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The latest scandal in the world of literature and the praise of likability

The latest scandal in the world of literature isn't much of a scandal, even by the standards of post-Vidal book-chat, but it has the Arts sections of online magazines talking, and it's a little bit interesting to me.

It concerns the novelist Claire Messud, author of "The Woman Upstairs." The scandal is that, during a fluffy promotional interview for her new book, Messud replied snippily to one of her interviewer's questions. That's the entirety of the scandal: boring, I know.
Referring to the main character of Messud's book, the interviewer remarked, "I wouldn't want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim."

Here is Messud's reply: "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?'"

Messud's slightly uncivil response touches on two popular concerns in the literary sphere. The first is the boys'-club sexism of the supposedly liberal book world. I don't have the stats on me, but every few months I come across a well-researched article stating that, even though most fiction readers are female, the vast majority of newspaper book reviews and literary prizes still go to men. Critics continue to labor under the notion that male writers are the "literary geniuses," while women write cozy, intimate, human - but ultimately trifling - stories.

This is why, in interviews, female novelists have to deal with non-literary questions involving their personal lives and the likability of their characters, instead of questions about prose style and symbolism. Messud didn't mention sexism directly, but by referring, in her long list, exclusively to male writers until the final entry, she likely intended to imply that, if she were Philip Roth, she wouldn't have to deal with this nonsense - although maybe the interviewer was just trying to get Messud to talk a little about her heroine and not really making a comment about the importance of sunny characters in women's fiction.

Messud, however, probably justified in her response - women writers are held, unfairly, to a different standard than men. This inequality may, in truth, be the only reason Messud's interview drew headlines: if a male novelist had replied as peevishly as Messud did to a silly book-chat question, he'd just be one more brilliantly ornery man of letters - meanwhile, we expect lady novelists to be a lot sweeter and more polite than Norman Mailer.

On the other hand, the subject of "likability," in the age of Amazon.com reviewing, has, in fact, probably reared its head for every important writer of fiction by now, male or female. The issue, it seems, is that the common reader goes into novels looking for "someone to relate to," or to relieve his loneliness, or to enjoy some idealized version of himself - and if the common reader doesn't find any of these things, he usually complains on the internet. The writers get mad because, in many cases, it was never their intention to create "likable characters" - rather, they had some particular vision of life (which isn't always pleasant or nice) and presented it with as much craft and originality as possible. They strived to be compelling and thought-provoking, not "likable," and therefore this criticism with which they're hit again and again really isn't valid, is it?

These writers have a point. If you reject a piece of fiction on the basis that its characters are not charming or admirable, you're not going to get much out of your reading.

Nevertheless, what I think is a revealing thing to do, if you reread Claire Messud's outburst, is to pretend that her questions are not rhetorical. Take each character and actually think about him: would you want to be friends with this person, if this person were real and somehow living in 21st-century America?

Would I want to be friends with Hamlet? Well, gee, he's only the most complex human being ever created. A little imbalanced, maybe, but he is awfully eloquent, isn't he?

Raskolnikov? I think I'd find his intensity rather enlivening. And Mickey Sabbath is hilarious, twisted, debauched: what more could you want in a friend? As for Oedipus and Antigone - sure, I could use a touch of that ancient Greek tragic grandeur in my little life. I like most of Jonathan Franzen's characters and most of Orhan Pamuk's, and certainly Beckett's Krapp would come in handy when I'm feeling cynical and embittered. Humbert Humbert is a creep, but I could imagine having a few erudite conversations with him - if I were more erudite, anyway.

The truth is that, for nearly every character on the list, my answer is: yes, I'd like to be friends. There's more to friendship than niceness, just as there's more than that to literature.

There are some exceptions, of course. I haven't read "Midnight's Children," so I don't know Saleem Sinai. And it's hard to imagine being friends with David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon characters, given that they're all so clearly artificial constructions intended to fulfill complicated postmodern fictive goals rather than to suggest real people. Oscar Wao seemed, to me, boringly, stereotypically geeky, and Martin Amis - well, does Martin Amis write characters? I thought he just wrote language and attitude.
Am I the "common reader?"

In the books I like, I tend to like the characters. In the books I don't like, I usually don't like them - not because they're "grim," but because they're thin and dull and trite. What, after all, is more likable than richness of personality, uniqueness, human intricacy?

Tagged: Generation Y, latest scandal, literature