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Stranger Than Fiction: Jennifer Weiner and Other Authors Tackle Infertility

Just as you begin to see pregnant bellies everywhere when you’re undergoing fertility treatments, you also start to notice it as a plot device in pieces of fiction. Were characters always experiencing infertility and loss, but I never noticed until it was on my daily horizon, or has infertility exploded onto the page in recent years much in the same way it has made it’s way to magazine covers and news stories.

The first time I noticed infertility or loss rear its head in recent fiction came with Jennifer Weiner’s Little Earthquakes where the character of Lia leaves her husband after the loss of their child. While loss had certainly been a catalyst in other works of contemporary fiction–from Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” to Anne Tyler’s Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist–this was one of the first times I had picked up a book and found a side character dealing with the loss of a baby. While those other books discussed the loss of an older child, one who had already established likes and dislikes, a describable personality, this was the first time I was watching fiction explore the death of a baby–an entity described mostly in terms of the birth and those early, personality unformed infant days.

Which isn’t to say that I truly had never encountered a piece of contemporary fiction prior to that point that had loss as a plot device, but if it had been read, it had been something my eyes had glossed over, perhaps because I wasn’t yet part of the infertility and loss community with a finely tuned radar for plot points touching on wonky ovaries.

Stories about infertility and assisted conception pop up in other Weiner books, most notably Certain Girls which contains a surrogacy storyline and her most recent novel, Best Friends Forever, which contains a side story about a police officer whose wife leaves him while they’re dealing with infertility.

Not wanting to pry too deeply into her uterus, I still had to ask Weiner why infertility, loss, and assisted conception feature so heavily in her fiction. Was it because they’re themes she has experienced in her own life? Simply an interesting topic that affects millions of women? Weiner admits,

Pregnancy, conception and infertility figure as plot points in my book because the questions of reproduction — how to avoid it, how to make it happen, how to time it, how to manage its repercussions — loom large for women for major portions of their lives. They are the preoccupations of many of the real women I know, and so they naturally become the focus of my fictional leading ladies. I’ve always been fascinated with the construction of maternity and the shifting definition of what it means to be a good mother — it’s what I wrote my college thesis on. As both a writer and an avid consumer of pop culture, I’m also fascinated with the pressures that women deal with and how the story of maternity gets spun: getting pregnant or not, losing the baby weight, or not, being a blissful full-time caretaker or unapologetically hiring nannies…it’s all fodder for fiction!

And certainly, the inclusion of infertility themes is appreciated by the reader when handled well, especially when it is merely one possibility on the road to parenthood rather than presented as a freakshow a la Octomom.

It’s easy to write it off as a female writer thing (you know, since our floating uteri which cause our hysteria must also assert themselves into our writing) when you only consider recent books by Audrey Niffenegger (Time Traveler’s Wife’s miscarrying Clare) or Lolly Winston (Happiness Sold Separately’s infertile Elinor). But how does that explain that the same plot device is popping up in fiction by male writers such as Andrew Sean Greer’s Confessions of Max Tivoli (miscarrying main character) or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (another marriage ending over infertility and a medical termination).

Which begs the question–are authors giving the public what they want to read, what is already on our minds due to increasing infertility rates, or are authors guiding us towards new ideas to consider? In other words, is our American obsession with infertility (just flip to any tabloid magazine to see which celebrity has recently utilized IVF) a reflection on what is already in the forefront of our minds because it is happening in our homes or has the general public been led to the infertility-storyline river to drink like a thirsty horse? Is this just the natural extension of a society already focused on parenthood, which has burned through its obsession with babies and birth and extended itself backwards to preconception? Or is this the tip of a very large iceberg floating in the ocean as infertility rates continue to rise?

Or was infertility always there, but it takes going through treatments yourself to notice?

cross-posted with BlogHer


1 Mrs. Gamgee { 02.01.10 at 10:56 am }

I’ve noticed this as well. I have become fascinated with how authors depict infertile characters. The woman who has gone quietly mad after her loss in a victorian melodrama, the contemporary militant infertile demanding what is portrayed as frivilous treatment, the sad peripheral couple who are on the outside of everything due to their lack of children. When I read these characters I can’t help but wonder about the authors. Do they have an inkling of the emotions they are writing about? Do they understand the roller-coaster ride of the tww? Have they ever had to give themselves a shot or subject their body to the violation of an internal u/s? And like you, I have wondered if this has always been there and I am just more aware of it now that I am living it?

2 tash { 02.01.10 at 11:09 am }

I wrote a post about babyloss in pop culture over on Glow In the Woods a while ago, and hated on Niffenegger’s *TTW* for using infant death as character development (where we are to nod and say “oohhh,” when we find out the alcoholic, emotional basket-case mother is such because she lost a baby). I’m not big into babyloss as chararcter development truth be told (see also “Damages”) because I think it paints too much with wide brush strokes or to use academic language, replaces reality with assumed ideology. Babyloss as plot device IMO needs to be done delicately — I read “Little Earthquakes” prior to losing Maddy and remember not being horribly impressed with that character or how she eventually fits in with everyone else, and now that I’m on this side I can tell you I don’t know many babyloss moms who would become infatuated with a pregnant woman. I much more prefer to have it just dealt with as part of life, as in Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the Scenes at the Museum.” My husband and I are watching old MI5 eps on DVD and it even came up last night (character and plot development, I suppose). It was a bit throwaway. I think sadly babyloss becomes a lot of author’s/writer’s catch-all.

3 Mrs. Spit { 02.01.10 at 11:12 am }

I am driven crazy by the depictions of women whose babies have died, and the Time Travellers Wife contains one of the most stellar, Claire makes the comment that her mother “lost a baby” and went a bit crazy.

Not that her family lost a child – a sibling, but that her mother lost a baby (she put it down some where and forgot it?).

I read the characterization, carried on, and then a few chapters later, went back, thinking “Hey, wait a minute!”.

4 Michelle { 02.01.10 at 11:39 am }

I have noticed a lot lately that it was the focus of some plots in TV shows in the 80’s and 90’s’s that I did not notice or was too young to notice. I watch reruns late at night and have seen it be the focus in “friends” twice and Roseanne a few times, Beverly Hills 90210. Something I never noticed the first time through but it has jumped out at me since. I can’t think of any books at the moment but I think it has probably been there for a while but if you are not really going through it, it is something you gloss over unless it is a major plot line. Even then unless you really know the feelings that go along with it…it is just that…a story. Now I find myself saying “good for them” when they do it respectfully and believably and not just use stereo types or something completely off the wall.

5 ErnieGirl { 02.01.10 at 11:40 am }

Even the Pixar move “Up!” showed a struggle with infertility! It was very touching, but I’m not sure it’s something folks without a fertility issue would pick up on it.

Also, “Arrested Development” and the new show “Deep End” show infertility (somewhat in passing).

I am going to start reading the books you have all mentioned.

6 susy { 02.01.10 at 11:54 am }

I think being on “this side” definately 1. makes it more noticeable and 2. makes for seeing how well or poorly written it is.

Part of it might be our society and how it seems to be more in the celebrity media, too. I love Jennifer Weiner’s writing (how cool you were able to speak w/ her!) and have noticed the infertility trend in her books/stories as well. And even with The Time Traveler’s Wife, while I saw the stereotype, I can understand why it’s still being made, not that I think it’s ok to keep doing so, and portraying IF/loss in such a ugly light. It’s ugly to go through, but the glamourizing of the extremes is what helps the stereotypes keep living! Some just don’t educate themselves enough – – and think “it’s ok b/c it’s fiction”. SMH.

7 V { 02.01.10 at 11:58 am }

Like most things, unless you’re right in the thick of it, sometimes it’s easy to overlook. Also when it becomes part of your experience you see the characters in a different way, you may not always agree with their portrayal but there is that lump in the throat moment when you are back in your own IF moment.

8 Jess { 02.01.10 at 12:00 pm }

I had noticed this a couple of years ago while I was on an Elizabeth Berg kick…so many of her books either focused on infertility, miscarriage, or a woman who regretted never having children. I tried to find out whether Berg herself had an infertility background.

One thing that does make me wonder (per your question as to the increase in infertility): Why the increase? or is it just something we’re noticing now? That has become more acceptable to speak-up about?

9 K { 02.01.10 at 1:09 pm }

I think I notice it more since I just finished “A tree grows in brooklyn” which is from the early 1900’s and stillbirth and infertility loom in it. Also its not just a female writer thing as Jonathon Tropper has covered the issue of miscarriage and stillbirth and infertility in at least two of his books. Khalid Husseini also discusses infertility (male factor) in “The Kite Runner”. . .

10 mybumpyjourney { 02.01.10 at 1:38 pm }

I think I am more in tune to infertility in the media now that I am struggling- but it has always been there I guess. I was re watching the last season of Friends the other day, and I NEVER realized the pain ‘Chandler’ and ‘Monica’ went through TTC, adopting, etc. The unexplained diagnosis.
Mom was ticking off shows and books through the 70s and 80s that she remembered it was brought up- but not elaborated on very deeply.
I am glad to see it brought up and brought into light. I am glad to see male writers write about it- they are part of this too. Their babies are taken too soon, and/or unobtainable also. Sometimes I feel they get forgotten in all this.
Even my favorite series- The Outlander series has IF and loss in it. It touches us all in some way.

11 Jamie { 02.01.10 at 1:46 pm }

I think it is a little bit of both. If I had seen “Up” before my TTC/loss journey I honestly don’t think I would have noticed the IF nod at the beginning. Or maybe just thought to myself, “How sad” and moved on with the rest of the movie.

But there has been more in the news regarding fertility treatments in the last few years (thanks Octomom – dripping sarcasm here) and I think this has sparked a curiosity in the general public.

I like Weiner’s answer. I’d be curious to read her thesis.

12 Wishing4One { 02.01.10 at 2:36 pm }

I too have noticied blatant and undertonal (is that a word?) infertility/loss themes on TV here, we’re talking about US shows and movies via satellite. You know honestly before I knew I was dealing with this myself I am not sure I would have picked up on most of it, especially the not so in your face stuff, rather small, subtle references to something maybe only people like “us” would notice. Great article. Brilliant really.

13 Adele { 02.01.10 at 3:22 pm }

As others have already commented, I’m definitely more attuned now that it hits closer to home. And it seems to be everywhere on television and in films. My husband and I only laugh about it (or try to). On the book front, I really like the way Jane Gardam approaches miscarriage in Queen of the Tambourine but maybe because it’s a smart, witty book. When it’s done well, I appreciate it. When it’s a throwaway and poorly drawn plot device, I get resentful.

14 Ellen K. { 02.01.10 at 4:01 pm }

Oh yes, I started noticing it everywhere, especially in classic literature. I’ve spent too much time considering the 12-year age gap between Mr Darcy and his sister in Pride and Prejudice, as well as whether his mother died in childbirth and whether his mother and her sister, Lady Catherine, had a common obstetrical problem! Involuntary childlessness has always been part of character and story development, from Scripture to the present. Considering it objectively, infertility is an excellent plot device. But I take issue with the too-casual, even sloppy use of infertility resolution (esp. medical treatments and adoption) in modern popular fiction and TV. I start nitpicking the details. I particularly loathed Jane Green’s “Babyville” (that book was thrown across the room), but I didn’t much like the handling of surrogacy in “Certain Girls” — it seemed like the quickest cycle ever!

15 Jenn { 02.01.10 at 6:57 pm }

I am definitely noticing it in the media more! I also wondered why certain authors write about it.. they would have to either experienced it themselves or had someone close to them go through it.. it can not be learned without experience.

16 Lorin { 02.01.10 at 8:39 pm }

My fellow IF-fer at our church and I were talking about this recently b/c sometimes we are overwhelmed with how many Bible passages deal with infertility and loss. Of course it has always been there (as long as we’ve been alive) but now it stands out.

I bawled like a baby the first half of Up, the first 10 minutes affected me so much. I had no idea it was coming. I wish someone had warned me, but that was before I was reading IF blogs or had really told anyone we were TTC, so how would they have known.

17 Calliope { 02.01.10 at 8:42 pm }

I kind of think it is like buying a certain car and then suddenly EVERYONE on the road seems to have that car. It’s an awareness that is huge in my life. Most of the time I am actually appreciative when it shows up in art/pop culture/media. It creates a bridge of understanding. Sure most of the representations are extreme but for every in your face character there are the quiet ripple moments. The scenes in Julie &Julia come to mind. I’ve actually had a few friends rent that movie and then notice the infertility thread and e-mail to tell me. As if “infertility” was an actor that I needed to be updated on.

18 Orodemniades { 02.01.10 at 9:28 pm }

For the love of avocadoes, don’t read Jody Picoult.

As for why it’s suddenly appearing in books, well, publishers will jump on that bandwagon if one or two or three Big Name Authors have successes (and movies) featuring the topic.

19 LJ { 02.01.10 at 9:30 pm }

Damn you Calliope! I was coming here to say the same thing about cars!

20 Battynurse { 02.02.10 at 12:54 am }

I’ve wondered this a lot lately too. I’ve read so many books in the last 2 years that have had either a main theme or a secondary mention of infertility. In some cases I had chosen the book because it sounded interesting and I knew about the infertility stuff but it other cases it was a totally unexpected part. It just seems like it’s so much more common but then I’m so much more aware.

21 Christina { 02.02.10 at 2:09 am }

This is something that I have noted quite a bit lately in both books and film. I recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book written (I believe) in the 40’s and it takes place around 1915 and there was a clear infertile plotline. The main character, Francie, has an aunt who has had 10 babies, all born still. She adopts one and there is mention that she will soon have a live baby because most women who adopt end up having a baby soon after. I couldn’t help but think of the many causes for RPL and also the fact that this stigma has been perpetuated for decades. No wonder every person we know has the lovely advice to just adopt/relax/take a vacation/don’t think about it/you name it…and you’ll get pregnant!

22 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 02.02.10 at 5:09 am }

Lately I’ve gotten into watching a TV show that was on the air before I was born, and I’ve seen more than one ALI theme incl. fertility treatments leading to HOM, which was ripped from the headlines and a new thing back then. This leads me to think that they’ve always been there but also that their representation in fiction has increased.

Remember that infant mortality a century ago was at 50%. Babyloss is not a new thing, but it is relatively new to think that it’s worth writing about.

23 wifey { 02.02.10 at 3:21 pm }

I’ve been seeing infertility/loss depicted everywhere, lately. I’m a big fan of Charlaine Harris (for quick, fun reads) and almost all of her books feature a main character who is infertile. Even the very popular True Blood books sort of deal with it – vampires can’t have children, and one of the weres has had many miscarriages.

I waver back and forth between loving her depictions of infertiles (because infertility isn’t the central driving force in their lives) and hating her depictions of infertiles (because infertility isn’t the central driving force in their lives, of course!)

24 Kristin { 02.02.10 at 6:53 pm }

The Bernie Mac show also dealt with infertility although I didn’t get to see as much of the storyline as I would have liked (I think the show ended early because of his health).

25 Bea { 02.03.10 at 7:56 am }

Remember how you brought up a few fairy tales a couple of times? I think it’s been there prior to this.

I do also think that talking about it goes in and out of fashion, though. I think the technology and possibilities it represents is starting to make some people uncomfortable (as in, ordinary people, not those on the more extreme ends of the spectrum who object to any form of intervention at all) and I know that actually it started even before the technology was available, but remembering that the population at large is usually playing catchup with science fiction writers, readers, philosophers and scientists by a decade or two, I’d say we’re about seeing the broad extent of society’s musings now. Also, we’ve had ample time to thrash out the contraceptive pill and move on to fresher pastures…

Actually, that would be a good test. How much was being written about the contraceptive pill and related themes at the same point in its life cycle? What about other issues affecting women – liberalisation of divorce, rights of women in the workplace, etc? What about other social issues in general? My guess is that doing a comparative study would show that our fiction explores each new change and its ramifications – both actual and potential – in a predictable fashion, until society comes to grips with it thoroughly enough that the subject settles to background frequency again.

Thesis, anyone? Paper already published? But yes, I think we are just now – 30 odd years after IVF first worked – coming to that point in the life cycle of this ART, what with the (relative) affordability, success rates, therefore commonness, also the extra stuff we’re doing with it now such as donors, surrogacy, etc, and the same can be said for the advances in prenatal testing, care of sick and premie newborns. And a lot has been going on in other areas of medicine, but this comment is too long and it is too late to start musing over why ART or saving a premie baby generates more discussion than advances in the treatment of diabetes, say, which I think it does for various reasons.


26 jodifur { 02.03.10 at 9:06 am }

I’ve read most of the books you’ve mentioned, and I simply never noticed that. But I never struggled with infertility, and I think you notice things more when it is in your life. For example, my son is being tested for special needs, and now I see special needs children everywhere. Or I work in child abuse, and I’m very sensitive to abused children.

27 Flying Monkeys { 02.03.10 at 4:33 pm }

I’ve only recently read any of Weiner’s books and I love them. I think I noticed the theme from time to time pre infertility woes, sometimes after the woes I complete miss it. Maybe not when reading, because there was a time when I didn’t make time to read as often as I should have, but in other areas. Don’t laugh but there’s a scene in Dennis the Menace when Mrs Wilson tells Mr Wilson that it was him who was okay with not having children, she never was. I’ve often told my husband I didn’t want to be a Mrs Wilson. If we tried and it didn’t work that was different than not trying at all. (I could have read way too much into that scene too. I can do that.)
It seems when it is addressed outwardly it’s glossed by or quick fixed or the characters moved on without looking back or just never move on. It’s rare that it’s not over simplified.

28 Brandy { 02.08.10 at 12:39 pm }

I’ve been wondering this same thing recently. My book club has an uncanny knack for picking books that either deal with pregnancy/pregnancy loss/infertility.

The last book we read was Noah’s Wife, which is by an author from where I live (Birmingham, Alabama) and we were lucky enough to have her come to our meeting and discuss. The story had a small side story about a woman who tried and tried to get pregnant, but never did. I wasn’t able to gather up the courage to ask her about the storyline and why she wrote it. I think I’ll go email her now and ask.

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