What’s Not to Like: Debut Fiction and Unlikable Characters

In my latest essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “What’s Not to Like,” I reviewed two recent debut novels, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, and discussed them in the broader context of the recent debate about likable vs. unlikable characters.

For those who missed it: One of the more spirited debates in literature over the past couple of years concerns the likability of characters, especially female characters. During an interview with Publishers Weekly in April 2013, Claire Messud took umbrage at the suggestion that Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of her excellent novel The Woman Upstairs, was not someone the interviewer would ever want to befriend.

In a New Yorker forum the month after Messud’s comments, five authors whose work I admire—Donald Antrim, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Rivka Galchen, and Tessa Hadley—offered their insights. Not surprisingly, all of them supported Messud. The gist of their comments was: Likable characters are boring, and women writers are held to a different standard from men. Atwood quoted a 1993 essay in which she wrote, “Create a flawless character, and you create an insufferable one.”

These authors haven’t been debut novelists for a while, so they may not know that one of the reasons you see so many likable characters in modern fiction is that aspiring authors are told that that’s the ticket to publication. I know several would-be debut novelists who were informed by agents, editors, and even writing teachers that, if they wanted to get published, they had to make their characters more relatable and likable. I think likable characters can be fascinating subjects—niceness doesn’t necessarily preclude complexity—but how impoverished contemporary literature would be if every apprentice writer accepted that advice.

Fortunately, Thomas and McBride didn’t. The result is two of the more interesting debuts of the year. You can read my essay here.

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