Blogging the Caine Prize: "What Molly Knew" (and a bit of a rant about Nice Writer Fiction)

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. The other posts about this story so far can be read at: Method to the Madness, Africa is a Country, and The Oncoming Hope. To keep up with it all, follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)

Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew" (PDF) tempts us toward reading it as allegory -- indeed, some of the other bloggers have read the story that way, and I expect it is its allegorical possibilities that landed it a nomination for the prize (it has few other distinguishing virtues that I can see), but I resist granting it many layers of meaning because I find the unallegorized story and its characters clunky, forced, and utterly unconvincing.

It may be that Tim Keegan intended his characters to stand for various tendencies within South African society and history; this would at least partly explain why they feel to me like wind-up dolls. Molly is the suffering, abused wife who doesn't have the will to leave her nasty, brutish husband, Rollo. Sarah is Molly's daughter, politically progressive and generous and good and lovely and apparently abused or raped by Rollo when she was young. Tommy is her mixed-race husband ("more black than white, to judge by his appearance"), an ANC member and the target of all suspicions and slanders by all white people. The story begins with Tommy calling Molly to tell her that Sarah has been shot and killed, and it ends when Molly finds a letter buried behind her house, a letter from Sarah to Rollo saying she's coming over with Tommy to confront Rollo and get an apology from him, or else she's going to the police. We can assume from this that Rollo was the person who shot her. Molly burns the letter and continues making excuses in her mind for Rollo's various abuses.

This is Nice Writer Fiction. Tim Keegan clearly does not like racism or domestic abuse. We, too, do not like racism or domestic abuse, and so we can read the story and feel all the proper emotions. Nasty Rollo! Poor, deluded, weak Molly! Good Sarah! Wronged Tommie!

Perhaps such stories are useful in elementary schools as ways to socialize children and teach them Important Moral Lessons, but Nice Writer Fiction is nauseating not just because dully good intentions lead to numb, static writing, but because it simplifies and panders.

Fiction is an excellent medium with which to explore racism, domestic abuse, and other social ills, and written fiction especially so, because it is such an intimate art form, one that allows us to view another person's thoughts and feelings in ways just about no other art can. The danger, though, is that the characters won't be as complex, contradictory, multifaceted, and vivid as actual human beings, and so the attempt to represent their thoughts and feelings will be not an expansion of the reader's empathic knowledge, but a reduction of it.

It's easy to feel sorry for Molly, and also to feel at least a tinge of contempt for her: Stupid woman, sticking with such a man! It's easy to hate Rollo. It's easy to feel anger that Tommie is so badly treated.

What would have been less easy? A story that shows us a glimpse of how a smart and thoughtful woman could stay with a terribly abusive man, and that didn't just make it a matter of doing so being easier than facing change or conflict -- a story that gave us some insight into and evocation of the conflicting emotions rather than just statements of them (and bland statements, at that). A story that showed how someone could love such a repulsive man as Rollo in the first place. A story that didn't make saints of its other characters. (For instance, Sarah apparently "recovered" her memories of Rollo abusing her via some sort of therapy Tommie provided -- or so Molly perceives it -- and, given how controversial the idea of repressed memories of sexual abuse is, what if Tommie, for political reasons of some sort, induced those memories in Sarah? Tommie's character would be a little more complex then, and Rollo's murder of Sarah would be, too, because we, good liberals that we are, wouldn't want to condone the inducement of false memories, but we'd also probably like Tommie more than Rollo and initially be willing to forgive him his lapses, but we'd also understand more of Rollo's act because a real wrong had been committed against him. Such a plot would raise some uncomfortable questions about agency in Sarah's case, and would make the story a portrait of double victimization of women [Sarah by Tommie; Molly by Rollo], and I'm not sure that victimization stories are to be preferred over Nice Writer Fiction, but at least there would be a bit more complexity.)

The worst writing isn't incompetent writing; the worst writing is easy, familiar writing, writing that begs for obvious emotions, writing that flatters the reader. Rote feeling simplifies the world, and it is counterproductive to the writer's nice intentions, because rote emotions do not make us reflect on our actions or attempt to change them, and rote knowledge does not keep us aware of the many forces that create and perpetuate oppression.

Occasionally, Nice Writer Fiction can overcome its limitations through a particular clarity or originality of language or structure, but usually the unexamined simplicity in the conception tyrannizes every other element of the story, too. Clichés of thought synergize with clichés of expression. This fault is particularly strong in "What Molly Knew", a story that is flat-footedly pedestrian in its language and structure.

It's entirely possible that criticizing this story so strongly is, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, like putting on full armor to attack a hot fudge sundae ("What Molly Knew" isn't even a hot-fudge sundae, though; it's a cup of vanilla soft-serve). If it hadn't been nominated for the Caine Prize, and I happened to come upon it during the regular course of reading, I really wouldn't care much. If somebody else praised it, c'est la vie and de gustibus and all that jazz.

But it is nominated for a Caine Prize. It could win. It has gained international attention, and will be viewed as an exemplar of not just South African fiction, but of all fiction written on the continent today. I am aghast at the thought that people will read this story as among the best work coming from African writers.

[Update 6/18: Aaron liked the story a whole lot more than I did, and eloquently and incisively explains why in his post.]