I recently read Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum, winner of the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and several other accolades. When describing it to friends as a story told from the perspectives of patients and staff at an institution for severely disabled minors, I got a common response: “Well, that sounds like a fun read!”
I will perhaps never fully grasp what distinguishes a depressing story that brings you down from a great drama that hooks you from the start. The bestselling books in the English language are about a boy who must face down his parents’ killer, a girl who spends hours in her lover’s Red Room of Pain, and a high schooler who can’t wait to have a monster baby with an emotionally disturbed vampire. Crime shows and novels continue to be wildly popular through the generations. If you turned on the closed captioning for most of the top-grossing films of the last 30 years, you would be reading, “[scary music],” every few minutes.
Why do we embrace all this while believing that a book that starts off with the rants of a teen in a wheelchair might be too heavy to handle?
Of course, realistic portrayals of suffering pack a far more visceral punch than contrived ones. Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars will widely be perceived as less distressing than The Piano and Love Is Strange because, despite their carnage, the adventure stories never get inside their victims’ heads. Touchy-feely tales embraced by mass audiences tend to have happy endings, or at least the satisfying downfall of an easily identifiable villain. This is why, as Salon’s book critic Laura Miller has pointed out, a story is schlocky and sentimental insofar as it lies to the audience.
And Good Kings Bad Kings does not lie to its audience. I embarrassingly ended up having to conceal tears streaming down my cheeks while sitting on a bus as I read about one particularly beguiling character who (SPOILER ALERT) dies after getting third-degree burns in the shower due to human error and then catching pneumonia after surgery. I can attest that such a tragic scene is representative of reality, not sheer melodrama. I lived in a pediatric hospital for five months when I was a pre-teen, and the next year I learned that one of my friends had died after his breathing apparatus failed due to human error, and another one had died from catching pneumonia after surgery.
Living at that hospital was far from easy. As I’ve written before, listening to others share their realities in group therapy was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. But while the human fear of death and suffering is rational and something I never lost, living alongside the patients did knock down many of my fears of illness and disability that were irrational.
Within a few weeks on the ward, I was no longer disconcerted at the sight of head injuries, tracheostomy tubes, stumps, or burned faces. At first I stared. Many of the owners stared back at me and my Ilizarov fixators. We all stared at anyone with a condition we hadn’t seen before. And sometimes we stared at each other’s wheelchairs out of envy. But the constant exposure soon rendered such features as mundane to us as glasses, braces, and freckles. We were used to it. What is the harm in allowing the rest of the world to get used to it, both through inclusion in society and representation in books and film?
As a study published in Science found, reading literary fiction makes you more emotionally intelligent. As The New York Times reported, “This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.” The results are unsurprising when literary fiction distinguishes itself from popular fiction by avoiding formulas and stereotypes. We’ve already seen that avoiding stereotypes fosters more creative, innovative thinking. Now it makes us better at understanding each other, too.
Indeed, literature provides characters who are realistic because they are just as complex as we all are. Realistic characters don’t make us the readers like them. They make us understand them, while simultaneously being a little bothered by them because we recognize their faults and selfish impulses in ourselves. In other words, a great literary feat doesn’t show you good people triumphing over the bad. It shows you how and why we hurt each other.
The harm in Good Kings Bad Kings is not wrought by cackling villains upon innocent angels. It comes from the fear, anger, and selfishness easily recognizable in everyday life. And it is visited upon disabled people who are not dying to escape their diagnoses but who are sick of the condition our society has left them in. As Susan Nussbaum writes in her afterword:
I used to wonder where all the writers who have used disabled characters so liberally in their work were doing their research. When I became a wheelchair-user in the late seventies, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured in the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed in the end, but it was for the best. Lenny [in Of Mice and Men] was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him. It was a mercy killing. Ahab [in Moby Dick] was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingfield [in The Glass Menagerie] had a limp, so no man would ever love her…
None of the characters I write about are particularly courageous or angelic or suicidal, bitter for their fate, ashamed to be alive, apt to kill anyone because they have an intellectual or psychiatric disability, or dreaming of being cured or even vaguely concerned with being cured.
And that’s what makes realistic portrayals of disabled people so significant. Not for the sake of inspiration porn. Not to make us proud of how good we have it. But to welcome disabled people’s lives, stories, and perspectives into the arts and therein mainstream society.
The assumption that a story about severely disabled characters must be overwhelmingly upsetting is precisely the mentality that marginalizes severely disabled people. If we won’t read their stories because they’re too sad, we’re not very likely to know how to approach them in real life.
And for all its lines about the importance of realistic stories for the sake of galvanizing greater empathy, The New York Times never reviewed Nussbaum’s award-winning book.