You like me! You really like me!

“That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd…Certainly we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In reading Bad Feminist recently, I nodded my head so vigorously on so many occasions that I’m lucky I didn’t sprain my neck.  Among the calls to arms and insights and gems was the above quote, perfectly summing up my distaste for the prevailing wisdom on “likable” protagonists.  I mean, sure, there are books I don’t like and that I don’t recommend because of it.  But to reject a book because you don’t like the main character?

It’s an absurd objection to literature—often shorthand, I suppose, for “this book didn’t resonate with me and I need a thing to pin that on”—and totally irrelevant to whether or not one even likes a book.  If the book isn’t working, the unlikeable protagonist is going to stick out like a sore thumb to be sure, but I find it pretty hard to believe that anyone has never loved a book where they didn’t like the protagonist.  Gone Girl isn’t a massive bestseller because we all think Amy seems swell and Nick like the husband of our dreams.

I like my friends.  I like my family.  I like my colleagues.  Perfect to have brunch with, certainly, but you want to know a secret?  You couldn’t pay me to read a book about nearly any of them.

Likewise, I’m happy to read about a serial killer, but I’m not going to buy any BFF heart necklaces for us to wear.

So I’m with Ms. Gay–let’s stop talking about the likability of protagonists as if that’s what really matters.

9 Responses to You like me! You really like me!

  1. Leah Raeder says:

    Hear, hear. Claire Messud had an excellent rant about this a couple years ago. (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/56848-an-unseemly-emotion-pw-talks-with-claire-messud.html)

    An interviewer said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

    And Messud responded brilliantly:

    “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?'”

    • Lauren says:

      Yes! That interview is brilliant. I think Gay actually cited that passage in the essay, in fact. BTW, if you haven’t read Bad Feminist, Leah, I’d bet it’s up your alley.

  2. Jalisa Rogers says:

    I appreciate both Gay’s and your sentiment. Recently, a friend of mine said that a flaw of my manuscript was that my mc wasn’t likable. I agreed that she can be unlikable, but I didn’t see why it had to be a flaw. Some people are unlikable; that doesn’t mean the stories their lives tell are invalid.

    • Lauren says:

      I think people who have that complaint usually are failing to realize how often they’ve loved a book where the protagonist isn’t likable. (It’s possible some people truly never have, but oh the books they’ve missed!) I think more often than not, it’s what the person thinks is bothering them, not what’s actually bothering them. Of course, sometimes what you can learn from them is that there’s a problem to address, even if it’s not the problem they’re citing. I always advise my clients to listen to the fact that something isn’t working even if they don’t agree with the why–at least in the case that the critique comes from a credible authority.

      • D C DaCosta says:

        This is useful advise: “listen to the fact that something isn’t working even if they don’t agree with the why”.

        There can be many reasons “why” — first and foremost, that the audience isn’t used to the kind of story you are telling or to looking at the world from the point of view you present.

        OTOH, I discovered that I didn’t care so much whether or not my readers LIKED either the book or the hero — so long as they were ENGAGED. At a dinner party my Panel of Experts loudly and lengthily discussed and debated my first novel. Though none professed “liking” it, they could not stop talking about it.

        I’m satisfied with that, any time!

    • D C DaCosta says:

      One of my Panel of Experts (i.e., friends who read my drafts) stopped reading about 60% of the way through my first book and said, “Sorry. I can’t read any more. I just don’t find the hero likeable enough to go on.”

      My first thought was like yours, Jalisa: whether or not you like the guy, his story is valid and could be true (or, at least, I think so).

      My second thought was, I guess it depends on the reader. If you are looking only for entertainment, maybe you do have to like the protagonist. If you want to LEARN something, maybe you don’t.

  3. Well said! Agree, agree, agree.

  4. Thumbs up! I am on my way to direct a few people to this post. Thanks for writing it.

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