In an interview with Claire Messud about her new novel, The Woman Upstairs, Publisher’s Weekly posed this question about the book’s main character: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” In response, Messud unloaded:
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?”
The editors of The New Yorker pointed to this as an example of “a critical double standard—that tormented, foul-mouthed, or perverse male characters are celebrated, while their female counterparts are primly dismissed as unlikeable,” and convened a roundtable on the issue of fictional characters’ “likeability.” From Margaret Atwood’s contribution:
Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters. For those who want goodigoodiness, there are some Victorian good-girl religious novels that would suit them fine.
Also, what is “likeable”? We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, though we would not like it 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).
Do women writers get asked this more than male ones? Bet your buttons they do. The snaps and snails and puppy-dog’s tails are great for boys. The sugar and spice is still expected for girls.
And here’s Jonathan Franzen’s response:
I hate the concept of likeability—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.