Childfree fiction: The narcissism of small differences by Michael Zadoorian

Michael ZadoorianWhen I first started writing my comic novel The Narcissism of Small Differences, I hadn’t set out to write a book about a childfree couple. I don’t think I was even aware of the word “childfree” at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to write about my life as a creative person in my hometown of Detroit, my circle of friends, and the choices I made in my life. So I wrote about working in advertising and my early struggles as a fiction writer, as well as my generation’s challenges, our conflicts, our quirks, and the expectations that people had for us.

One of those expectations was about having kids. Yet my wife and I never wanted or planned to have children. There were a number of reasons why, which I don’t need to get into here, but those reasons certainly made their way into my book. In fact, it wasn’t long before the childfree aspect of the book made itself quite prominent.

Set in 2009 Detroit, The Narcissism of Small Differences is the story of Joe Keen and Ana Urbanek, an unmarried, unmortgaged Gen X couple with no interest in having children, much to the dismay of their midwestern parents and co-workers. Together for fifteen years, now on the cusp of forty, they are noticing that their relationship seems to be getting a bit stale. Both work at jobs that they’re not sure they believe in anymore, yet with varying returns. Ana is a successful advertising Art Director and Joe is a floundering free-lance writer.

Like myself and my wife, Joe and Ana have a wide circle of friends, many of whom are writers, musicians and artists, who also are childfree. That is, except for one outspoken character, a screenwriter, who can’t wait to have kids of his own. It wasn’t long before writing the book became a way to explore a childfree existence and to examine how the rest of the world perceives people who choose not to procreate.

I found myself writing dialogue between Joe and Ana about how the world thinks of them as “freaks” solely because they don’t have kids. In one scene, after a rash of pregnancies at the ad agency where she works, Ana starts to notice the other women treating her differently. In another scene, Joe and Ana discuss frankly about how their parents believe that they are self-absorbed simply because of their decision to not have a family.

So apparently, I wrote a childfree novel. I never called it that. It just turned out that way. It was only later, after the book came out, that I realized that to have a childfree couple in a novel, surrounded by other childfree characters, was a radical choice. This is sad to me. (Not to mention ridiculous, because “radical” is not a term I would use to describe myself.) And when I started to promote the book to childfree podcasts, organizations and groups, I realized what a dearth there was of books with childfree characters, which also exists in films, television and popular culture. Again, this is sad.

When the book was published, I also realized that it touched a nerve in certain readers. Though the book received very positive reviews in literary and library trade publications, in early reader reviews, I noticed that some repeatedly referred to Joe and Ana’s childfree status, and used the terms “selfish” and “self-absorbed.” I couldn’t help but to be amused that these readers were judging Joe and Ana the very way society judges them in the book. It wasn’t difficult to figure out what irked these readers.

Happily, I’ve heard from many more readers who were pleased to read about characters like Joe and Ana. They were grateful to see people who’d actually made the same choices as themselves in a novel. Of course, The Narcissism of Small Differences is not only about being childfree, it’s about love, fidelity, friendship, selling out, buying in, and the importance of being true to one’s self. It’s also about the families we create around ourselves when we don’t make them the traditional way.

It’s been gratifying for me to see the book find an audience with the childfree. I now recognize this as one of the reasons why I wrote the book in the first place — to represent myself and my wife and my friends who have made similar choices: to show us on the page. That right there would be enough, but to know that the book is making others feel represented is more than I could have hoped for.

The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian is available wherever books are sold. Right now, you can purchase it through Akashic Books with a special 30% discount. Simply enter the code ZADOORIAN30 for the discount.

Michael Zadoorian is the author of The Leisure Seeker, which was made into a film starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland and released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2018. His other books are The Narcissism of Small Differences, Beautiful Music, and Second Hand, as well as a story collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, American Short Fiction, Witness, Great Lakes Review, North American Review, Literary Hub, The Millions and The Huffington Post. He lives in the Detroit area. You can read more about his work on his website.

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