May 2, 2013

Madwoman in PW: Claire Messud responds to sexist questions


Claire Messud

Women face a deeply double pressure to please, to be likable—to be made of suger, spice, and everything nice. In the world of fiction, that pressure falls on their characters. When Publisher’s Weekly recently charged Nora Eldridge, the angry central figure of Claire Messud‘s new novel The Woman Upstairs, with extreme unlikability, the author rose to her character’s defense in a rage of her own, decrying the false equation of likability with literary merit.

The Publisher’s Weekly interview leads with, “Claire Messud boldly goes into territory more commonly embraced by her male counterparts.” Discussing the anger of Nora Eldridge, Messud says:

I’ve long felt passionately about fictions that articulate anger, frustration, disappointment…these books I love, they’re all books by men—every last one of them. 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: the voice of an angry woman.

In his review of the novel, Ron Charles noted the widespread and ridiculous disparagement the angry female voice continues to generate:

The Woman Upstairs arrives at a curious time in our national conversation about gender roles. Decades after the protests over the Equal Rights Amendment, “angry feminist” is still a slur, as though anger were a ridiculous reaction to persistent social inequality. Worse, the words “bitter” and “shrill” sit in their silos, ready to be launched at any woman who drops her pleasant smile while debating day-care availability, reproductive rights or sexual harassment.

David Daley called what comes next in the Publisher’s Weekly interview another “reductive media question about the likability of her main character — a question that might not be posed to a male author in quite this way.” Annasue McCleave Wilson lamely asks Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Enter the brilliant smackdown that has been making the rounds on Twitter:

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?”

Novelist Paula Bomer made a similar statement in Full Stop recently:

The reader who is interested in liking characters is just not going to be my kind of a reader. If they can’t like a character because that character has a bunch of flaws or they’re doing something wrong, what does that say? Who are these people? Forget about characters in books, but if I didn’t like humans in general, and I didn’t like them because they had flaws, or were in trouble, then I wouldn’t have any friends. Where are these mythically perfect people?

The question shouldn’t be, “Is the angry Nora Eldridge likeable? Would I want her as a friend?” But rather, “Is Nora Eldridge an interesting and real human being?” I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m inclined to say yes.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.