Like me!!!! (and not just on Facebook)

claire-messudPublisher’s Weekly annoyed novelist Claire Messud recently. Asked if she’d want to be friends with the protagonist of her latest offering, The Woman Upstairs, the author answered, “What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”

Messud went on to list a coterie of classic characters you wouldn’t want to be friends with: Mickey Sabbath, Hamlet, Macbeth, Oedipus, Antigone, any of the people in The Corrections… (She could have included any of the characters in Freedom, too, as far as I’m concerned.)

Speaking of The Corrections, author Jonathan Franzen has said this about “likeable characters”: I hate the concept of likability — it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook. You’d unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would. But not the ones you actually love.”

Personally I think Franzen’s comments are among the most intelligent things he’s ever said, and I’ve already called around asking how much it would cost me to have that quote engraved in a plaque to hang over my desk. Frankly I’ve never understood why people—particularly people today—are so obsessed with likeability. Go through any museum, park, or library and look at who the most venerated people are. Then read up on them, the ones who changed the world and likely made it a better place for you. Tell me how many of them sound “likeable.”

I have a theory that when most people complain about unlikeable characters,what they really mean is there was no one in the story—particularly the protagonist or main character—who reminds them of them. I see that as a reader so insecure they have to inject themselves and their views and mores into the story. And for me that’s antithetical to the very point of reading, or at least reading fiction, or at least reading good fiction.

Hopefully a great story teaches you something about things, shows you something about yourself. That can’t happen if the protagonist is blemishless and the antagonists are all one-dimensional, easy-to-spot baddies. There’s nothing I love more than when a character surprises, and goes off-kilter, or when an unlikeable character nonetheless has something interesting to say. Deborah Eisenberg has said she often assigns the points she wants to make to unsympathetic characters. And well she should. Life isn’t cut-and-dry. Life is complicated, very complex, and very gray, and one of the goals of literature is to help us learn to navigate that. Which is why I grimace when people say they didn’t like a book because a character wasn’t “likeable.” Call me biased, but somehow I don’t feel it’s the writer’s duty to feed the reader hot cocoa all the time. Life doesn’t, and literature is about life. Or is supposed to be. I like escapism too, but I don’t live on a diet of cocoa. Sometimes a tart orange is very refreshing.


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