The New Yorker asked some novelists – Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, etc. – to comment on Claire Messud’s comments to an interviewer who asked her about the likeability of her protagonist in her new novel. Messud claimed the right to create unlikeable characters, citing the royal precedents of those novelists who did it before her – or, rather, more cleverly, simply referencing the characters. It was a nice spate of indignation, and made for a nice interview. The novelists, asked their opinion, all spoke up for characters who aren’t likeable. But I was a little disappointed that they all spoke up, so to speak, within the novel and its tradition itself. From the point of view of technique, the question is whether the character works, not whether the character is likeable. Humbert Humbert was cited by Messud, and is used as a sort of totem of unlikeability by these novelists.
However, I think this misses the response outside of the novel – the response that fully accounts for the novel’s strangeness, or function within novel cultures. For it is a good question: why would anybody want to read about the actions, thoughts and words of a person one dislikes? Why would you do this for fun?
The line in lit crit, which was cemented in mid twentieth century, was that the modernists invented the novel in which the anti-hero is the dark eminence, and true prince of our sensibilities. This, however, really isn’t the case. Greek myths, the Grimm’s fairytales, Daoist anecdotes are all ceded with mildly or strikingly dislikeable personages. Aristotle, in a sense, is asking a similar question in the Poetics about tragedy. We can admire Antigone, we can even admire Achilles, but we don’t – we are intended to – befriend them. For Aristotle, plausibility is a sort of meta-rule of narrative production. Plausibility is not reality, but rather, reality as seen by a certain credentialed set. It inscribes class into the very heart of aesthetics. Plausibility is not just continuity and logistics, but it gives us our sense of what typifies a character – what they would do in character. This is not a neutral judgment about norms – it is an imposition of a certain class’s norms upon narrative. And, always, the artist has squirmed under that imposition. The slave’s impulse – irony –counters the demands of plausibility even in fairy tales. When La Fontaine portrays the ant and the grasshopper, for instance, we know, from the point of view of plausibility, that the ant is right Mention, say, welfare at a dinner party in the suburbs and you will hear a chorus of ants. But La Fontaine surely makes the reader uncomfortable with this judgment. We see the cruelty of ants, and the beauty of the grasshoppers.
Plausibility and likeability get us to reflect on what these narratives do in the culture. And I think that this is what really happened with the novel in the 19th century in a Europe that was still largely peasant and ancient regime: the novel was a tool for encountering the Other. The Other outside the bourgeois norms, as orphan or ax murderer, as adulteress or unhappy wife. This is where the anti-hero collects within his unlikeability the collective unconsciousness, and opens up the dreamlike possibility that the plausibility-ruled reader is, perhaps, Other. The novel hymns what Foucault calls the experience-limit – the limit in which you test to see whether you are a human or a monster. How much of a monster can you be? And so far, in the sweep of the imperialist eras, the genocide, the famines, the wars, we find that often, dizzyingly, the likeable is the monstrous, liquidating the dislikeable in a systematic monstrosity that runs because we don’t want to look at it or claim our responsibility for it.