Last year, author Roxane Gay wrote an essay in BuzzFeed about “unlikable” female protagonists. The piece, titled “Not Here to Make Friends,” served as a response to the many critics and readers who dismiss complicated female characters out of hand, using the maxim of ex-boyfriends everywhere, by saying, in effect, that the bitch is crazy, and should, therefore, be forgotten. Gay also spoke to the fact that she herself, “as a writer and a person… has struggled with likability—being likable, wanting to be liked, wanting to belong,” and mentioned that it was always the “unlikable” characters who had been most attractive to her as a reader, because they were almost always more “human.”
I remember reading this essay and thinking, well, yeah, obviously. I mean, who doesn’t like the difficult character more? Who likes Sandy more than Rizzo? Who likes Aurora more than Maleficent? Who doesn’t like complications? Nobody I knew, and, certainly, I thought, nobody with any kind of inquiring mind, nobody who wanted more out of their reading material than what they’d get out of a movie aimed at kindergartners. All of which is to say, that while I respected what Gay was saying, and agreed with it in a general way, it also seemed unnecessary, because that territory seemed like it had been conquered.
And yet. Today brought one of the best examples of overt critical misogyny and an almost proud willingness not to judge a work based on its objective merits, that I’ve ever seen. In one of the final rounds of The Morning News’s Tournament of Books, musician Stephin Merritt passed judgment on two books: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, and while Merritt confesses to not liking either of them, his harshness toward Gay’s protagonist (who is, you guessed it, a complicated woman) was particularly harsh.
“Entitled… arrogant and unlovable… insane” is how Merritt describes Mireille, and claims that she is utterly reprehensible for “seemingly no reason.” Merritt professes ignorance as to why anyone would want to read about either Mireille or Gay’s depiction of Haiti, which Merritt finds “ugly and revolting.” Merritt, in fact, doesn’t even know what Gay was thinking when she conceived of writing a morally ambiguous and complex tale, set in a country historically rife with contradictions, brutality, and beauty: “It is not clear to me who Gay’s intended readership is,” Merritt asserts, clearly indicating that whoever it is, it’s not him.
Which, ok! Maybe Gay’s intended readership was not Merritt. Or maybe Gay didn’t even have an “intended readership” at all. Maybe she just had a story she wanted to tell. That this novel was too unpleasant for Merritt to swallow is borderline unbelievable to me (and that the only moral he could get from it was a “craven” one revolving around whether a father should or shouldn’t pay a ransom for his kidnapped daughter is shocking). But even if that is the case, the fact that Merritt resorts to the kind of specious argument in which he claims that he can’t appreciate a book in which he finds the main character “unlovable” is absurd. Protagonists don’t need to be lovable. Hell, they don’t even need to be likable! They don’t need to serve any ideas that you might have of what they ought to be. They are tools of the writer, designed to get across the questions and answers with which the author is grappling in the book.
And if a reader can’t get to that place of understanding, where they can internalize the concept that love for characters isn’t the only way of connecting with a work of art, then that is a very superficial reading indeed. Because after all, if we can only empathize with the people—fictional or not—whom we can also easily love, then we’re not really trying very hard, are we?
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen