Looking For Friends In All the Wrong Places


In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud was asked a question about her novel, THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, that she didn’t like. Would you, the interviewer asked, want to be friends with your protagonist, Nora?

ClaireMessudByLuigiNovi1Messud exploded. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? … 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?’”

Reactions followed swiftly.  A panel of writers was assembled by the New Yorker and asked to weigh in on the issues raised by Messud’s comments. Let us assume that the tactful tone of their opinions was uninfluenced by the fact that Messud’s husband, James Wood, is the literary critic for the New Yorker. Jonathan Franzen’s admirably brief remarks began, “I hate the concept of likability,” which will come as no shock to those who remember Franzen declining Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement on the grounds that her viewers were not the right readers for his book.

Margaret Atwood allied herself firmly with Claire Messud. “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.… We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, that we would not like if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces, whether they be external (opponents of the heroine or hero) or internal (components of their selves).”

Donald Antrim seemed to suggest that concern over a character’s likeability arises from the author’s personal insecurity and need for approval.  “The author maneuvering for love is commonplace and ordinary, and the work of fiction that seductively asserts the brilliance or importance or easy affability of its creator is an insubstantial thing. I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”

jennifer_weiner_042011Next, in an article on Slate, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner weighed in on the side of likability, as one whose characters are often accused of same. She delivered short, devastating critiques of Messud’s latest novel and a memoir by Donald Antrim, along with a cringe-making quote from another Messud interview. “Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likable?’ and expect that to be compatible with serious literary endeavors,” Messud declared. “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.” Weiner went on to deconstruct these words as “the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.”

crayonsHer argument is against what she calls the “imagined popular/literary dichotomy.” The dismissive attitude of some female literary writers toward their more commercial sisters is not only pompous and self-aggrandizing, it also distracts from the real problems women writers face getting critical attention and respect. When publishers adopt the same attitude, the result is a narrowing of the field for all writers. “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.”

So where do I stand on all this? With one foot firmly in each camp, as it happens.

I agree with Weiner about the fallacy of the commercial/literary divide. My own books have been categorized variously as literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery. Those labels don’t define me as a writer; they’re just publishing shorthand for the convenience of booksellers and reviewers. Those of my novels critics deemed “literary fiction” are no better written than the ones called  mysteries. A poet is no less a poet for experimenting with different forms. Neither is a novelist. There is no dichotomy between literature and popular fiction; rather, there is a continuum calibrated not by genre but by the quality of the writing.

SerenaOn the other hand, I agree with Messud and Atwood that the demand of some readers for likable characters is problematic for writers with a harder edge. I found Gillian Flynn’s GONE, GIRL to be a brilliantly crafted novel and totally compelling read. It sold like hotcakes, too, so millions of people must have agreed with this assessment. But on Goodreads and many other online forums, one criticism came up with surprising frequency: “I didn’t like any of the characters.” Well, duh! Flynn’s protagonist was a psychopath, the equivalent of a Tom Ripley. So was Ron Rash’s Serena, who for pure evil could spit in the eye of Hannibal Lector.  You’re not supposed to like such characters; you’re supposed to watch in fascinated horror as they operate. Their difference from us—rule-abiding, housebroken, socialized us—is sort of the point of books like that.

But there are all sorts of books, and it’s nonsense to say that great literature is incompatible with likable characters. Elizabeth Bennett, anyone? Jo March? The Glass family? It takes a jaundiced soul to dismiss a protagonist like Huck Finn on the grounds of excessive likability.Huck Finn

It also disturbs me when writers instruct readers on how to read. Readers and writers occupy separate spheres. Reading and interpreting is the reader’s domain, writing is the author’s. As much as I appreciate my readers and value their feedback, I follow my own muse while writing. Writers who don’t want to be told what to write or how to write it  should extend the same courtesy to readers, including reviewers and interviewers.

As it happens, I was interviewed by Publishers Weekly about my novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, within a week or so of Messud’s interview. The questions were not, perhaps, what I would have chosen, but unless we go around interviewing ourselves, they never are. I answered courteously and as thoughtfully as I could, which I’ve always seen as part of the job. I could be wrong—snarkiness gets more attention—but it’s my own form of noblesse oblige.

Finally,  I would respectfully suggest that it’s better to let others praise one’s work as a “serious literary endeavor” than to do so oneself.


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Also, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available on Audible.com.

20 thoughts on “Looking For Friends In All the Wrong Places

  1. As to Messud’s reaction – my reaction to hers was You’re kidding me, right?? Anyone who is so thinned skin and who takes themselves and their work so seriously that they can’t come down from the steeple and mix with the people…should not be giving interviews.

    • I agreed with her on likability but agree with you on her tone. Sometimes happens when people start taking their own reviews too seriously. But I’m about to start her latest book, and look forward to seeing for myself what all the fuss is about.

  2. I agree with Messud. I don’t care if the characters in the book I’m reading are likeable. I just want there to be a point. I want them to be interesting. I can usually find someone in the story that I like. But yeah, I mean, who cares if I would be friends with a character? Even if I like them. Just because I like someone, that doesn’t mean I want to be friends with them.

  3. I don’t need characters to be likable. I do need to be able to relate to them in a small way though, I need to be fascinated by them. A character needs to be true to itself, if it’s written just to be kind, or just for shock purposes it generally comes off being one dimensional and therefore uninteresting.

    Out of curiosity, what kinds of questions would you ask yourself on an interview?

    • “Out of curiosity, what kinds of questions would you ask yourself on an interview?”

      Now that’s a tough one. Someone asked me to make up my own questions for an interview and I drew a complete and utter blank. I liked your interview questions, though, including the ones about how my background as a literary agent played into A DANGEROUS FICTION and the amount of research involved. A lot of readers assume that fiction writers just “make it all up,” not realizing how much work it takes to write convincingly about stuff you may not have known much about when you started.

      • Thank you, that means a lot. I don’t often do interviews because I have such a hard time coming up with questions and I don’t want to ask the same ones everyone else does.

  4. I can deal with — and even enjoy — reading about characters who aren’t likable is the author helps me understand why they are the way they are. Everyone has a narrative going on in their head about why they do what they do, why they’re the hero of their own tale. If the author makes that beleivable for me, then it can be fascinating to spend time with someone I’d probably avoid in real life.

    • “Everyone is the hero of their own tale…” Couldn’t agree more; for me, it’s a key insight that plays into whatever I write. indeed. And everyone likes to feel justified, which often requires some rearranging of reality.

  5. On the question of the divide between literary and commercial fiction … I just finished my first Stephen King novel, his latest from this summer, “Joyland.” Is it literature? Who cares? It’s a good story, well-written. (A bit slow through the first half, but it picks up.) Will it be taught in college classrooms? Probably not much. But when I was finishing it, it became clear to me why King has become such a bestseller. That’s what writers of all kinds should be after: touching people.

    • Lawrence, I read your comment just after reading a report in the NYT about an experiment social scientists just did involving reading. They had subjects read a few pages of a book, then tested them on social intelligence skills—reading faces, deducing motives, etc. They found that reading fiction helped every subject, but that reading literary fiction as opposed to genre or commercial fiction was markedly more effective. Their explanation was that the reader participates more in the “decoding” of literary fiction but is more of a passive passenger for commercial reads. It’s an interesting theory, but I’m not sure I buy it entirely, for the reason you enunciate. Good fiction touches people, changes them…and by good I don’t mean exclusively literary.

      • Interesting study, Barbara. (You remind me that I miss reading the New York Times more. Sounds just like a story you would find there, and perhaps nowhere else.)Anyway, a part of me tends to see the point. Yes, reading literary fiction is in some ways a richer experience. It’s also a bit more … work, for want of a better word. But we don’t always feel like a glass of French champagne. Sometimes Miller Lite is just the thing, you know?

        • Personally I’d take champagne over beer any time, but my readings tastes are more varied, so I know exactly what you mean. As it happens I’m reading the Messud book now. Terrific writer on a molecular, sentence-by-sentence level; but her main character isn’t just unlikable, she’s nearly drowning in self-pity. I’d rather have a monstrous MC than a pathetic one. Still, I keep reading for the sense of dread that keeps building.

  6. I don’t think it’s the likeability that makes or breaks the book – it’s whether the author manages to portray each character in such a way that the reader can empathise with them. I mean, Black Jack Randall is obviously a villain, but don’t we all empathise with him even the teeniest bit?
    The trouble with Gone Girl is that the end of the book doesn’t achieve any resolution, so whether you liked the characters or wanted to slap them upside the head – well, you never got your chance.
    And I was once given a Claire Messud book as a gift and couldn’t get into it…

    • Well, I’m about to start Messud’s latest. Lynne P. liked it, and I usually share her taste in books, so I’m willing to give it a try. A person can be an awful prig or huge egotist and still be a good writer.

      Not sure I agree with you on empathizing with really evil characters. Take Hannibal Lector. I loved him when he was pure, intelligent evil. In the last book, when the author tries to show what caused him to be that way and presumably make readers empathize, I lost all interest. Then there’s Ron Rash’s SERENA: evil through and through, a true psychopath, but fascinating. Some characters (and people) should be watched closely through bars.

  7. Hmm, you’re right, I’m not sure how empathetic I’d be towards Hannibal Lector. It’s kind of like empathising with Sauron, who really is pure evil (vs Melko, who might once have been redeemed…).

    • Sorry, Deniz, your comment got held back as pending for some odd reason. Anyway, we never meet Sauron, so it’s impossible to empathize with him, but I agree with you about Hannibal Lector. Who’s Melko?

Your thoughts?