Reading to Find Life vs. Like

It happens more often than we’d like: While swapping book recommendations with friends, someone inevitably says, “I tried reading that, but the main character was just so unlikable.” At Bas Bleu, we believe that every reader is entitled to his or her opinion, but the frequency with which we hear the above statement begs the question:

Does a protagonist’s likability determine whether or not a novel is worth reading?

This issue regularly rears its head in the reading world, from book-club gatherings to classrooms to the literary blogosphere. In April of this year, Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, ignited a firestorm when she lambasted an interviewer’s critique of her protagonist’s likability:

“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?'”

Bestselling novelist Jennifer Weiner countered with a long list of beloved—and, yes, likable—fictional characters, including Anne Shirley, Jo March, Meg Murry, Huck Finn, and Billy Bathgate:

“I don’t care if it’s supposed to be wrong. I will freely admit to reading books to find friends. I did it when I was young, and friendless; I do it now that I’m an adult, and my social situation is somewhat improved. Sure, I’ll stick with a compelling villain, or a warts-and-all portrayal of a real person […] but I won’t deny myself the pleasures of a funny, frank, intimate take on being a mother, a wife, a woman whose dreams have been thwarted by her real-world responsibilities. If that makes me, somehow, a lesser reader or even a lesser human being, I think I’ll find a way to sleep at night.”

For their part, the folks over at the New Yorker convened a special panel on the topic, asking Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, and other writers to take a stance on character likability. Each made a powerful argument (Franzen wins for funniest, though we’re not sure that’s the tone he was going for), but a reader would be forgiven for wondering if everyone is making much ado about nothing.

They’re not.

According to Oregon State University English professor Evan Gottlieb, identifying with characters in literature is a relatively recent trend. He says it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that writers of Western literature began making a concerted effort to create “realistic” characters, rather than symbolic ones (i.e. Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress or the travelers from The Canterbury Tales). In 1818, when she penned Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley “showcase[d] the genre’s newfound ability to immerse readers in the complicated psychologies of its main characters.” As novels gained popularity, writers realized readers actually would pay to read about complex characters, paving the way for a new breed of literary heroes—and villains.

But what exactly makes certain protagonists unlikable? Is it that they commit terrible acts or otherwise behave in ways we don’t approve of? Crime fiction is rife with deeply flawed protagonists (seriously, are all gumshoes recovering alcoholics with three ex-wives?), yet readers rarely criticize them for it. Are these troubled crimefighters redeemed by their work? Or are the heroes and heroines of certain genres held to different standards than others?

Maybe we respond negatively to certain characters because they are the people we don’t have the courage to be, or fear we would become without personal and societal inhibitions. When Henrik Ibsen published A Doll’s House in 1879, audiences were shocked by the character of Nora Helmer, aghast that a middle-class wife and mother would abandon her family to pursue her own happiness. But how much of that righteous indignation was a mask for the women who saw something of themselves in Nora…and the husbands who feared just that? Wuthering Heights is a cornerstone of gothic romance, yet who among us would actually want to date Cathy or Heathcliff? In the real world, we know those two are toxic, but, by God, it makes for good reading! More recently, husband-and-wife protagonists Nick and Amy Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller Gone Girl, aren’t anyone’s idea of great next-door neighbors, yet they were the talk of booklovers everywhere in 2012.

Our verdict? They’re all right: Messud, Weiner, the New Yorker’s distinguished panel. There is much to be gained from giving our attention—safely, on the page—to a dangerous or unlikable person. Just because a character behaves in an appalling or unrelatable manner doesn’t mean she lacks redeeming qualities or fails to serve a great story. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with liking a protagonist who is kind, funny, loyal, and good. Perhaps the greater crime is limiting ourselves as readers only to what we know, what we’re comfortable with, what inspires the same emotion every single time. Just as our everyday lives are richer for the diversity of people rotating through them, our reading lives take us further when we reach beyond our literary comfort zone.

So take a chance on a new author, a new genre, or just that novel your best friend has been urging you to read for the last six months. Whichever book you choose, keep Professor Gottlieb’s words in mind:

“Novels have shown themselves to be remarkably effective, durable technologies for encouraging us to extend our understanding to others, no matter how different or unlikable they might initially appear. And if that isn’t a good reason to pick up a good book, then I don’t know what is.”

3 thoughts on “Reading to Find Life vs. Like

  1. Years ago. when I first was introduced to literature, the nuns taught us to read “about” the characters, not judge them. I had a nun who told us, “book are stories to entertain us, challenge us and teach us. Read the story.” I tried to keep her advice in mind while reading every book I was assigned and I was quite successful. Today, I must confess I’ve become lazy. I read books, judging each character and if I find the protagonist unlikable, I sometimes say the book isn’t worth reading or a waste of my time. Shame on me.

    • And thanks for sharing this with us, Judy. An unlikable protagonist doesn’t necessarily signify a bad book; I disliked both protagonists from Gone Girl but found the book well worth my time!

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