A few weeks ago, I read the much discussed Publishers Weekly’s interview with Claire Messud about her new novel, The Woman Upstairs. Because I loved The Emperor’s Children and want to read the new book, I was really curious about what she’d say, and I was thrilled when she responded to the particularly irritating question of “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [her protagonist], would you?” with the sharp response, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of a question is that?” followed by an evisceration of said question. Alone in my office, I almost stood up and cheered, but I didn’t want to scare my rabbit. So instead I mentally high-fived Erin and emailed her the link. (I’m sure she mentally high-fived me back.)
Then today I came across Jennifer Weiner’s response to this interview on Slate, called I Like Likeable Characters. It takes not just Messud but also novelist Meg Wolitzer and several others to task for their statements about the relative importance of likeability in main characters. Basically, Weiner’s point seems to be that in saying that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable, these women are doing other female writers a disservice because they may like writing – and reading – about likeable women and men.
To say that I found her entire premise confusing is an understatement. The entire way through Weiner’s essay, I found myself saying, but that’s not the point, that’s not the point, that’s Not. The. Point. It seems like she’s dredging up her own personal issues and conflating them with the very real issue of sexism in the literary world, an issue Messud rightly points out when taking her interviewer to task. Meanwhile, not one of the several people Weiner quotes actually says likeability is a bad thing; it’s just that likeability shouldn’t have to be present in female characters for a book to do well. To me, this seems self-evident as I’ve read and enjoyed books with both male and female protagonists I wouldn’t want to get within ten feet of in real life. Check out the fascinating, engrossing novel A Carnivore’s Inquiry by Sabina Murray, for example, and tell me you’d want to spend some one-on-one time with that narrator. Shiver.
I’ll concede that some of the quotes make Messud sound like a bit of a literary snob, though I would argue there’s nothing wrong with that being somewhat of one myself. But the times that Weiner quotes Wolitzer, Wolitzer’s words seem to be dragged into the fray just because her latest novel, The Interestings, is doing well right now and she is another literary writer who has had the temerity to say something like she doesn’t like “slumber party fiction.” I don’t either, as a rule, because I’ve often found that kind of fiction to be lazy about fleshing out its characters into real people, instead content to rely on broad strokes and stereotypes to get the narrative job done. That makes things boring fast. But again, this isn’t Wolitzer attacking all likeable characters.
It isn’t until the last paragraph of the essay that Weiner says anything that I think is really important about the need of women to stick together, about the misogyny that can be present in the publishing and reviewing environment, about the inequities that persist. This is the important stuff, the stuff that we should be talking about. In addition, she doesn’t even begin to address the fact that she, Messud, and Wolitzer all write about a very particular piece of society (at least in all of their books that I’ve read, which is admittedly not all of them). They all write about middle- to upper-class white women and men, which is fine of course but obviously leaves a lot of people out of the equation.
What it seems to come down to is the fact that for Weiner this is a personal attack, the literary (white) female writer against the commercial (white) female writer. As the more commercial writer, I’m guessing it’s insulting to her that her books don’t get the attention of the literary elite, though she does quite well for herself saleswise and has tons of fans. But that has nothing to do with Claire Messud really. It isn’t what Messud’s interview was about, and it doesn’t mean that her reaction to that obnoxious question wasn’t a reasonable and necessary one. It doesn’t mean that female novelists are dismissing other female writers’ efforts, to paraphrase the subtitle of the Slate piece. These are totally separate issues, and there is no point in lumping them together because they don’t belong together. We’re talking about the likeability of characters here, not some tenuous connection between a woman writer expressing her opinion and a blanket judgment against all women writers. Regarding likeability of characters, Messud and Wolitzer are entitled to their own opinions. Weiner is entitled to hers. But it’s a mistake to suggest that likeability equals an insult when no one ever said that. It’s ridiculous to base an argument on this premise. The point of fiction isn’t to find people you relate to; that is the point of making friends in your life. The point of fiction is to make you think, to let you experience another world, to get outside your own head. If you don’t want to read a book where you can’t relate to the main character, okay. I think you’re missing out, but that’s your call. But there’s nothing inherently bad about having a protagonist you hate. It isn’t necessarily better or worse, it is just different. It’s a valid option, whether you (and your characters) are male or female.
And if we’re going to open up a real dialogue about these sorts of issues, why give it this mean girls tone? Why not talk about the pigeonholes that writers of color get put into all the time, or LGBT writers, and the issues they face? Why say instead – to quote Weiner – that “Calling a novel’s characters the L-word doesn’t just imply that the author in question is writing like a girl; it hints that she is writing like the wrong kind of girl—a dumb, popular, easy girl.” when literally no one said anything like that? It’s just a waste of time. We don’t need fake arguments when there are real battles to be fought.