I Like Likable Characters

And I don’t like female novelists’ new method of dismissing other female writers.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Quick: What’s the most unforgivable sin a writer can commit in fiction? A writerly crime so awful that major, award-winning novelists are condemning it on the pages of Publishers Weekly and inveighing against it in The New Yorker? If you said lazy plotting, dull language, or cardboard-thin characters, well, shame on you. Currently, the most gauche thing a modern-day writer can do is write protagonist who is—oh, the horror—likable.

Author Claire Messud.
Writer Claire Messud recently decried an interviewer’s question about her character’s likability.

Courtesy of Lisa Cohen

Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?

Step back in time with me a few weeks. In a Publishers Weekly Q-and-A about her novel, The Woman Upstairs, literary novelist Claire Messud went all Jersey Housewife on interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson. Messud’s protagonist Nora Eldridge is an angry woman, a character Messud says fills a void: “Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, 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.” When Wilson asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud did everything but flip the table as she answered:

“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. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

Cries of “Preach!” and “This” filled social media. Messud emerged as the bad-ass heroine of every writer who’d ever been asked a dumb, sexist question. “Dopy,” “condescending,” “reductive,” “silly” said the journalists. Not just silly, but sexist, said Messud. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review’s podcast, Messud said, “I couldn’t help but feel that it was a gendered question. I don’t think we as readers expect to identify with or admire male protagonists, and I suddenly had a feeling that there was this expectation of a woman protagonist by a woman reader.”

Page-Turner, the books blog at The New Yorker (where Messud’s husband, James Wood, is the literary critic), quickly assembled a panel of prestigious novelists to discuss—and, ultimately, condemn—the notion of likability. While there was talk about the rules of creating a fictitious universe, and how what we find compelling on the page we might not want in, say, a roommate, the verdict was pretty unanimous: Likable equals bad. “I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down,” sniffed Donald Antrim. “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters,” said Margaret Atwood.

Meanwhile, Meg Wolitzer, whose novel The Interestings is getting the kind of big-book attention that all literary writers crave but very few writers, and even fewer women, ever receive, recently told Salon, “One thing I’ve noticed that’s a kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel ‘comfortable’ around—what I call slumber party fiction—as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.”

Messud and Wolitzer and The New Yorker’s panel imagine a dichotomous world—black or white, commercial or quality, literary or lovable. But it isn’t always that simple. For one thing, the furious, vengeful, ranting lady isn’t quite “the invisible woman” Messud imagines—not even in the realm of best-selling literary novels. Think of Ruth, the titular character of Fay Weldon’s Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, or Eva Khatchadourian, the conflicted mother of the born-bad (or was he?) son in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, or the loyal-to-a-fault best friend Barbara in Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? Messud’s Nora doesn’t quite fit in with that sisterhood. 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.

It’s no wonder that Messud feels the need to assert, again and again, that she is about serious business, that The Woman Upstairs is literary—the kind of book that aims to be a Great Novel. “Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likable?’ and expect that to be compatible with serious literary endeavors,” she warned, in an interview with Canada’s National Post. “That’s not what it’s about. If you want self-help that’s going to make you feel good, or you want the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, fantastic, that’s a great thing to read, I have no complaints about that. But it’s not compatible with serious endeavor.” Absent her assertions, absent her reputation and previous reviews, the reader would be forgiven in wondering about the literary merits of a character who comes off like a curdled Bridget Jones, a singleton past her sell-by date who is angry at her Smug Married friends for the sin of being more talented and successful than she is.

A relatable protagonist was not what Messud was after. The author has made clear how uncomfortable she is with the notion that readers or critics might think she writes on the popular side of her imagined popular/literary dichotomy. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Messud sounded positively dismayed when describing the success of her novel The Emperor’s Children: “I feel that I have an impractical and deleterious snobbery about the relation of literature to the market,” Messud says. “I thought, I’ve become the kind of crap you buy at airports!

But what’s wrong with the kind of books that are sold at airports? (It’s hard not to imagine aspiring or mid-list novelists tentatively raising their hands and saying, “Hey, if she doesn’t want her books sold at airports, please feel free to sell mine”—and frequent fliers pointing out that you can buy Jonathan Franzen in most major hubs.) What’s so bad about the kind of character who would make good company during a six-hour flight when you’re crammed in next to a narcoleptic elderly man who sprawls across your personal space, smelling of crotch and Ben-Gay?

As a writer whose main characters have been both praised and criticized as likable (this, in spite of one protagonist who spends chapters fantasizing about murdering her husband and making it look like a shaving accident), I had a complicated reaction to Messud’s rage. Messud sounds so fierce, so unassailably correct in her assertion that if you’re reading to make friends, you are Doing Reading Wrong. But while there are plenty of complicated, flawed, unlikable heroes in literature, it’s just as easy to rattle off dozens of characters who do, in fact, feel like friends: Francie Nolan, Anne Shirley, Meg Murry, Jo March. Offred and Clarissa Vaughn. Arya Stark. Billy Bathgate. Isadora Wing, Huck Finn. Every character in Anne Tyler’s books. Many of the women in Stephen King’s. Calliope in Middlesex and Quoyle in The Shipping News and Yossarian in Catch-22.

I don’t care if it’s supposed to be wrong. I will freely admit to reading books to find friends. I did it when I was young, and friendless; I do it now that I’m an adult, and my social situation is somewhat improved. Sure, I’ll stick with a compelling villain, or a warts-and-all portrayal of a real person (I stuck with Donald Antrim’s memoir, and the chapter he devoted to buying, and then returning, a $7,000 bed, which he then tried to link, metaphorically, to his dying mother). I will sit through Difficult Listening Hour, but I won’t deny myself the pleasures of a funny, frank, intimate take on being a mother, a wife, a woman whose dreams have been thwarted by her real-world responsibilities. If that makes me, somehow, a lesser reader or even a lesser human being, I think I’ll find a way to sleep at night. Not metaphorically linking my bed to my mother ought to help.

What bothers me about this latest flare-up is that it feels like just one more way for literary women writers to dismiss commercially successful women writers. It used to be a writer could just turn up her nose at chick lit, and say, “Oh, I don’t read those books, I don’t read books with that stuff on the cover, and I certainly don’t write books like that.” Only now that nobody seems quite sure what chick lit is, and everyone has recognized that authors—especially female ones—don’t always have control over how their books end up looking, a new code word is required. That word has become likable. Calling a novel’s characters the L-word doesn’t just imply that the author in question is writing like a girl; it hints that she is writing like the wrong kind of girl—a dumb, popular, easy girl.

So on the one hand, we have women writers who are insisting—repeatedly, at top volume—that their books are real writing, “serious literary endeavors,” and holding up their unlikable characters as evidence. On the other hand, we have writers being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales.

I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously. Most women writers don’t have it as good. Meredith Maran recently published a piece about women writers being pressured to make their heroines less raging and ranty, more familiar and fun. I’ve heard, for years, anecdotes about young women writers being told to “chick lit” it up—to make their leads less bitter and biting, more sweet and self-deprecating, or else no one would buy what they were selling. Authors are placed on one side or another of that pop/lit divide, and prohibited from using all the crayons in the box. They’re stuck with their particular color palette: pretty pastels if they write commercial fiction, and darker browns and grays to be considered literature.

Ideally, our shelves, and even individual books, should contain the rainbow. There should be room for everyone: for the lovable and the despicable, for Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter, for Bridget Jones and even the poor, scorned Ya-Ya Sisterhood. When a Wikipedia editor sequesters “female” novelists in their own private category, when publications like Harper’s and the Atlantic review one woman for every four men, women writers should have better things to do than rolling their eyes at each other’s endeavors. Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?