November 18, 2014

Is “likeability” only an issue if the character is female?


What do you mean, you didn't like the protagonist?

What do you mean, you didn’t like the protagonist? (Via Shutterstock.)

Asked whether she’d want to be friends with the protagonist in her latest novel, Claire Messud famously quipped in an interview with Publishers Weekly last year, “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” Nora, the main character in The Woman Upstairs, might be described as an “art monster,” a term Jenny Offill coined in Dept. of Speculation.

Nora devotes herself to her work with fervor, but she also behaves in a way the reviewer disliked, which changed her experience with the book. How much should that be discussed in a formal or informal review? Moreover, how deep does likeability go? Are readers at fault for not taking time to get further in the characters’ heads, or are authors supposed to be held responsible for the questionable behavior of their characters?

Messud’s interview seemed to kick off more than a year of authors reflecting on the way the women in their novels were received, especially if the reviewer assumed some traits in their characters were drawn from the authors’ own lives. Edan Lepucki wrote a piece for The Millions this week on the reception of her characters, especially the female protagonist, in her novel California:

While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida “isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive.” I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn’t also have trouble with Cal, Frida’s husband; to me, they’re both flawed.  I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review.

Lepucki took the time to track down some of her Goodreads reviewers who had the strongest reactions to her characters.  One, Susan, took issue with her characters’ privilege. Another thought the protagonist behaved irresponsibly during her pregnancy.

Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can’t control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I’m  heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there’s often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, “A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero.”

Emma Jane Unsworth, author of Animals, said she loves a good anti-hero, especially if it’s a woman. In The Guardian yesterday, she said she knew she was taking a risk when she wrote fiction about two women who drink, have philosophical crises, and wander around the city at night. She says the two decisions an author makes that can damn a character are bad behavior and making unconventional life choices:

Female writers are too often conflated with their characters, as though women aren’t granted the same imaginative capacities; after all, how could a woman possibly create a monster without being one herself? There’s a reductiveness here, a critical meanness. We have a way to go before female characters can head out, undefined by gender, to seek the impossible meaning of it all.

Unsworth’s novel arrives at a moment when buddy comedies featuring female characters are having a moment, at least in television, with shows like “Broad City” gaining popularity. Why are we treating women in novels differently?

Roxane Gay  wrote for Buzzfeed in February, “An unlikeable man is inscrutably interesting; dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling even when he might behave in distasteful ways… When women are unlikeable it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike.” Lepucki and Gay have dealt with both kinds of reviewers, and it must be difficult to handle this kind of criticism gracefully.

Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back, experienced this conflation firsthand. She was surprised so many people asked of her book, “Has your husband read it?” In an essay for Powell’s, she breaks down different interpretations of this question:

I suppose those who have posed this question to me could be making the most innocent of inquiries; after all, it’s a normal enough thing to wonder about someone who makes any kind of art and has a spouse or partner. But the question still grates, because maybe what they mean is something more like, “Is your husband really OK with the fact that you wrote a book about someone who resembles you in several significant ways, and that person has sex with a lot of different people? Does your husband know that you may have had sex with a lot of different people? How does he feel about that, if so? And if he’s OK with it, do you know how lucky you are?”

Even if the asker doesn’t realize those are the questions buried in their question, those are the questions I hear. And I can’t help but think they wouldn’t ask a male writer that question — had he written such a promiscuous disaster of a semi-autobiographical male character, he would more likely be asked, “What are you working on now?” or “What’s your writing routine?” or “Who has influenced you as a writer?” Because people are less likely to care whether or not a man has a partner in the first place, and certainly less likely to ask questions that subsume the man’s creation under the realm of his partner’s consumption and/or approval.

It’s as if I’m being asked, “By whose authority does this telling take place?” and all I want to say is, “Mine, and mine alone.”

When authors are asked whether their fiction is autobiographical, it’s often a question of whether they should be held accountable for their characters’ bad behavior. Or, as Tierce points out, whether they have the authority to tell the stories they want to tell. Which, of course they do.

But we have to hope the negative criticism won’t discourage these authors from writing complex characters. Especially characters with unconventional appearances or backgrounds or dark secrets. Characters who aren’t immediately attractive, or using the worst word in an undergraduate classroom, “relatable.” If characters always behaved well, why would we pick up books at all? In the words of Lionel Shriver, “Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.”


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.