Reading a novel means immersing oneself in the society of the characters the author has created, so it's to be expected that writers and readers often grapple with the question of likability. Are writers drawing protagonists we find appealing? Would we aspire to be them or to befriend them in real life? And should fictional characters always meet to this standard?
Recently, however, a question posed to Claire Messud about whether she'd like to be friends with the main character of her recent novel seemed to tap a wellspring of resentment -- both in Messud herself and in much of the literary community. Her bristling rebuttal, in an interview with Publisher's Weekly, implied that such a question stemmed from her sex, and the sex of her book's protagonist, as she listed a number of notoriously unfriendly male characters written by male authors as evidence that friendliness was beside the point. Elsewhere in the interview, Messud specifically notes that "if it's unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it's totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman."
Are readers less accepting of outwardly repellant female characters? It seems unsurprising, if so; women as a group are held to higher standards for pleasantness than men. Why would readers be able to separate themselves from this mostly subconscious double standard while engrossed in a fictional world? Until women are not expected to fulfill social expectations of kindness and warmth, we will not be much more friendly toward female characters who fail to demurely exemplify the term "the softer sex."
This contributes to an expectation that author Meg Wolitzer described as "fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel 'comfortable' around -- what I call slumber party fiction." We expect a range of likability amongst our male protagonists that makes the "slumber party" standard completely irrelevant. Who has ever wondered if they'd like to have Pip, Hamlet or Holden Caulfield over for margaritas and gossip? We accept that some men, and thus some male characters, will be more aggressive than kind, more selfish than nurturing, more cunning than honest -- and we're ready to admire those qualities rather than question whether they'd be good friends.
Indeed, while Humbert Humbert and Raskolnikov, both violent criminals, are fairly obvious examples of men we'd avoid in real life, many male protagonists seem palatable enough at first glance -- unless we hold them to the more exacting friendship standard. Would you be bffs with any of these iconic men from literature?
Odysseus (The Odyssey, Homer)Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons
Romeo (Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare)
Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain)
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Tomas (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera)
Harry Angstrom (Rabbit, Run, John Updike)
Mitchell Grammaticus (The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides)
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