“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.