Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why fiction is better

Sung J. Woo, a novelist, wrote the most recent "Modern Love," and it's one of the better ones. It's about his Korean mother's insistence that he continue to eat her food, even while in his own home. With his wife. Who's also cooking. It's a new spin on a great many old subjects: food as love or control, the immigrant experience, the conflict of modern and traditional ways of life, in-law tensions. It's a sweet story, and while there's the awkwardness that makes for good humor writing, no one's dirty laundry, by the standards of this genre, is exposed.

It does leave one big question open - why doesn't his wife just join him in eating his mother's delicacies? - but you can read between the lines. The wife doesn't love her mother-in-law's cooking. Either she doesn't like Korean food, or she doesn't like this Korean food, or the fact that she herself "has been a food writer and restaurant critic" means that she has specific enough ideas about food that she knows what she likes, or wants to try many different things, or at any rate doesn't want to commit to however many decades of this particular woman's cooking. Or it's a symbolic thing, and however delicious the leftovers, the wife doesn't like the idea of her husband's childhood extending into his own middle age. Whatever the reason, it's out of manners, presumably, that he's not overtly spelling this out.

I will admit that my first thought, as I was reading the essay, was that if this guy, who lives not that far away in NJ, has some succulent Korean leftovers he can't finish, particularly if there are dumplings involved, I could help out with that. But that was clearly not the big-picture point of the essay. 

Clear to me, at least. Not to other readers, at least not to the subset of readers who feel compelled to comment on the essay itself. They read the thing not as a story, but as a man offering up his life to be judged. And judgment - "Modern Love" allows comments! - is forthcoming:

Why doesn't he have more respect for his elderly mother? Why isn't he just grateful that his mother is alive? Why doesn't he adopt a rescue dog that will help him with the leftovers? (I don't believe any dog, however procured, should be fed kimchi, or spicy and/or cabbage dishes from any cuisine.) Why doesn't he donate the food, as if there's some obvious place one brings homemade leftovers. Why doesn't he give the leftovers to his co-workers? (Maybe because he's a novelist?) Why does the wife insist on cooking, when someone else would happily do so for her, for free? Why doesn't the wife learn how to make Korean dishes from her mother-in-law? How dare she squander this opportunity? (Does no one else notice that the elephant in the room is, the wife doesn't like her mother-in-law's cooking?) And so many more. 

Readers react, in other words, as if Woo had written a letter to an advice columnist, and is asking for the appropriate course of action. And you can't really blame them, because Woo has, in this case, offered up not his psyche channeled into fiction, but a story that purports to be the utmost truth about his own life and his own motivations. Readers of "Modern Love" can't be expected to - aren't being asked to - take some sophisticated literary-analysis approach, in which they realize that even in 'autobiography,' there's on the one hand the writer the person, on the other, the character created by the writer, a character that shares his name and biographical details, but that is at best a huge distortion of the real-life individual, impacted by various biases - that of the author, who (not Woo especially - just all of us humans) wants to be liked, that of the author who's trying to tell a compelling story, and more. No, the essay is to be read as an email from a friend about a situation he's dealing with. Your job isn't to assess the prose of the email, the narrative, but rather to tell your friend to get a grip.

Fiction, meanwhile, gets around this. Not only does it not purport to tell about real people. It's also intentionally ambiguous. There is no answer to how we should advise a character to behave. We are supposed to sympathize with flawed characters. We are often meant to sympathize primarily with one character, and not to be losing sleep over whether that character offended the mother-character by not eating her leftovers.

All of that said, I am interested in these leftovers.


Petey said...

"I will admit that my first thought, as I was reading the essay, was that if this guy, who lives not that far away in NJ, has some succulent Korean leftovers he can't finish, particularly if there are dumplings involved, I could help out with that. But that was clearly not the big-picture point of the essay."

Perhaps that was the precise big-picture point of the essay.

And we'll never know until you show up at his door with some empty Tupperware. You owe it to science of essay parsing to give it a try.

kei said...

I think you're right about both points--that there is a lot between the lines about the wife and the mother's food, and that the writing incites at least some readers to wonder if they can help out with the excessive leftovers. The description of the food is very clear and if you have even just a remote idea of what these things are like, it sounds really good. And the experience just adds to it--you know she is skilled and has deep knowledge about how to make the food good. But maybe it gets old after five years, too.

I'll just add my own reactions. One was that in between the lines is what might be cruel to point out explicitly, but I'm going to do it anyway: the smell of kimchi is powerful. If you are not fond of it in at least some way (that is, if you don't like/can't eat it), then it may be a problem in the fridge (especially 10 containers of related foods). This isn't just true of kimchi though; soy sauce has a fishy undertone, and is not necessarily for everyone. Various other pickled vegetables, not even near as pungent as kimchi, also can stink up a fridge. And though they're stored without a problem, let's not get started with fermented soybeans (especially in a poorly ventilated kitchen)! General point being, children-of-immigrants often have complicated feelings about food from the motherland, especially in front of others who don't share that perspective, or share enough of it.

Anyway, even if they got a separate dorm-type fridge for these containers (say, left outside of their home for hungry readers to forage), that wouldn't resolve the symbolic theme. There's a lot going on with him being the man of the house(s), but also kind of babied by his mother (and who, at least of East Asia of a particular time, wouldn't baby their first born son), and with the potential cultural clashing on top of typical in-law clashing. And his mother, to some extent, must wonder what happened to the tradition of a woman marrying into her husband-the-first-son's home, thereby catering to his family before herself or her family. But his mother also seems to understand that this is not how things work everywhere. Yet she won't give up--I was glad she still sneaks in extra containers.

(I realize I'm confusing author/character etc. but I am trying to understand perspectives more than judge. I think I read it as a story as you did, not as an advice column. But it is hard to look at the name and not think that this is a story about the author, that the "I" is not merely a character. Still, you're right; commenters being commenters, they aren't going to control themselves.)

Phoebe said...


I see what you mean re: the smell of kimchi, and have heard of this particular aversion. While I like kimchi (and natto), there are a whole host of smells - artificial butter, ranch flavor, sour cream - that I'd be less than thrilled with having around the house at all times.

I almost wonder if the reason commenters were unwilling to consider the obvious - that the wife doesn't like this food, thus doesn't want to share it, let alone to learn how to prepare it herself - was that this would seem somehow racist or xenophobic, to even entertain the idea that the key ingredient in a particular ethnic cuisine is one a person not of that ethnicity might find off-putting. As if one would be accusing the wife of being somehow bigoted, if one allowed the possibility that she didn't like Korean food, or any Korean food involving kimchi, which is, after all, a lot of Korean food.

Anyway, I like your analysis of the essay, and think the way you phrase it makes it clear what works in the essay, namely that we really feel for both the wife and the mother.

Sung said...

Dear Phoebe (and everyone else on this thread),

Well, I'm about TWO years late to the party here -- I found your blog while searching for a link of my story send to someone else yesterday.

Thank you so much for not only reading my story but taking time to write so intelligently about it. I'd like to answer your "one big question," if I may -- "why doesn't his wife just join him in eating his mother's delicacies?"

The answer: she does! But I can't expect her to eat everything with me, because not everything does agree with her...but really, this line of questioning deviates from the main thrust of the article, which is that my wife has every right to want to cook our meals. I suppose you could also say that I have every right to eat whatever I want, but that's not being a very good husband, at least in my opinion. The compromise I came up with has been working well, so for that, I'm grateful!

I agree wholeheartedly with you regarding the advantage of fiction. After my first novel (Everything Asian) was published, one of the most frequent questions I was asked was, "Why didn't you write a memoir instead?" It's a valid question, since the novel hews closely to my own life. And I think there's a larger market for memoirs (i.e., ca-ching!), too. But I did not want to for the specific reason you cite here -- that fiction can run circles around nonfiction because of its inherent non-factual design, and all the baggage that comes with something being true.

Again, thank you, Phoebe. I really appreciate your insights here, and you, too, Pete and Kei.

- Sung