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“Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likeable?’
May 10, 2013 2:55 PM   Subscribe

Claire Messud: “A woman’s rant” [National Post] "Over the last week, discussion surrounding Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs, has shifted from the book to an interview its author recently gave to Publishers Weekly, in which Messud took issue with the following question: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

"It seems every cultural essayist or literary critic has voiced his or her feelings over the past few days, with most agreeing that, yes, it was a dumb question."
posted by Fizz (23 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sometimes I read books with subjects/characters I find disagreeable. Reading Nabokov's Lolita doesn't mean I have to sympathize with Humbert or condone paedophilia.
posted by Fizz at 2:57 PM on May 10, 2013


A new question? I feel like the notion of "likeability" has been a major theme in every creative writing workshop or class I've ever taken. I don't know that I agree with it wholly, but the idea that you have to like (or at the very least relate to) the main character in order to be invested in the book is almost as cliche a piece of writing advice as "write what you know."
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:08 PM on May 10, 2013


I don't know, HH is despicable, but in his ingratiating psychopath way he's very likable. I wouldn't want to spend time with him, pedophile or not, but Nabokov made his inner voice absolutely hilarious.
posted by monocyte at 3:11 PM on May 10, 2013


Reading Nabokov's Lolita doesn't mean I have to sympathize with Humbert or condone paedophilia.

Which is in part the genius of it. I mean, really great literature can make you kind of like really awful people.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:11 PM on May 10, 2013


It can certainly help, though - I gave up on The Idiot three quarters through because I realised I hated everyone in the book, and I don't need to resort to literature to find people that annoy me.
posted by jacalata at 3:18 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


because I realised I hated everyone in the book, and I don't need to resort to literature to find people that annoy me.

This is one reason why I love literature and think it necessary. That we must sometimes place ourselves in points of view and positions that are contrary to our own.
posted by Fizz at 3:20 PM on May 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not a stupid question. It's a stupid response to attack the questioner.

"I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?"
"That's not the point, though. You see..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:33 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having done author Q&A's myself, I agree heartily with Cool Papa Bell.

I have to say, though, that asking myself if I'd be friends with a character is not a criterion that would ever occur to me. I love to read about dislikable characters.
posted by scratch at 4:16 PM on May 10, 2013


I can see male authors being asked about a character's likeability, but I have a hard time picturing an interviewer asking a male author if they would want to be friends with their protagonist. I definitely think it's a gendered question, in addition to being a slightly strange one. There are, and always have been, fascinating protagonists that no one in their right mind would want to be friends with. It's beside the point, really.

Sure, Messud could have been more diplomatic in her response, but why? I think the reason she responded the way she did is because she is aware of, and fed up with, the multiple and ridiculous ways that female authors are treated differently than male authors. Yes, this example is just one question, but there is a strange and pervasive sexism in the literary/publishing world that persists even to 2013. This recent post about the Orange Prize has many, many examples of it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:41 PM on May 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't see why that question implies that the questioner thinks that for a book to be good, worthwhile, or even acceptable, the main character should be likeable.
posted by Flunkie at 4:53 PM on May 10, 2013


There's already a pretty good discussion of this at Crooked Timber.
Also, I'm about halfway through Messud's book and really enjoying it. If this mini-controversy has achieved nothing else, at least it led me to a good book.
posted by uosuaq at 5:23 PM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


'I wouldn't want to be friends with Patrick Bateman, would you?'
posted by shakespeherian at 6:05 PM on May 10, 2013


'I wouldn't want to be friends with Patrick Bateman, would you?'
posted by shakespeherian at 9:05 PM on May 10 [+] [!]


Let's ask Bret.
posted by Fizz at 8:01 PM on May 10, 2013


I watch Justified and I don't like anyone on that show. I watched The Shield and I liked Lem. Almost quit watching it after he died. I watch Game of Thrones and they've killed everyone I like except for the little Stark girl. I read Steven Erikson and he has few likable characters. I could go on all day.

I still don't think it's a bad question.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:48 PM on May 10, 2013


The question thst frustrated Messud so much makes me want to revisit the coverflipped post from a few days ago.
posted by estlin at 10:06 PM on May 10, 2013


I'm surprised none of the responses I've seen have touched on genre vs literature. In many genres of genre fiction, like romance, mystery and fantasy, it's important for the main character to have an element of likability about them. Unlikable characters are a very tough sell, both to publishers and to readers.

(For example, Agatho at Mysterious Matters, an anonymous blog from the editor of a small mystery press, on one of the reasons he rejects manuscripts:
Protagonist is amoral or immoral, or appears to be so. Readers need someone to like, to root for. And over the years I've been amazed by the reasons that readers will turn against a protagonist, for fairly small infractions or moral hiccups. Even in the hardest-boiled books, the best protags have strong moral centers and a desire to do justice or help the downtrodden.
That's generally a very interesting blog on mystery writing and small press stuff, btw.)

Which makes me wonder if what Claire Messud is really responding to is the idea that, because she's a female writer, her work must be genre and thus follow the genre conventions of likability.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens to female writers all the time. It's often been pointed out in the last few years that when men write about people and relationships, it's classified as "fiction", but when women do the same thing, it's "women's Fiction". Protagonists of fiction don't necessarily have to be likeable. Protagonists of women's fiction do.

Sometimes you get tired of being constantly reminded that you're not an X, but a Female X.
posted by Georgina at 10:12 PM on May 10, 2013


I think unlikable characters can be quite fun.
posted by Gymnopedist at 10:22 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why are we so afraid of angry women?
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:53 PM on May 10, 2013


Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters?
A recent interview with author Claire Messud raises questions about how gender affects reading.

"Gender perception can be a pernicious thing: Where a lack of warmth passes in a male, in a woman, it's deadly. Messud is correct to point out that what is simply dangerous in a man is often seen as unacceptable in a woman. In fact, I would go a step further. Where anger can be seen as a relative positive in a man, it is hardly ever perceived as anything other than a negative in a woman. Consider: Assertiveness is repeatedly ranked as a positive, important central trait in males. In something known as the halo effect, we tend to evaluate secondary characteristics in light of the overarching primary ones that we look for. So, when we think of a male as assertive (good), we will likely reinterpret his anger as just a facet of that assertiveness. If we see a woman as lacking in warmth (bad), anger becomes a sign of her, to borrow McCleave's words, unbearable grimness."
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:54 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The comments to the original interview are interesting.

The (female) reviewer claims that "gender never crossed my mind", but when you're interviewing about a novel that opens up saying
what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL. Don’t all women feel the same?
[emphasis added]

...not "doesn't everyone feel the same," but "don't all women feel the same"; and where that interviewee has just said:
it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.

to say that gender never crossed her mind in asking the question is so very WTF.

Lovely example of the tone argument just below in the comments as well: "If Messud wanted to make a point about expectations and double standards where women characters are concerned, she could have done so more graciously." There's a weird parallelism where an author is questioned about the angryness of her female protagonist and then told, well, if you want to defend your angry character, you don't need to be so ANGRY about it.
posted by drlith at 6:16 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Protagonist is amoral or immoral, or appears to be so. Readers need someone to like, to root for. And over the years I've been amazed by the reasons that readers will turn against a protagonist, for fairly small infractions or moral hiccups. Even in the hardest-boiled books, the best protags have strong moral centers and a desire to do justice or help the downtrodden.

This is so bizarre to me. Thomas Ripley? Dexter Morgan? Many versions of Sherlock Holmes (or Holmes-type characters)?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:35 AM on May 11, 2013


I gave up on the Thomas Covenant books, and I told myself it was because I loathed the main character. But on the other hand I found Lolita an enjoyable read, even if I did want Humbert to walk into an open manhole cover. Now I'm thinking that maybe something else influenced me in discarding the Thomas Covenant series, but the strongest emotional reaction I had from reading it was dislike for the protagonist, so that's what stuck in my mind as my reason for disliking the books altogether.
posted by Harald74 at 5:15 AM on May 13, 2013


Author Jennifer Weiner responds:

Instead of asserting her rage and then showing readers its consequences through an action-packed, shock-filled plot, or gradually revealing herself as something other than what she seems, Nora tells us she’s angry. Then she shows us why she’s angry, building up to her best friend’s betrayal. Then she spends another few chapters telling us, again, how very angry she is, and promising, finally, to do something about it. “There’s no telling what I might do,” Nora warns, in the book’s penultimate pages. “My anger is prodigious. My anger is a colossus. I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough … before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.” Which, of course, is what we’ve been doing for the length of the novel. There’s no payoff—just a 300-page immersion in the acid bath of Nora’s misery, her jealousy, her lack of compassion, her towering sense of entitlement.
posted by spaltavian at 11:23 AM on May 22, 2013


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