Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fiction is better, the nanny edition

Let's say that you're a nanny for a rich family, and an actual nanny - not one on a slightly-too-chipper Netflix show. You're a creative type, but creativity has never once succeeded in paying an actual bill. Because jobs as one of Gwyneth's kids' white-collar-compensated tutor/nanny/yachting-instructor are scarce, you end up in a position of the very sort people totally end up in after a masters program, and that would really be worth remembering exist when people are all, how can it be that so many more women are getting grad degrees these days, yet the wage gap persists? You try your best, kind of, but the family you're working for is unfair, kind of. The hours are erratic, but you've shown up late a couple times. Maybe you're thinking, this would make a great personal essay! It would make great fiction. The essay format - the default these days, it seems, even for fiction writers like Laurel Lathrop, author of the essay in question (which, for the record, I enjoyed) - seems not to lend itself to the most helpful readings of situations along these lines. Which is to say, ambiguous ones, where the narrator doesn't come across as infallible.

The sentiment of feeling overqualified for a job isn't necessarily matched by a reality of overqualification. And it's possible to be exploited by a job and to be somewhat entitled and inept as an employee. These are all widely if not universally-shared life experiences. It wouldn't be especially hard for most anyone who's, say, been 22 to identify with that sort of sentiment, without necessarily endorsing it. Fiction allows for that ambiguity - for characters you can sympathize with, without applauding their life choices. Fiction permits readers other than tsk-tsking at mistakes that I-for-one would never make, or, conversely, earnest advice intended to help the author not repeat the same mistakes. It allows the reader to relate to someone who maybe got herself into that mess and maybe knows it and maybe hasn't emerged having Learned Her Lesson.

But the personal-essay format puts the reader in the position of someone who knows better and is almost ethically obliged to intervene. It demands this of the reader. (If that's the same Caryatis in those comments, hi!) A short story about this situation would lead to a totally different set of readings. Ones that, granted, wouldn't leave the author with specific, individually-tailored life advice, but possibly more useful ones all the same.


caryatis said...

Haha, yeah, I loved that one. But I also tend to tell fictional characters what to do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"But I also tend to tell fictional characters what to do."

Torn between conceding my whole fiction-is-better hypothesis, and pointing out that advising fictional characters is irrational. If less dangerously irrational than being unsatisfied with the career prospects of a creative-writing MA and then seeking out a PhD in the same field.

Anonymous said...

Read John Casey's four short stories in "Testimony and Demeanor." Young, brilliant, earnest protagonists who don't play dumb.