Women writers, have you ever been told that your female protagonist isn’t “likeable”? Ever been told that after you wrote an autobiographical novel? When my agent sent mine out, that was the response we got. The editors said, “Great writing, but that character, she’s not nice enough.” That response reminds me of strangers on the street, shouting out at me to me to smile. (I’m 44, when will that stop?) Author Ayelet Waldman said at a reading that she gets that same comment about likeability almost every time she writes. It was on Waldman’s Facebook page today that I saw this link to an excerpt from an interview with novelist Claire Messud in Publishers Weekly. Here’s to characters that are ALIVE.
I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.
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?”