When Did Writing Become a Popularity Contest?

This week I read Jennifer Weiner’s piece on Slate, “I Like LIkeable Characters.”  I felt confused and bewildered, and I kind of think she missed the point entirely.

It’s her take on Claire Messud’s strong response to an interviewer, who said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?  Her outlook is unbearably grim.”

Messud tells the interviewer, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?”  She launches this fierce diatribe about great fictional characters that make terrible friends.

So apparently the literary world is having some debate about whether or not a character should be likeable.  Authors and publisher are taking sides, while readers are reading books just the same.

And if I were Claire Messud, I’d be seeing red right about now.

The question for Messud was not whether a character is likeable or unlikeable.  The question is whether the character possesses human qualities.  Based on what little I’ve read about her new book, she uses a female protagonist to write about a very human experience – anger.

Messud did something that many writers do: she wrote the book that she wanted to read.  She saw a need for angry female protagonists, so she wrote her own book with such a character.

She wanted to use a female protagonist as a vehicle for exploring this emotion.  That’s all.  We writers have ideas that we want to explore and ways in which we want to explore them.  For Messud, this was her particular niche.

The interviewer’s question was shortsighted, and like the interviewer, Weiner completely misses the point.  She’s not even in the ballpark.

And it becomes unnecessarily personal for Weiner, when Messud makes an offhand remark about books that are sold in airports.  Because Weiner writes books that are sold in airports.

It’s too bad, really, because we missed an opportunity to talk about characters that are human.  Whether they’re likeable or not, they will still have some part of them that’s human.  They will possess something that others recognize as part of the human experience.  And that’s why we share stories.

Weiner if you’re out there, don’t worry about whether readers want your likeable characters.  It’s not a popularity contest, right?  So don’t make it one.  People read your books, because they see something in them.  And people will pick up Messud’s books, because they see something in them.

We do what we do.  We tell our stories, and we write about human experiences.  That’s our job.

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4 thoughts on “When Did Writing Become a Popularity Contest?

  1. I just saw this post and it’s an interesting topic that I think needs to be further addressed. One of my favorite literary characters that comes to mind is Severus Snape, not because he was likeable, but because his flaws made him complete. I wouldn’t want to be his pal but I loved his character. I’m drawn to works with outstanding characters both good and bad, as long as those characters are real and not trivialized. The worst fiction pieces I’ve read were those who characters seemed outlandishly perfect or lacked the quality of truth. I think that by only examining the positive side of human nature we completely ignore truth in its highest form. Good and bad rages within all of us. No fictional character can be real without that same dichotomy.

    1. Great example! I love Snape’s character as well. He may have been grumpy and mean, but the poor guy was suffering from a broken heart. He loved Harry’s mother very deeply, and he protects him for her sake, even though he can’t stand the kid. And from Snape’s point of view, Harry is kind of a brat. Would I have a beer with the guy? Probably not, but he is wonderfully human, and that’s what makes him a good character.

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