But to be furious, murderously furious, is to be alive. No longer young, no longer pretty, no longer loved, or sweet, or loveable, unmasked, writhing on the ground for all to see in my utter ingloriousness… there’s no telling what I might do.
I always thought I’d get farther. I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure - the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit - is all mine, in the end. What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity, is me, just me. I thought for so long, forever, that I was strong enough – or I misunderstood what strength was.
In literature as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances where an unlikable man is billed as an anti-hero, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. Beginning with Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, the list is long. An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented but ultimately compelling even when he might behave in distasteful ways.
When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society? In a Publisher’s Weekly interview with Claire Messud about her recent novel, which features a rather “unlikable” protagonist named Nora who is bitter, bereft, and downright angry about what her life has become, the interviewer said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” And there we have it. A reader was here to make friends with the characters in a book and she didn’t like what she found.
Messud, for her part, had a sharp response for her interviewer. “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?’”
Even a single successful sentence can be transformative; and a single poem or novel can alter someone’s life forever. That, my friends, is ‘hands across the ocean,’ and it’s a meeting that happens if not only, then most fully, through language.
Reading this article, I of course thought about fandom. (I mean the largely-female, pretty-queer creative fandom in which I participate pseudonymously.)
Fandom not only HAS this problem but highlights it. Fanworks show this investment in men/rejection of women in number of works and in their depth. We often ask ourselves, why does fandom so often center male characters over female characters, despite fandom being made up of mostly women? Especially regarding the huge number of queer women - why is m/m still far more prevalent than f/f fanworks?
This quote gave me a lightbulb moment:
“I would suggest that we are well-trained to like “unappealing” male
characters—so much so that I would imagine anyone who wanted their male
character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a
This “we” pinged recognition in me. (Subjectivity disclaimer: I’m a queer woman writing m/m fanfic and who hates gender binaries/sexist double standards).
Is it something about being largely cultured female that makes our fannish problem of “preferring” male characters in our works?
SOME BACKGROUND: Things you probably know about fandom but might not:
If we accept the popular discourse that online fanfic is transformative (look for Archive of Our Own’s transformative works journal, they’ve got the theses), then the argument which says “but there are just more male characters in all canons, that’s why there’s a focus on men in fanworks” ignores the transformative capacity - nay, objective! - of fanfic-writing fandom to transcend this. There is a long tradition of taking minor characters and fleshing them out or centering them in play - somehow this still gets done to a lot of male characters over female ones.
And one of the big rhetorical bugaboos in fandom re: female characters is they are SO OFTEN DISLIKED. This misogyny has been called out a lot and now it’s more likely to hear a m/m-focused fan who neglects female characters say “I like them, I just don’t find them interesting to write about” or “They are a KICKASS STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER, I just don’t ship them in my main ship”. Something about even STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS is not likable/interesting/sympathetic/intriguing enough for female fans to want to *engage fannishly with them in transformative work*.
SO, as said above, the likability of female characters in fandom comes up a lot! AND YET - our tolerance for unlikable men, comparatively, REMAINS MUCH HIGHER. You could have a male
character the meanest sonofabitch ever, and all kinds of fans, men and women, would be
saying “awesome villain”. You would ALSO have fans who would see -
and see fit to develop in fanworks - his hurt sensitive human side
worthy of sympathy and compassion. HIS LIKABILITY. We have all seen it. Draco
Malfoy playing the piano. Sephiroth giving Cloud gifts to woo him. Lex
Luthor’s pitiful childhood and woobie Smallville backstory.
Why do women do this? I’ve decided that this is a SOCIALIZED GENDER DYNAMIC FROM THE HETERONORMATIVE PATRIARCHY. I read ‘The Dance of Anger’ (therapy/self-help, Harriet Lerner) this winter, and it had a lot of advice for women in relationships, many examples with men. Not just romantic relationships - this is how girls get raised to BE toward men. Women are socialized to do the feeling-labor in a relationship, and men are socialized to do the unfeeling labor (economic labor outside the home – homemaking is feelings-work, it’s the HOME; decision-making; anything “objective”, unemotional, “practical”). Women have to make up for the men’s neglect of their own feeling labor. They make emotional overtures and draw out men’s feelings. This is a revelation for some men who thought they did not know how to feel till they met a woman. The woman can feel the power of giving someone else an emotional life and outlet. It is a feminine virtue to be sensitive when others are insensitive. We are CONDITIONED to FEEL FOR MEN. That is the EXPECTATION in relationships between men and women.
So when it comes to fiction, and distinctly UNlikable UNsympathetic male characters, by god, do women rise to the challenge of feeling for them. It is an achievement. It is a pleasure, because unlike in a real relationship, no one will hurt us if we fail to feel correctly for fictional men.
Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men. It’s a known fact that among children, girls will happily read stories with male protagonists, but boys refuse to read stories with female protagonists. J.K. Rowling was aware of this: if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter, none of us would know about her.
From Guernica’s archives, Claire Messud on seven remarkable women writers and the problem with the phrase “women writers.”
“Life’s funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there’s still so much of a life to get through.”
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?’
I’m a good girl. I’m a nice girl. I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and brother’s shit and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died,after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone – every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a big muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “Such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
“It's the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate. Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they're lying to you, but as often because they're lying to themselves.”
― Claire Messud
“Above all, in my anger, I was sad. 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.” ― Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
"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?”
Claire Messud, in answer to the following question-ish statement from an interview at Publisher’s Weekly: "I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.“