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This Only Song I Know.

I have always assumed that reading works something like this: A reader approaches a novel or short story with a desire to be removed from the here and now. They wish, at least for the duration of the story, to be transported elsewhere and to visit the minds of other people. They wish to see things they would not likely see in the course of any given day. One of the things I long assumed about reading, based on my own reactions to books and those of people I knew and talked about books with, was that reading was, in part, a vicarious way of expanding the scope of one's life. Indeed, art in general, I have always believed, is a means of giving one's "soul" (for lack of a better word) breathing space, a tonic against the confining strictures of the day-to-day and the limitations of what we are each capable of experiencing directly. In the closing lines of her poem, "Renascence," Edna St. Vincent Millay writes:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, —
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.


Being an atheist, or at least strongly agnostic, I don't interpret "God" literally, in this instance. Rather, I interpret it, for my purposes, as epiphany and transcendence of mind/spirit. And, for me, the poem has always been about the triumph of imagination over the soul-crushing weight of the mundane. Now, with this mind, perhaps it's a little easier to understand why I often find myself so entirely perplexed at the reactions of some readers to literature which leads them away from the ordinary and attempts to expand their concepts of reality and humanity and so forth and so on. And I'm not only talking about the inability or reluctance of some readers when it comes to fantastic or speculative literature. This applies just as well to the work of writers who don't dabble in alternate worlds. Sometimes, I think that the most alien thing to mankind is mankind itself. The real aliens live next door or across the border or somewhere overseas. Each man and woman defines the world about them, creating a set of those things which they consider "normal" and "good" and "evil" and "sympathetic" and "likable," and these are damned indomitable walls. They are high and thick, and it is the task of the writer to penetrate or scale them. To break in. To shatter preconceptions. To force people to rethink cherished opinions and prejudices.

Yesterday, I ran up against the "sympathetic character" block again. It will never cease to throw me, I think. The thought of finding characters unlike me off-putting is too foreign to my way of reading for me to comprehend this. In this case, readers who approached Murder of Angels and found daunting a fantasy wherein the two protagonists are an emotionally distant, philandering musician with a serious drinking problem and her suicidal, impulsive girlfriend who has been led to believe that she's schizophrenic by a world that can't accommodate her perceptions. Not hobbits with hearts of gold. Not bespectacled English school boys who would be wizards. Not heroes. Not heroines. Just people. Not "likable" people. Just people. It has not yet been my experience that people come in the flavour "likable." I have looked hard and long on two continents and have not found them. Each of us is fallible and in some way broken. Usually, we maintain our sainthood only in our own minds. We surround ourselves with the familiar, equating the alien with disruption, displeasure, damnation, inconvenience, discomfort, unhappiness, and all manner of unpleasantness.

How do such readers cope with the truly great works of American literature, which rarely ever concern "likable" characters? What do they do with Of Mice and Men, Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Catcher in the Rye...and, well, there's no point in going on and on. I simply don't understand. I simply don't. I don't even think I want to, though I have tried. To me, the reader who judges books as "good" or "bad" on the basis of whether or not they find the characters likable is akin to a child who turns up its nose at a vegetable it has never tasted before. That's a best case scenario. Worst case scenario, they're moralists or xenophobes, convinced that all the drunks and druggies and queers and lunatics and heretics and infidels and freaks and bums and killers and aliens exist in some other world, a hell of their own making, sensibly kept apart from "sympathetic" humankind. Who wants to read about people like that? Why be reminded they even exist? Aren't we better off without them? Why "glorify" their unfortunate existence in literature. And do not forget, I am holier than thou. I am holier than thou. I am not a thief. I am not a cheat. I am not a drunkard. I am not a liar. I am not a killer. I am not deluded. I am not ever false or self-pitying or irrational.

I listen and this is what I hear. And it makes me angry. But at least the anger keeps me writing.

To date, I have no working definition of "likable." I can only see people. And if I look too long or too hard at any of them, they become monstrous. Look hard enough and I might find glimmers of the angelic in the more curious angles of their being, but, near as I can tell, angels are at least as treacherous as monsters.

And speaking of "unsympathetic" characters, the new chapter of Boshen and Nesuko is up.

Comments

( 25 comments — Have your say! )
marlowe1
Aug. 12th, 2005 04:59 pm (UTC)
Well if a character isn't likeable that character has to at least be interesting. Although liking a character is a personal decision and the better writers can make you like the worst bastards on the planet (like Holden Caulfield Mr. Teen Angst 1955)
greygirlbeast
Aug. 12th, 2005 05:21 pm (UTC)
Well if a character isn't likeable that character has to at least be interesting.

But how do you objectively define "likable"?

As for interesting, I think a good writer can make just about anyone interesting. Steinbeck and Faulkner were geniuses at this.
matt_ruff
Aug. 15th, 2005 02:03 pm (UTC)
But how do you objectively define "likable"?

As for interesting, I think a good writer can make just about anyone interesting.


But how do you objectively define "interesting"?

If the use of subjective terminology bothers you, I don't see the point in discussing book criticism at all, much less getting excited about it.
highway_west
Aug. 12th, 2005 05:27 pm (UTC)
The inverse of what you said is also true. If you look at someone long enough that you can find likeable traits. I think most people have likeable and unlikable traits. You could replace likeable with desirable. I think the most interesting characters are those with a good mix of traits.

Heather McHugh, in her book Broken English, theorized that true horror wasn't seeing the alien. It was seeing the familiar in what should be alien.
greygirlbeast
Aug. 12th, 2005 05:41 pm (UTC)
Heather McHugh, in her book Broken English, theorized that true horror wasn't seeing the alien. It was seeing the familiar in what should be alien.

I agree (though I've not read Heather McHugh), to a degree. But, if this is "true" horror (I would argue there are very many things which horrify equally well and could be equally said to be truly horrific), then it's also a path to understanding and the elimination of barriers created by our concepts of The Other. Hence, what McHugh labels truly horrific is, ironically, desirable.

You could replace likeable with desirable.

Hmmm. Though I think it creates its own pitfalls, the word "desirable" can at least lead to a working definition. I don't think that's the case with "likable." But we're still left with the issue of who decides what is and is not desirable in fictional characters. Each of us? Or is there a consensus desirability? Many traits I find admirable (desirable), others find utterly loathsome.
frankiemouse
Aug. 12th, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC)
"But we're still left with the issue of who decides what is and is not desirable in fictional characters. Each of us?"

i'd have to say yes to this question. there are some characters/people that i find that i like, feel an affection for, or are just sympathetic to, but they have a few or many traits that the general public would call "bad". maybe i'm not understanding what you mean. but my definition of a...well, i actually don't have a concrete definition of a likable character/person. i either like them or i don't. i don't have specific requirement that a character or person must meet for me to say that i like them. i just do. i think the characters/people that i like have qualities and characteristics that i admire, that i wish i had or, had to a greater extent.

oh, and about you comment about how you interpret "the face of God". i never really thought about it much but, i never took phrases like that literally. your words are perfect; they denote the feeling(s) i get from the phrase.

greygirlbeast
Aug. 12th, 2005 07:37 pm (UTC)
i either like them or i don't.

And this is one of the things that I'm getting at. You like them or you don't. I keep running into people who use the word "likable" as though it has some sort of objective meaning, beyond personal preference. Millions of people found Adolph Hitler imminently likable, too.

oh, and about you comment about how you interpret "the face of God". i never really thought about it much but, i never took phrases like that literally. your words are perfect; they denote the feeling(s) i get from the phrase.

Thanks. I'm not sure precisely how Millay meant the line, because whatever I once knew about her life I've forgotten, but that's how it works for me.
matt_ruff
Aug. 15th, 2005 02:31 pm (UTC)
But we're still left with the issue of who decides what is and is not desirable in fictional characters.

Not to accuse anyone of being self-indulgent, but I think this "issue" tends to loom much larger in the wake of a bad review than in the wake of a good one.

I'm sure there's an example somewhere, but off-hand I can't recall ever seeing a writer complain that a critique was too favorable. "Dear Reviewer X, how dare you say my characters are 'universally appealing'! And when you suggest that the story is 'well-plotted,' I don't even know what that is supposed to mean. 'Well-plotted' by whose standard? Are you some kind of god, that you think you can decide these things for other people? And at the end of your so-called review, where you say that everyone should run out right now and buy my book... Everyone? Everyone? God help you if we should ever meet in person!"
from_ashes
Aug. 12th, 2005 05:28 pm (UTC)
This is just my personal opinion, but to me I'd prefer a character to be believable over likable, and from the several books of yours that I've read, I think you accomplish that.
subtlesttrap
Aug. 12th, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC)
". . .but, near as I can tell, angels are at least as treacherous as monsters."

Magnificent.
shantih
Aug. 12th, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC)
My uncharitable hypothesis is that an "unlikable" character is one whom the reviewer does not wish to fuck.

I suspect neither Daria nor Niki would want to fuck said reviewer either, so...
thebacchanal
Aug. 12th, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC)
If you really want to understand what is meant by a likeable character, refer yourself to the works of Sandra Brown, James Patterson, Terry McMillan, and any other New York Times bestselling author of mass market word fodder. The definition of a likeable character is a character who will sell the most number of books. And the character who will sell the most number of books is the character that most reflects the desires of the people. Who wouldn't love to be a wizard at Hogwart's, or uncover an earth-shattering secret ultimately changing the future of history? That was rhetorical, because truly, i would like neither (unless my earth shattering secret were capable of once and for all eliminating the christian virus from this planet). However, the American reading public is a public who likes to hide their problems, who always wants to pretend that nothing is wrong in life, who doesn't want to admit to drinking to forget about their problems, to being emotionally distant, or to ever having felt suicidal. Being reminded of repressed emotions is nothing "they" are interested in. They like a weakness or two so they feel they can at least connect with the character, but only something minor, something one dimensional, nothing real. So, I'm sorry if you had the intentions of making it on the best sellers list, but I'm afraid you are in possession of too great an insight into the glorified apes that are called man to ever write about the types of characters that the martha stewarts and the oprah winfreys of our country will ever wish to read about. Luckily, however, there are a few literate individuals that cannot get enough of your characters, that are admittedly in love with the Deacons and the Spyders and simply cannot get enough, that will work over time in order to afford the limited editions of your Sub. Press publications (well, that last part got a bit personal, but i'm sure it applies to at least one or two more of your readers). So, i don't know if this rather lengthy reply can serve to ease your mind in any way, but with all the insight you've shared with me through your novels and stories, i only hope to share a bit of my own.
docbrite
Aug. 12th, 2005 09:22 pm (UTC)
As big a problem as I have with the idea that fictional characters must be "likable," I have just as big a problem with the idea that everything on the bestseller lists is automatically shit, or that people who read popular fiction are automatically morons shoveling pablum into their heads. Not saying that you've made either of these claims, but a great many people do, and it seems to me that they're just substituting one form of ignorant snobbery for another.
docbrite
Aug. 12th, 2005 09:24 pm (UTC)
P.S. I'm no Oprah fan, but unless I'm mistaken, one of her recently featured books was Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter -- hardly a feel-good tale full of bland, "likable" characters.
greygirlbeast
Aug. 12th, 2005 09:38 pm (UTC)
I'm no Oprah fan, but unless I'm mistaken, one of her recently featured books was Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter -- hardly a feel-good tale full of bland, "likable" characters.

There was also the recent thing with Oprah and Faulkner, which apparently ticked off a number of New York literati.
greygirlbeast
Aug. 12th, 2005 09:36 pm (UTC)
As big a problem as I have with the idea that fictional characters must be "likable," I have just as big a problem with the idea that everything on the bestseller lists is automatically shit, or that people who read popular fiction are automatically morons shoveling pablum into their heads.

Yep. Agreed.
9fingers
Aug. 12th, 2005 09:41 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear!!!
thebacchanal
Aug. 13th, 2005 12:49 am (UTC)
i would like to clarify that my intention with the post was to attempt to soothe the mind of one of my absolute favorite modern authors and not to support the ignorant opinion you so rightfully oppose. it seems i created quite a stir with what i've written, but i thought you should know i own a copy of East of Eden with the bright Oprah Winfrey book club stamp on the upper righthand corner. perhaps i should've chosen my words more carefully.
greygirlbeast
Aug. 12th, 2005 10:00 pm (UTC)
So, i don't know if this rather lengthy reply can serve to ease your mind in any way,

Your enthusiasm eases my mind a little, and I thank you for it.

And the character who will sell the most number of books is the character that most reflects the desires of the people.

I've often heard a phrase, the "common touch," that some authors have the "common touch." That is, their work refers to the "common man." Or, perhaps, many people feel they have a lot in common with this author. I know it's something that I lack. It's something that apparently doesn't comes naturally to me nor can I seem to fake. And I utterly detest the idea of Consumer Democracy — that which the most people value will succeed and is better than that which fewer people like. But I'm still not sure it's the characters who sell books, or even the authors, but, rather, the ad campaigns and hype which sells the books.

So, I'm sorry if you had the intentions of making it on the best sellers list

I think most writers have the ambition of having a bestseller, of being read by as many people as possible, whether it's because they crave the largest possible audience, the creative freedom and opportunities that follow success on that magnitude, or the financial rewards, or some combination of these things. In my case, I'd say it's all of the above. There's no shame in wishing that one will be wildly successful, of course, only in pandering to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to achieve that success.
thebacchanal
Aug. 13th, 2005 01:05 am (UTC)
There's no shame in wishing that one will be wildly successful

I completely agree, and i certainly wish you wild, uninhibited, raucous success, i'm just saying that like most great artists, you very well may not see it in your lifetime
brienze
Aug. 12th, 2005 07:37 pm (UTC)
How do such readers cope with the truly great works of American literature, which rarely ever concern "likable" characters?

We're meant to admire the authors of such works, not, as you yourself defined, "to be transported elsewhere and to visit the minds of other people" by the stories themselves.
setsuled
Aug. 13th, 2005 01:02 am (UTC)
It's nice for Boschen and Nesuko to be mentioned at the end of such an eloquent and keen post.

I just never find it fun to read or watch something where I'm always aware that there's a special safety net in place for the characters' personalities. Character needs to organically interact with the story environment, or there's a disconnect for the reader, I think. So, in a way, an unsympathetic character is better for sympathy, in the truer sense of the word . . .

Er, anyway, I was somewhat worried about losing readers with this new Boschen and Nesuko chapter, but now I feel a little better.

You know, looking at my Suspicion LJ icon, I'm reminded of a line from the movie spoken by a novelist, "I always think of my murderers as my heroes." And that movie rather neatly proves your point, as the ending the studio forced on it, where Cary Grant ends up not being a murderer after all, is far less satisfying than the one implied by the rest of the movie.
chance88088
Aug. 13th, 2005 08:49 am (UTC)
I merely meant likable in the sense of provoking empathy. That doesn't mean I need to like them as I would if they were a person or they need to be "good" people or like me at all. Nor does it disqualify any of the sort of people you list above. But there does need to be some sort of emotional resonance with them for me to care what happens to them.

I don't want to read books that are all about people like me, quite the contrary. However, I can't read books about characters I don't care about, amd that's what an unlikable character is to me. That doesn't make me a moralist or a xenophobe, nor someone unwilling to eat strange vegetables.
greygirlbeast
Aug. 13th, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC)
But there does need to be some sort of emotional resonance with them for me to care what happens to them.

As an author (and I would have thought this to be true of any author), I tend to write characters with whom I empathize. Strongly. I would think that's a given. That someone else doesn't find them "likable," that a reader finds it impossible to care for them, is only relevant insofar as I'd like my books to sell better. But I can't spend my days second guessing the likes and disslikes of others, worrying over whether or not a character will resonate with people who are not me and who have different criteria for what makes a character worthy of empathy (which is even more elusive than sympathy, by the way). That's antithetical to good writing.
chance88088
Aug. 13th, 2005 03:26 pm (UTC)
And I wouldn't expect you to care about as far as your writing goes. (However, I do care if you suggest that by finding characters unlikable and expressing that as a criticism of a book that makes me a moralist or a xenophobe or unwilling to try new things - I don't believe that follows.)

I think it is a mistake to suggest that there are characters who are not "worthy of empathy" - there simply is the response I feel when I read the piece. Things either click together or they don't, it's not about worth.

(Though I would argue the opposite about sympathy and empathy - with sympathy I think an affection is implied, where with empathy I merely need some level of identification.)
( 25 comments — Have your say! )