 1, 2014). Is Robinson saying that O’Connor writes beautifully even though she’s an appalling person? After all, there are plenty of people who have claimed that O’Connor was an appalling person, and plenty of evidence—especially in her letters—to support those claims. But no, Robinson is saying that O’Connor writes beautifully even though her imagination is appalling. But how can we judge a writer’s imagination except by way of her writing? If the writing is beautiful, how can the imagination be otherwise? What does Robinson really mean?

What is good for you as a person is often bad for you as a writer.

What Robinson means is that O’Connor’s imagination includes an aesthetic (and maybe religious) appreciation of meanness, and this quality makes that imagination automatically appalling, and unbeautiful, to Robinson. To put it another way, Robinson believes that goodness is essential to a writer’s vision, but as far as I’m concerned, goodness is responsible for Robinson’s myopia. She claims in that same Times Magazine piece, “There is a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart.” But when it comes to writing—religious or otherwise—what is so necessary about a loving heart? Especially if a loving heart makes you assume the absolute value of a loving heart despite so much evidence to the contrary.

In her essay “Imagination and Community” Robinson points out, “In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate.”

This is why goodness is no good for a fiction writer, or at least a fiction writer who believes in the sovereignty, the easy accessibility, of goodness: because she sees it everywhere. Because it is not discerning. Fiction writing without discernment is still fiction writing, but it is mostly dull fiction writing. It is easy fiction writing. It makes things easy on the reader, and easy on the writer. There are no surprises in this kind of writing. All of Robinson’s novels after her great first novel Housekeeping are sad examples of this, mostly because these novels—Gilead, Home, and Lila—are full of presumption: we all want to be good people, they suggest, or at least the best of us do.

The books pretend to be folksy but in fact are infuriatingly condescending. They make me want to ask Robinson, and myself, all these rhetorical questions. Like, are we really to honor all our characters? In what way are we to honor them? If we honor some of them, say, by illuminating their dishonorable characteristics, do we not honor them? By writing mean characters, do we not honor them? By treating characters meanly, do we not honor them? Should we really treat all our characters the way we should, I guess, treat all people: with respect, with love?

If fiction writing were a democratic process, a good-hearted process, then maybe we should. But it is not, and we should not, because when we do, we strip fiction of its ability to startle, to surprise. O’Connor knew this, which was why, in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she told this story: “I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.”

Meanness is what makes that paragraph so great: O’Connor treats this old lady in exactly the way writers are not supposed to. Writers are supposed to treat old ladies with grace, and care, and compassion; O’Connor basically informs the old lady, with barely veiled contempt, that there’s a big, beautiful, bizarre world out there, and it’s a shame that she is too much of an idiot to see it, to learn from it. But no, you think, that poor old lady. You think, she’s probably very sweet. Probably she loves her sweet grandchildren. Yes, but those grandchildren probably know, when they’re being honest with themselves, that their grandmother can be a real fucking idiot sometimes. That’s why we need writers like O’Connor, who will be honest with their readers because readers cannot be as honest with themselves as they’d like, and with the eloquence that honesty deserves.

This is why goodness is no good for a fiction writer, or at least a fiction writer who believes in the sovereignty, the easy accessibility, of goodness: because she sees it everywhere. Because it is not discerning.

That thing I had the old lady’s grandchildren say about the old lady was too mean, you might think. Probably. But I think sometimes that degree of meanness is necessary, and I think it’s necessary because sometimes we get a glimpse of what writerly life would be without meanness. Take the great George Saunders. It is practically mandated that fiction writers love Saunders. I love Saunders, at least his fiction. I make that distinction because of his much ballyhooed graduation speech, “The Importance of Kindness,” which exhorts the graduates of Syracuse University to be kind. The speech is fine. This is not an insult—graduation speeches are, at best, fine, and most of them are much worse than that.

The speech is useful, however, because it illuminates the things that are so terrific in Saunders’s fiction. For instance, in the speech he says that we eventually “come to love other people, and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. . . . Most people . . . become less selfish and more loving.” All I can say to that is, thank God this is not true of Saunders’s fiction. Thank God he does not use new-agey cum middle-management phrases like “counter-instructed in our own centrality” in his fiction (unless he’s mocking those phrases, which he often does), and thank God most of his characters don’t become less selfish and more loving. Sure, a few do, but in the case of those who don’t, well, we’re not meant to think kindly of them; on the contrary, we’re invited to take pleasure in their misfortune, in their limitations.

Take the opening of “Sea Oak,” from Saunders’s second collection of fiction, Pastoralia, in which Min and Jade (the narrator’s sister and cousin) are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. . . . hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain. . . . Then it’s a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.

Min and Jade shouldn’t yell at the narrator. He’s not condescending. He’s a good, solid citizen, and it’s important for him, and for the story, that he believes not only in his own goodness but also in the world’s goodness.

So anyway, no, Min and Jade shouldn’t yell at the narrator for being condescending. But they might want to yell at Saunders. There is no generosity in his vision of their characters, unless we think of generosity as not charity but clarity. And we should: what an act of generosity that is, giving readers the gift of seeing awfulness clearly! This clarity would not happen if Saunders’s depictions of Min and Jade weren’t so honest, which is to say, weren’t so mean. The world is stupid. “Sea Oak” doesn’t pretend that it is not. It isn’t interested in counter-instructing these stupid characters in that stupid world in their own centrality. On the contrary, it takes pleasure in revealing and crafting the world’s particular stupidity. In other words, it takes pleasure in treating these mean characters meanly. And in doing so, takes the dumb meanness of, say, Matt Merton, and makes it art.

Of course, it’s relatively safe to be mean to Matt Merton and his televised sideshow. The parents are on television, which means they’re performers, which means they’re shallow, which usually, in fiction, means that they’re meant to be judged, meant to be damned.

But I think sometimes that degree of meanness is necessary, and I think it’s necessary because sometimes we get a glimpse of what writerly life would be without meanness.

Saunders’s mean treatment of Min and Jade is riskier, and more satisfying. Let’s see more of it:

My sister’s baby is Troy. Jade’s baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling.

“Jesus freaking Christ!” screams Jade. “Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You’re going to give him a really long arm, man!”

Troy starts crying. Mac starts crying. I go over and free Troy no problem. Meanwhile Jade and Min get in a slap fight and nearly knock over the TV.


Notice here that Saunders does not invite us to be kind. Instead, we are asked to laugh at the narrator’s stupid sister and cousin; indeed, we need to laugh at these rock-headed women so as to appreciate, and be part of, the world’s mockery of them, so as to appreciate how much the odds are stacked against them, and so as to root, also, for the less rock-headed, more promising (though I’d also argue, less interesting) narrator. This story depends on meanness; it needs characters who exist to be mocked, dumped on, so as readers we can understand and be given a chance to align ourselves with those characters who are not. If we so choose. We might choose to align ourselves with Min and Jade. This is what makes a story great: it gives us choice; it surprises us. But it would not great if it asked us, and its characters, to be less selfish and more loving.

Marilynne Robinson certainly would not agree. Let’s return, briefly, to “Imagination and Community” in which she writes, “The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

Are you fucking kidding me? One only has to turn on the television (though one has the feeling that Robinson doesn’t watch television because everything on it is appalling, and Robinson might be right about that, which is why she’d be a more interesting writer if she watched it) to get an eyeful of people whose nature is to do bad to one another. But more to the point, can you hear the from-on-highness in Robinson’s claim? “The great truth” according to whom? Well, to Robinson. But not to the writers I care about, and whom I think you should care about, too. Those writers believe that, as a writerly attribute or goal, goodness is not strictly wanted, because it makes you want to rise above. You should not want to rise above. Meanness—either an act of it, or an active cultivation and appreciation of it—requires that you sink in. That, as a writer, is what you should want.

Since we began with Muriel Spark, it’s perhaps right to return to her—not to The Driver’s Seat, which was called, in The Guardian, “a book of singular cruelty and misanthropy” (the reviewer believed this to be a bad thing), but to Spark’s 1962 classic novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Before I read this book, I’d heard it spoken of in ways that it made it seem like it was a Scottish Dead Poets Society, for girls. It is not. It is about a group of six girls in thrall to their electric, vain, hilarious, fascistic teacher, Miss Jean Brodie. But it’s also an examination, and at times a celebration, of cruelty.

This story depends on meanness; it needs characters who exist to be mocked, dumped on, so as readers we can understand and be given a chance to align ourselves with those characters who are not.

All of the girls (collectively known as a “set”) are subject in one way or the other to Miss Jean Brodie’s venomousness, but none of them more so than Mary Macgregor, “the last member of the set, whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” In another kind of novel, this early description would set up Mary Macgregor as a heroine, a dumped-upon, geeky heroine with whom the reader is invited to identify and who, with the help of writer’s good advocacy, will eventually rise above.

But it’s clear from the outset of this remarkable novel that Spark is not interested in advocacy, or in rising above:

“You did well,” said Miss Brodie to the class . . . “not to answer the question put to you. It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is golden. Mary, are you listening? What was I saying?”

Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, “Golden.”

“What did I say was golden?”

Mary cast her eye around her and up above. Sandy whispered, “The falling leaves.”

“The falling leaves,” said Mary.

“Plainly,” said Miss Brodie, “you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.”

There’s meanness aplenty here. Certainly Sandy is mean to Mary, as is Miss Jean Brodie. The third-person narrator is mean, also, when she says that Mary is famous for her stupidity. Now, the reader might be tempted to think that being famous for stupidity is not the same as being stupid, except that everything in the passage suggests that Mary actually is stupid. But hey, she also dies tragically in a fire at a too-young age. And as we all know, to die tragically at a young age is to be sanctified. Is it not?

[Mary] died while on leave in Cumberland in a fire in the hotel. Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils.

“Who has spilled ink on the floor—was it you, Mary?”

“I don’t know, Miss Brodie.”

“I daresay it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you did.”

These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.

This is a wonderfully tricky passage. On the one hand, one might want to see Mary’s death as tragic, and as the awful immolation of an innocent, a guileless woman-child who has been duped and betrayed and mistreated and who deserved better. But then the passage’s last line makes that reading difficult: squinting, one could fool oneself into thinking that Mary is merely nostalgic; with both eyes open, one is more likely to see her as stupid. Or rather, one is more likely to see that the novel wants her to been seen as stupid. As this subsequent scene makes even clearer:

Sandy, who had been reading Kidnapped, was having a conversation with the hero, Alan Breck, and was glad to be with Mary Macgregor because it was not necessary to

“Mary, you may speak quietly to Sandy.”

“Sandy won’t talk to me,” said Mary, who later, in that hotel fire, ran hither and thither until she died.

The cruelty is stunning here. It is invigorating. It is invigorating in part because it belongs not only to the characters but to the third-person narrator (it is wrong, we learn as writers and readers, to conflate the third-person narrator with the author, but fuck it, I’m just going to say that it’s the author’s cruelty, too). The narrator is cruel because she gives us the cold, clinical, awful description of Mary Macgregor dying in the fire, and soon after we get the comic account of her running “hither and thither until she died.” I say it’s comic. I laughed at it, at least. You should feel free to laugh at it, too. It’s there for us to laugh at. Because when we laugh at it, we become part of the problem, we are not exempt from it, and we are made to remember our own similar acts of cruelty. This becomes apparent in the scene that follows, during a class outing, when Sandy is tempted to be nice to Mary, knows that it would be right to be nice to Mary, is frightened by the possibility, rejects it:

Sandy looked back at her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. . . . She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of heroines in the making. So, for good fellowship’s sake, Sandy said to Mary, “I wouldn’t be walking with you if Jenny was here.” And Mary said, “I know.” Then Sandy started to hate herself again and to nag on and on at Mary, with the feeling that if you did a thing a lot of times, you made it into a right thing. Mary started to cry, but quietly, so that Miss Brodie could not see.

In this scene, we see that Saunders is right when he says, in his graduation speech, that “kindness, it turns out, is hard.” But the difference between his speech and Spark’s novel is that the novel suggests that you can’t do justice to the difficulty by helping, or allowing, or even wanting your characters to rise above the meanness of the world. It’s no coincidence, either, that Sandy’s dreaminess, her active imagination, her book-reading, marks her as the novel’s writer figure (in fact, she later becomes a published author, and also a nun); on the contrary, Spark wants us to see that writerliness is not a fail-safe against cruelty, but rather depends on it, which thus prevents Sandy from acting as though she’s above the other cruel people in the book, and in the world. Which should illuminate something for us fiction writers: that the world, with its demands that in our fiction we be good, that we be nice, that we be kind, that we be compassionate, that we devote ourselves to the beauty of the human heart, makes it difficult for us to see that our job as fiction writers is, not to be mean for meanness’ sake, but rather to find ways to be honest about how very difficult it is to be good.


I, Grape; Or the Case for Fiction: Essays by Brock Clarke is available now via Acre Books.

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