The train of thought / chain of events went like this…

I was mulling about significant works of relatively contemporary literature that might struggle to be published today, and I chanced to see a younger man crossing the street here in Seattle, where I’m currently Writer in Residence—who looked exactly like a Berliner German literature graduate turned journalist I’d met coming back from the Rabaul Yacht Club on Mango Avenue in New Britain, PNG back in the late 1980s. Over lime rum and mosquito repellent, he told me of his disappointment in interviewing Gunter Grass, which disappointed me because I’d only recently read The Tin Drum, and thought it one of the best things I’ve ever experienced (I still think this).

I went on to read The Flounder by Grass, which attracted all sorts of criticism from feminists. If you don’t know, the novel is based on the Grimm’s folktalke (#19) “The Fisherman and His Wife.” A lowly fisherman catches a magic golden flounder and lets it go—then the wife keeps insisting he ask it to grant ever more dramatic (and outrageous) wishes. Remembering all this coaxed me to reread the folktale and the literature / criticism surrounding it (Virginia Woolf also references it in To the Lighthouse).

You probably know the folktale, but it’s worth rereading. One could (and I believe should) consider it a parable about overarching ambition and greed—never being satisfied. But here’s the thing, and my point…

Why is there an issue when a female character represents these everyman traits? We are now used to the seemingly never-ending call for more female characters. We accept “bitches” and “superbitches”…witches and femme fatales. There’s of course great delight in badass women. We will even still grant vulnerable, mixed up women (providing they aren’t overly victimized and come out all right in the end). But a nag? A female who embodies some of the most basic but least admirable traits? This still seems to be off limits—and yet the story of The Fisherman and His Wife still commands attention. Perhaps because it expresses a truth we don’t want to acknowledge.


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