To Be or Not To Be . . . Likeable

Among the many arguments swirling around the internet this week (I swear it must be something in the air, like pollen) is the brouhaha stirred up by Annasue McCleave Wilson’s  interview in PW with novelist Claire Messud.

In the course of interviewing Messud about her latest book, The Woman Upstairs, Wilson observed that:

I wouldn’t want to be friends with [the protagonist], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

To which Messud responded:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

Whereupon the literary blogoverse was plunged, as they say, into war. Panels of literary experts were assembled to discuss the relative literary merit of likeable and unlikeable characters; the interview question itself was more than once called out as sexist; and other authors and readers then took to the net in defense of likeable characters, and in opposition to the idea that reading for the company of such characters, like reading for the story, is a lower form of literary engagement.  (A few mostly-woman-shaped people also pointed out that women writers of both popular and literary fiction would do a far better job of combating sexism in literature and publishing if they had each others’ backs, rather than looking for opportunities to stick knives in them.)

What do I think?  Well:

I don’t subscribe to the castor oil theory of artistic merit. (“Yes, it tastes bad; but you should take it anyway, because it’s good for you.”)  I think that if you’re going to expect your readers to spend several hours in the company of a character, you damned well ought to give the reader something in return — maybe a likeable protagonist, maybe an interestingly unlikeable one; maybe an intricately convoluted plot; maybe exquisite prose and imagery; but by God, you’ve got to give them something.

Actually, I’ve always thought that Hamlet would have been fun to hang out with, in his Wittenberg days. And I kind of liked Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49.

3 thoughts on “To Be or Not To Be . . . Likeable

  1. Yes, we need something! Of course, not every reader is going to respond to every “something,” which is perhaps where some of the authors’ frustrations lie… but I would hope anyone who gets into writing understands that not every book is going to speak to every reader.

  2. For me it depends on the other aspects of the book: if I am reading a book focussing in detail on the daily life of a character then I need to have sympathy or empathy; if I am reading an action adventure where the character must save the world, then I can care not a jot for them personally if the plot is interesting.

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