Tuesday March 23rd, 2010

“Hell is story friendly.”

tony-sopranoAt Powell’s, novelist James Hynes has a brief essay titled “In Defense of Unlikable Characters.” I have to agree with Hynes that the very idea of defending them seems a little strange, given how common they are in great literature.

I’m always a little taken aback and (I’ll admit it) a little defensive when readers of my books say that they find my protagonists “unlikable,” like it’s a bad thing. My usual response comes in one of two forms, which are mutually contradictory. The response I usually actually make is, “So what?” After which I proceed to make the same argument I’ve just made above: Is Macbeth likable? Is Ahab? Is Tony Soprano? (Well, actually, Tony sometimes is, but let’s not complicate things.) Literary characters aren’t necessarily meant to be role models, I argue, but truthful representations of lifelike people in all their warty glory. Not to mention that bad behavior is usually the hot little engine at the heart of every narrative. As Charles Baxter puts it, hell is story friendly. Who wants to read about Emma Bovary staying faithful to her husband?

I would add to Hynes’ argument that unlikable central characters can be especially welcome as engines for comedy. The first three examples that spring to mind are Lewis “Teabag” Miner in Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, and Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.