It’s time to trade in the beach reads for the usually longer and more serious fall reads. The Sacramento Bee‘s Allen Pierleoni lists upcoming new titles, some by big-name authors (think Joan Didion, Lee Child, Stephen King, Alice Hoffman, and Sue Grafton ) in both fiction and nonfiction.
Lionel Shriver, author of, among other novels, We Need to Talk about Kevin, discusses the flawed main characters that she has often been reprimanded for creating. Shriver distinguishes her characters from both villains and anti-heroes: “flawed main characters, neither villains nor anti-heroes, [are main characters] whom the author has deliberately, even perversely contrived as hard to like.”
Most famously in my own work, Eva Khatchadourian, the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin, is hard to like: a woman whose world travels make her feel superior to her American compatriots, who experiences pregnancy as an infestation and, worst of all, who fails to love her own son.
Shriver argues that a character’s likeability comprises two components, moral approval and affection, and “Readers often get approval and affection confused.” She asks, ” do we always want to read about characters who conform to current political conventions—who don’t smoke, never say anything bigoted, and always recycle their yogurt pots?” Such “nice” characters would be easy for the writer to recreate, she says, but would we truly want to read about only these paragons?
Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying. In fiction and reality both, multilingual, loftily-educated ponces on missions to save the rainforest are probably pains in the bum. Thus, however readily I might construct exemplars who pick up litter and volunteer at soup kitchens, this cheap courting of your approval might well backfire. Despite my heavy-handed stacking of the moral deck, you wouldn’t like them. Nick Hornby made exactly this point in his delightful novel How To Be Good, in which the main character’s determination to be virtuous—he gives away the family assets and invites homeless people to live in the house—is delectably repellent.
Creating only nice characters is not an accurate representation of life:
Because in real life, people are not always perfectly charming. I try to duplicate in fiction the complex, contradictory, and infuriating people I meet on the other side of my study door. When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family. I’m less concerned that you love my characters than that you recognise them. Human beings have rough edges. Authors who write exclusively about ethical, admirable, likeable characters are not writing about real people.
Her flawed main characters are interesting, Shriver says, and
readers want to be engaged even more than they want to be seduced. When purely affectionate and approving, a reader’s relationship to a character is flat. When positive feelings mix with censure and consternation, the relationship is dynamic. In fact, authorial elicitation of the reader’s frantic if impotent warning, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” is a powerful literary tool, for dismay generates energy and intensifies engagement. In Kevin, I made Eva’s husband Franklin deliberately exasperating—see-no-evil, he refuses to recognize his son’s growing malice—because this “What a dupe! Wake up, buddy!” reaction is involving and oddly enjoyable.
My own view is that liking or disliking a literary character is not the point; understanding the character is what’s important. When writers do their jobs well (as Shriver does in We Need to Talk about Kevin), we understand who the characters are and why they do what they do. At their root, all good stories require conflict, and conflict arises from characters who are less than perfect. Or, as Shriver puts it, “Good stories require mistakes.”
Sandra Gilbert (both individually and with her collaborator Susan Gubar) has played a long and distinguished part in the rethinking of the teaching of English literature. The title of the first major Gilbert and Gubar collaboration, The Madwoman in the Attic, has become shorthand to indicate all those questions that once were not asked about fiction. Since that book’s publication in 1979, all kinds of silences have been broken as women have become central figures both as subjects and as critics in the academic study of literature.
Mary Evans discusses Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions:
Rereading Women is a collection of previously published essays dating from 1977 to 2008, with new material limited to an introductory essay that describes how Gilbert began her collaboration with Gubar and became a professional academic. It is written within the standard assumptions of second-wave feminism in which, to paraphrase, the people who lived in darkness (particularly the darkness of the US in the 1950s) saw a great light in the early 1970s.
Evans discusses Gilbert’s work in its relation to university curriculums, to what is chosen for study and how it is studied.
this collection has one very considerable merit: it situates the reader at the centre of the reading of literature. The work that Gilbert did, both in the classroom and the study, was essentially democratic: she wanted the people she was teaching to engage with literature and through it find not the voices of authoritative “great traditions”, but their own voices.
When she, and Gubar, introduced the idea of the woman locked away in an attic by people for whom her existence was inconvenient, they introduced an idea into the curriculum that encouraged the recognition of other forms and occasions of silencing.