It’s been a little more than a year since Claire Messud’s infamous interview with Publisher’s Weekly about her novel, The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer, Annasue McCleave Wilson, commented that she wouldn’t want to be friends with the protagonist. Messud tartly replied, “What kind of question is that?” And she was right. A character’s likability is not important.
Last night, I was listening to another installment of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I am really enjoying the story and having someone (actually two someones) read it to me reminds me of when my parents used to read me and my siblings to sleep (but that’s another post)*. The story is narrated in turns by Nick and Amy Dunne. As I listened to the narrator read out portions of Amy’s journal, I realized that I really didn’t like her. Amy is arch, pretentious, and incomplete as a person (but not as a character). If I met her, I wouldn’t want to be friends with her. That’s not going to put me off the book, however. I am fascinated by the character. And that’s when I had my little epiphany.
|Snape says, “Read it anyway.”|
In the past, the only characters I’ve really been put off are not the unlikable ones. It’s the ones that actually repulse me that I don’t like. I love reading well-drawn villains: Iago, Captain Ahab, Bill Sykes. A character that will make me stop reading a story are evil for no reason, who go above and beyond even the goriness of mysteries and thrillers. Or there are characters like Humbert Humbert from Lolita, whose predilections are so repellent that I don’t want to find out more. I can read—and even enjoy—about villains and unsavory types in a book as long as there’s a purpose for their presence. Likability is overrated.
Likability is also a weak criteria. People say they like or dislike things all the time. Facebook has made the terminology ubiquitous. It’s used to the point now where it doesn’t really mean anything. If I’m talking books or movies or art or whatever with someone and say they like something, I will press them until they tell me specifics. You can’t have a meaningful conversation if you never rise above the level of like.
The more I think about this, the more I’m reminded of a post I wrote a year or so ago about pushing yourself to read challenging books. Reading a character you personally don’t like could be another kind of challenge you set for yourself.
* Are you allowed to put two parenthetical asides into one sentence? I don’t care; I’m doing it anyway.