The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable

by
Steve Almond
12.13.17

Last summer I wrote a review of Who Is Rich? (Random House, 2017) by Matthew Klam. The novel is narrated by a man named Rich Fischer, a self-loathing husband and father who conducts an anguished and antic affair with an equally unhappy infidel.

His central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

Shortly after I turned in my review, I heard the book discussed on the radio. The segment opened on an odd note. “Rich is a hard man to like,” the host began. I sat back in astonishment—the notion hadn’t even occurred to me. But a quick survey of prepublication reviews revealed that this was, in fact, the consensus view: Rich was whiny, selfish, unsympathetic.

These complaints, it should be noted, weren’t generally directed at his adultery, about which he is so racked with guilt that he attempts to kill himself twice. No, his central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

And yet when I survey the books that inspired me to quit journalism and take up fiction two decades ago, every single one features protagonists who are “hard to like” in the exact same way: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Airships by Barry Hannah, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

My predilection for destructive and discomfiting characters arose, in part, from my years as an investigative reporter, which I spent tracking con men and corrupt cops, shady developers and sexual deviants.

In my reporting, the central danger was detection by the authorities. In literature, the danger was self-revelation. The question was why people messed up their lives and, when they got going, the lives of those around them.

This question began with the characters, but it extended to the reader. Spending time with folks who were morally flawed and ruthlessly candid, who had thrown all manner of caution to the wind, was thrilling specifically because they enacted my own repressed urges. I didn’t just want to rubberneck their misdeeds. I felt implicated by them.

As I turned all this over in my mind, I began to realize why I’d found the scolding critiques of Rich Fischer so vexing. They weren’t just sanctimonious or shallow. There was something cowardly in them, a mind-set that positioned fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.

***

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years on this question of likability, as well as an adjoining anxiety: how important it is that characters be “relatable.” One of the flash points of this debate emerged from the critical reception of Claire Messud’s fierce novel The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013), whose narrator, Nora Eldridge, spends much of the book railing against the forms of feminine duty she has internalized.

When an interviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora” because of her “unbearably grim” outlook, Messud’s reply lit up the Internet. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” she demanded. Messud went on to cite a dozen famously repellent male characters who are rarely, if ever, subjected to such a litmus test. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she concluded, “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 was hailed for confronting what we might call the fallacy of likability, and the ways in which female authors are expected to cleave to this notion.

One of the most fascinating reactions came from novelist Jennifer Weiner. In an essay published by Slate she noted, rightly, that many readers come to fiction hoping to spend time with characters they admire. And she argued that the creators and consumers of such characters shouldn’t be looked down upon.

But Weiner’s defense of likability was undermined by her own resentments. Likable, she insisted, was a code word “employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.” Her response was to tell Messud that her work sucked.

“There’s no payoff,” Weiner wrote of The Woman Upstairs, “just a 300-page immersion in the acid bath of Nora’s misery, her jealousy, her lack of compassion, her towering sense of entitlement.” Weiner felt Messud had willfully crafted a character to whom no one can relate.

The irony was that Nora elicited such vehement reactions precisely because readers related to her too much. They felt implicated, both by her impotent rage and the despair lurking beneath her grievances. “Above all, in my anger, I was sad,” she confesses. “Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate.”

What I’m getting at here is that the debate about likability ultimately boils down to sensibility. Nora Eldridge’s view of the world, and her place in it, is too dark and intense for some readers. When they pick up a book, they want to be transported to a sunnier precinct, or a more exotic one, with a friendlier companion. They seek a refuge from the anguish of their inner life.

There’s no right or wrong in any of this. It’s a function of what sort of experience we’re after as writers and readers.

***

There’s another unspoken factor in all this: the market. If you’re an unpublished writer seeking representation, and you submit a manuscript with an abrasive protagonist, chances are you’re going to hear from agents concerned about likability. The whole reason Lolita was originally published in France, and nearly three years later in the United States, is that Humbert Humbert’s panting hebephilia was abhorrent to American editors.

Cultural and literary standards evolve, of course. But financial anxieties are forever. Which is why agents and editors remain wary of characters they fear readers will find off-putting. In a world where reading books is itself a marginal activity, one performed in defiance of the perpetual racket of digital distraction, why risk losing sales?

I spent weeks, for instance, arguing with my editor about the section of my memoir, Candyfreak (Algonquin Books, 2004), in which I developed the irrational conviction that I had testicular cancer during a barnstorming tour of U.S. candy bar factories. My editor argued, quite sensibly, that this disclosure made me a lot less likable as a guide. What’s more, it dampened the giddy mood that prevailed elsewhere and guaranteed the book would never be adopted in school curriculums.

The reason I insisted on its inclusion was that I saw my self-diagnosis as an integral part of the story, a symptom of the depression that had reignited my childhood obsession with candy.

I don’t mean to imply that highlighting the repellent traits of a character is some shortcut to literary depth. That’s as foolish as the notion that scenes of graphic violence or sex will magically yield drama.

Some years ago I began a novel about a shameless right-wing demagogue who decides to run for president (I know). The response I got from readers was that my leading man, while fun to hang out with for a little while, was ultimately oppressive. It wasn’t that my leading man had the manners and conscience of a shark but that he had no subtext, no dreams or fears animating his outsize appetites. Nor did he hew to the path of so many unlikable protagonists, the Emma Woodhouses and Ebenezer Scrooges, who are forced to confront their flaws and wind up redeemed in the bargain. My man was self-regarding without being self-aware.

Such a figure might plausibly thrive in the world of politics (again, I know). On the page, he quickly degenerated into caricature. 

***

But what about those characters who refuse to evolve or offer up much in the way of vulnerability? I am thinking here of our most famous villains: Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden. These figures, though not technically protagonists, dominate their given worlds.

They do so because they’re willing to violate moral norms and thus wind up driving the action of the story. They’re also fearless in apprehending the nature of the world around them, even if they deny us access to their own inner lives. Most vitally, they embrace the transgressive aspects of their selfhood, the ones we anxiously inhibit so as to appear more likable.

Consider Melville’s Captain Ahab as he stands upon the deck of the Pequod, roaring out the true nature of his mission. “If man will strike, strike through the mask. How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me,” he tells his crew. “I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and…I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Tell us how you really feel, Ahab.

The reason readers like me gravitate toward characters like Ahab is that, not very deep down, we know ourselves to be equally charged with wrath, besieged by private doubts and grudges, and thus enthralled by those who dare to speak truth in a world overrun by personal forms of marketing.

The rise of Internet culture has only magnified the allure of such figures. Most social media platforms revolve around an elaborate effort to generate “likes” by presenting an airbrushed version of our lives and values. What grants trolls their magnetic power—whether they lurk online or in the White House—is the unacknowledged force of our own suppression.

Moral perfection is admirable, after all, but deadly dull in a literary character. I think here about the figure of Jesus Christ as we encounter him in the New Testament. He says and does all the right things. But he only comes alive as a character in those rarely cited verses when his revolutionary ire and human needs come into view.

The most shocking moment in the Gospels takes place a few days before his appointed end. On the way to Jerusalem, he stops in Bethany, where a woman lovingly anoints his head with perfumed oil.

The act angers some of those who witness it, including Judas Iscariot, who asks Jesus whether the expensive oil could have been put to better use if it was sold and the money given to the poor. “The poor you will always have,” Jesus replies. “But you will not always have me.”

It’s a moment of sensual indulgence and unvarnished pride that’s astonishingly out of character for Jesus. By my reckoning, he’s never more likable. 

***

I don’t expect this piece will do much to settle the question of likability. It’s one of those disputes into which writers will continue to pour their opinions and anxieties.

And that’s probably a good thing, if you think about it. Because we happen to be living in a historical moment ruled by unlikable characters. Take a look at our political and popular culture, at the angry voices emanating from our screens, at the seething violence in our discourse.

As writers, it can feel pointless to engage in literary endeavors when the world around us feels so combustible, so fragile. But I would argue that it has never been more important for writers to engage with the questions literature seeks to answer.

If we are to reclaim our country from the dark forces determined to divide us, to sow discord and cynicism among us, we must first seek to understand the darkness within ourselves. That means turning to stories in which we encounter characters actively engaged in the struggle—and sometimes failing—to contain their unbearable thoughts and feelings.

The urgent question isn’t whether we like these folks. It’s whether, in coming to know them, we come to know ourselves any better.

 

Steve Almond’s book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country is forthcoming in April from Red Hen Press.