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
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
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,