march of the headless women / fictionality, character identification, and whateverness
Interesting synchronictiy. The other day I was in a Waterstones and was stunned yet again at the fact that the “headless women” book covers are still proliferating. What are the “headless women” book covers? Well, take a look here or here or here. Or take a look at this one, which happened to be on display on the 3-for-2 rack at the Waterstones in question, and which was written by an author I’ve met a few times.
It’s pretty obvious what’s interesting / discomforting / grating about the proliferation of covers of this sort. Implicit in their ubiquity is a sense on publishers’ parts that female readers, when choosing a novel, want to be able to project themselves into the work, to occupy the place of the female protagonist. If the person pictured on the cover of the book were to possess a head, and in particular a face, this would somehow block the ability for them to do so: But I don’t have red hair! But my eyes aren’t that colour! My cheekbones aren’t at all like that! It’s notable that works aimed at male audiences don’t take the same tack – often foregoing the depiction of people on the cover altogether.
Pretty condescending, isn’t it? Unfortunately one has a sense that the publishers know what works, and wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t work to some degree. I’ve seen an argument on twitter – now lost to us, as it was months ago – in which a PR person for a publisher responded to criticism of the practice with something like “I know, I know – it’s awful. But what do you want us to do about it? The books won’t move off the shelves if we don’t.”
Depressing. But here’s the interesting part. It just so happens that I had assigned – and had to prepare to teach early this week – a fantastic essay by Catherine Gallagher called “The Rise of Fictionality,” which was published in Franco Moretti’s magisterial anthology on the novel. (Luckily for you – and for me as I rushed to get the students a copy of it – PUP has the essay on-line here.) The essay is a vivid and succinct historicization of the emergence of fiction as a category in eighteenth-century Britain, a category born out of divergence both from “factual” writing and (and here’s where the brilliance of the piece truly lies) “fantastical” writing as well.
I won’t go into all the nuances of the argument here – do yourself a favour and read the piece. But here’s a few paragraphs that seem especially relevant to the acephalous women of Waterstones:
That apparent paradox—that readers attach themselves to characters because of, not despite, their ﬁctionality—was acknowledged and discussed by eighteenth-century writers. As I have already mentioned, they noticed that the ﬁctional framework established a protected affective enclosure that encouraged risk-free emotional investment. Fictional characters, moreover, were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real people. Although readers were often called to be privileged and superior witnesses of protagonists’ follies, they were also expected to imagine themselves as the characters. “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others,” Samuel Johnson explained, “is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however ﬁctitious . . . by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Johnson 1750). What seemed to make novelistic “others” outstanding candidates for such realizations was the fact that, especially in contradistinction to the ﬁgures who pointedly referred to actual individuals, they were enticingly unoccupied. Because they were haunted by no shadow of another person who might take priority over the reader as a “real” referent, anyone might appropriate them. No reader would have to grapple with the knowledge of some real-world double or contract an accidental feeling about any actual person by making the temporary identiﬁcation. Moreover, unlike the personae of tragedy or legend, novelistic characters tended to be commoners, who would fall beneath the notice of history proper, and so they tended to carry little extratextual baggage. As we have noticed, they did carry the burden of the type, what Henry Fielding called the “species,” which he thought was a turntable for aiming reference back at the reader; a ﬁctional “he” or “she” should really be taken to mean “you.” But in the case of many novel characters, even the “type” was generally minimized by the requirement that the character escape from the categorical in the process of individuation. The fact that “le personnage . . . n’est personne” was thought to be precisely what made him or her magnetic.
Some recent critics are reviving this understanding and venturing to propose that we, like our eighteenth-century predecessors, feel things for characters not despite our awareness of their ﬁctionality but because of it. Consequently, we cannot be dissuaded from identifying with them by reminders of their nonexistence. We have plenty of those, and they conﬁgure our emotional responses in ways unique to ﬁction, but they do not diminish our feeling. We already know, moreover, that all of our ﬁctional emotions are by their nature excessive because they are emotions about nobody, and yet the knowledge does not reform us. Our imagination of characters is, in this sense, absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing, but it is also constitutive of the genre, and it requires more explanation than the eighteenth-century commentators were able to provide.
That is to say, the “headlessness” of the fictional character, their availability to us because they are unblocked by connection to a “real person” and thus readily available for readerly identification, may be “absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing,” as are the images on the covers in the bookshop, but it is also one of the things that makes fiction what it is, and is what accounts for the special mental and emotional states that we experience as we read them.But to take this a step further (and here I am drawing out some of Gallagher’s arguments and taking them in a slightly different direction) it’s possible that reflections of Gallagher’s sort (and even the instinct catered to by the contemporary covers) point us to different sensibility about the ideology of fiction.
In short, we are made anxious about the protagonism of fiction, the structural mandate that it forces or soothes us into identification with the autonomous or semi-autonomous individual as such, that it serves as an advertisement for intricate interiority and in so doing may urge us away from the consideration of the exterior. But if it is the case that the fictionality of the fictional character is grounded on a certain availability, a certain openness, even a certain whateverness, we might be licensed to think that the ideological underpinnings of fiction are far more complex than conventional (literary Marxist) wisdom suggests. Rather than a cult of personality, fiction, at base, might start to seem a space for the emergence of impersonality – and rather than simply markers of readerly solipsism and commercial cynicism, the book covers above might suggest a nascently radical instinct lurking just below the surface of the Waterstones transaction.