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.
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.