Quantum Critique

Karen Shepard's debut novel, An Empire of Women, brings to mind that age-old quantum uncertainty principle: Does an artist change the nature of what she observes? The main character, Celine, a renowned photographer, has a rendezvous with the granddaughter she made famous through a series of provocative photos she took of her as a child. This relationship from opposite sides of the camera was inspired by the real-life controversy over Sally Mann's book of photographs, Immediate Family.

In Shepard's book, Celine's revealing photography affects the granddaughter in obvious ways. As a young adult, she is both confident of her beauty and fearful that she is as devoid of substance as her images.

The influence of art on family, whether positive or negative, is something the University of Houston Creative Writing Program graduate is familiar with. Her own grandmother is Han Suyin, a Chinese activist, author of A Many-Splendored Thing, and admittedly "one-third" inspiration for Celine. Still, Shepard doesn't worry that her grandmother will take offense at inspiring such a narcissistic character. "I'm not really in contact with my grandmother, so I don't know what she thinks about the book. I assume she'd either be critical or say nothing." Her mother, however, has some difficulty separating the two. "[She has] to remind herself that it's not how I think about mothers and daughters generally, but these mothers and daughters."

That's the paradox. Artists want to capture life as a detached observer, yet that seemingly benign act has consequences. The kind of person capable of doing so without remorse has to be a little callous, egocentric and stubbornly beholden to her vision. In short, she has to be someone like Celine. And artists probably have a little more Celine in them than they'd ever care to admit.

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Dylan Otto Krider