The Cult of Likeability (or Why You Should Kill Your Literary Friendships)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

I’ve noticed a recurring trend in my fiction workshops recently that troubles me, partially because I was once the defendant in the same court of law during my own MFA program: a creative writing student stands up (metaphorically speaking) and then declares almost joyfully that they don’t like a character in the manuscript we’re workshopping or in the novel we’re reading. After I pause and wait for the student to elaborate, I soon realize that their dislike is the critique. I can’t help but wonder if the either/or fallacy of cancel culture I see routinely on social media has in some way reinforced this notion in workshop that unlikeable characters (like people in real life) don’t deserve our attention, which is why we’re allowed to stop considering them at all, once we decide we don’t like them. Frankly, I find this kind of reader response lazy, problematic, ungenerous, and uninsightful, regardless of whether we’re talking about art or people. I think that as artists, and especially as human beings, of course we need to create our own community and focus our energy on the people who love us, understand us, support us, and nurture us. At the same time, we also need to do a much better job in our analysis of people, for the simple reason that complex characters (like complex people) inevitably provoke complex reactions in readers and in the public at large. That shouldn’t, however, be a pretext to mute every person we don’t like, connect to, or understand, especially considering how quickly humans, by their very nature, make snap judgments of others without understanding them, empathizing with them, or learning about their lived experiences.

For one thing, our interpretation of characters/people and their personalities can be extremely harsh and impatient, filtered by our own memories, trauma, pain, commitments, politics, knowledge, level of education, disposable time, profession, gender, class, racial and sexual identities, language proficiency, genre preferences, physical abilities, and reading expectations, among other things—each of them important but also potentially self-limiting. For another, some of the most important characters in literature aren’t necessarily people we need or want to be friends with, but this lack of so-called likeability takes nothing away from the great writing that produced them.

Consider the unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved in her eponymous novel, the Captain in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Gillian Flynn’s Amy Elliott Dunne in Gone Girl, Gregory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the prototypical antihero in Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time, the narrator in Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend who flaunts her New York writing pedigree, name-drops like crazy, and mourns the death of her friend who slept with his female students. Consider the passivity of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, the murderous revenge tour of Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkin’s movie, Monster (played masterfully by Charlize Theron), Holden Caulfield’s brooding, very emocore obsession with fakeness in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Oroonoko, Aphra Behn’s mixed-race slave prince who kills Imoinda, the love of his life, and their unborn child in order prevent them from being enslaved by white colonists, or Thomas Harris’s notorious cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. In each of these works, the author constructs characters that are complex, contradictory, authentically flawed, challenging, even counterintuitive. They may or may not be the types of people we search for in our daily lives and they may or may not be the kind of people we “want to be friends with,” but who cares? They’re characters that we should still read about and learn from. Whether they’re fascinating or impossible to like, whether or not they’re the kind of characters (that is, the kind of people) we might want to “drink a beer with,” as the populist adage goes, frankly doesn’t say shit about the substance, the value, and the importance of those characters or about the quality of the writing ecosystem of which they’re part. The fact that we might dislike a particular character, that we might even actively despise them, is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether the character arc is developed in the manuscript, whether the author’s characterization is effective and well paced, and whether the characters themselves are working as fictional constructions, signifiers, psychological case studies, and/or cultural archetypes about the world we live in (or could live in).

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that we should be forced to read old, dreary, and abstruse books that we hate or forced to ignore characters that are deeply problematic. Many canonical texts still taught in English departments are racist, sexist, phallocentric, and unapologetically Eurocentric because the historical periods in which those texts were written were racist, sexist, phallocentric, and unapologetically Eurocentric. Instead, I am suggesting that books we don’t necessarily like or books filled with characters we don’t necessarily like are sometimes still extremely important, valuable, and even useful. When we dismiss a manuscript because a character turns us off or challenges us or pushes our buttons, we not only stop analyzing the craft in that manuscript but often abandon the ethos of criticism altogether. Instead of a rigorous analysis of that character’s function, development, purpose, signification, context, and effectiveness within the manuscript, we’re settling for value judgments and pretending it’s critical thinking. That’s a massive trade-off just to avoid unlikeable characters.

Obviously, there are horrible characters that serve an important purpose in a text and then there are horrible characters whose author may have been unaware of how horrible they are or incapable of constructing well due to their own privilege, ignorance, delusion, lack of research, sheltered lifestyle, or blindness to their own -isms. But to figure out whether an author owns the bad or not in their characterization requires us to research the author, which shifts the burden from author to reader. Disliking a character because of issues with craft, on the other hand, or because of issues with research or complexity or delineation, is completely different. If our dislike of a character is based on how they were constructed instead of who they are (or if we can remain open to characters we don’t “get”), then we haven’t abandoned our own critical technology when it comes to analyzing characters and the way they’re scaffolded. So, for example, if a white writer wants to include an Asian character in their short story because they think “it’ll be fun,” that’s a problem, but most of the issues informed readers will have with that character as a person will show up in their critique of the characters anyway, simply by focusing on craft. If, however, a writer has read (or is willing to read) literature by Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) writers writing in the culture the author wants to understand, if the writer understands why the story needs an Asian character (e.g., for historical or cultural reasons, because they’re writing about a particular period in history or a specific cultural phenomenon that affects the APIA community), and if the author is willing to do the research about that character’s background, talk to writers and people from that community, and then construct a complex APIA character whose humanity will be fully developed, then that, too, will normally show up on the page. And this means our analysis of the author’s characters (whether or not we like them) will double as analysis of delineation, realism, development, complexity, and execution. Effective character development requires a lot of work. Our feelings about that character, however, require no work at all, and maybe that’s part of the problem.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in likeability critiques that the writing must be failing and/or the characterization must be deficient if readers don’t like a particular character or if they start tuning out whenever that character pops up in the book/manuscript they’re reading. There also seems to be an implicit assumption that unlikeable characters will prevent a work from having broad appeal, but this assumption, which is often made in the name of artistic universality, has become an economic concern about maximizing book sales through maximizing reader appeal—something writers should ignore for the simple reason that no one knows which books are going to sell until they do. Besides, writing books with “universal” characters and “universal” themes is often code for writing books that appeal primarily to white readers, particularly white women, because even now, whiteness is often treated—consciously and unconsciously—as synonymous with universal, likeable, default, and uncontroversial. If a writer of color or a mixed-race writer writes in a nonwhite voice, it gets tagged as stylized. Hopefully today we can see likeability for what it really is: a useless, inert, unforgiving, often sexist, often racist, and almost always anticritical criterion that juxtaposes literary characterization to reality TV voting where readers judge characters based on who they want to be friends with (and vote off those characters they can’t stand) because that’s what really matters: not original writing, not ambitious plot lines, not stunning turns of phrases or complex characters or marginalized voices given a mic to tell their own stories or retrieved history or the brutal examination of our own existence or cultural self-interrogation, but the projected social compatibility of an imagined literary friendship.

What if the real problem is that, as readers, we’ve become impatient assholes who no longer want to understand the people we’d like to erase, both in literature and in our lives. What if part of the issue here is that, as readers, we now want to cancel the characters that rub us the wrong way (or even worse, who offend us) precisely because we now live in an era where we want to shut up half of those we share the world with. Couldn’t the same thing be said about almost every difficult book we’ve ever read? How many of us would have read every challenging style, every unfamiliar voice, and every irritating character in a novel we’d been assigned in a literature course if it hadn’t been, well, assigned? What do we lose when we only read books with narrators/characters/writers we like? Is it possible that sometimes we like or dislike people for the wrong reasons, for the worst reasons? Where do we draw the line between advocating for our mental wellness, emotional needs, and personal boundaries with the people we interact with (and read) while at the same time remaining open-minded and tolerant toward those people we cannot stand on the page or at the dinner table who might teach us something valuable, whether or not we know it?

Likeability has implicit racial, class, and gender overtones that most people are unconscious of because they’ve been brainwashed into believing in the universality of great writing and the “objective” evaluation of literary merit, as if these things aren’t class-based or relative in terms of culture, language, history, gender, and race. White progressives were basically on point when they argued that likeability was a sexist metric in the 2016 election because it was only applied to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, not to Donald Trump’s. Why, then, have we not abandoned this same criterion in our evaluation of characters? Why must readers be friends with the characters? More to the point, how exactly would a white, Ivy League–educated, twenty-four-year-old MFA student, reader, or editorial assistant—who has never been pulled over on the highway for being white, whose genealogy was never erased through slavery, whose family was never assaulted by police officers in broad daylight, whose ancestors were never locked in internment camps and called enemies of the state—be expected to relate to nonwhite characters in a diasporic novel about colorism, institutional racism, or racial disidentification? What does it even mean to “like” or “not like” characters who’ve been chewed up and spat out by white supremacist machinery? Is it even appropriate to respond to a novel that deals with systemic social justice issues by declaring that you do not “love” it (or its characters)? Which part of the nonwhite novel feels most unlovable?  The racism, the injustice, the power imbalance, or the systemic dehumanization? Can we even imagine “love” as the basis for critically assessing the literary merit of some of the most important books published in the past hundred years? Did readers love Colson Whitehead’s depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad? Did they love Edna Pointellier when she committed suicide in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening? Did they love Winston, the narrator in George Orwell’s 1984, when he acquiesced to authoritarianism? Did readers love the real-life social conditions detailed in the nonfictional Diary of Anne Frank or Bigger Thomas’s experience of economic determinism, racial prejudice, and segregation in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son? Did readers love the haunted characters in Beloved? Did they even love Beloved? And what does “love,” what does “like,” have to do with the literary value, the cultural resonance, and the historical importance of these books?

Let’s be honest: infatuation, which has become the new metric for literary agents, editors, and MFA students, can be a selfish, romantic, self-centered, even eroticized methodology in analyzing literary merit because works of fiction and nonfiction reflect the brutal and sometimes unknown realities in which writers live and breathe, and which many readers may not have seen before. That’s precisely the point. Reality isn’t always loving or likeable, and neither are the characters in a work of fiction. Said another way, there are damaged and important characters that we’re not supposed to like. Instead, we’re supposed to learn from them, understand the ways in which they reflect, represent, inform, subvert, incarnate, and interact with the cultural history in which they’re written and to which they often respond as well. We evolve as readers and as people by learning from the characters, not by demanding they play nice and smile for the camera, something asked only of women, people of color, and mixed race people. And yet, I would argue that the question of likeability and the issue of literary infatuation, as much as it is gendered, is even more racialized, which is why it matters a great deal when we talk about the lack of racial diversity and the surplus of gender diversity in the publishing industry, a gender diversity that is made up mostly of cis-het white women but excludes many executive positions.

This whole line of inquiry brings us back to the question of characterization and what characters are allowed to sound like, look like, and dress like, and the ways they’re allowed to communicate their selfhood to the reader. This isn’t just a question of tone-policing, but of ontology: which characters of color or mixed-race characters are allowed to exist in print? Which ones are allowed to be true on the page, even if white readers don’t understand them? Which nonwhite authors are allowed to tell their own stories? How are marginalized voices mediated, compromised, and silenced through the publishing industry? Who gets to read nonwhite characters and how often? Which nonwhite characters are allowed to be published in a work of fiction and for which readers and markets?

Of course, it makes sense that readers on all levels crave cultural coherence when it comes to characterization, but the problem is that what readers know, are exposed to, and have seen (and also, conversely, what they don’t know, have never been exposed to, and have never seen) becomes the framework in which they make sense of characters they’re trying (and often failing) to understand. So if white readers, for example, are ignorant of the cultural narrative or the racial experience or the religious identity or the gender performance in a manuscript, they will not be an informed audience, and their confusion—despite the whiff of white liberalism in the publishing industry—will stain, possibly even poison, their appreciation of that manuscript. They are much more likely to view these characters and the fiction in which they appear as labor instead of pleasure, simply because they’re not racially and culturally centered for a second, which is enough for a manuscript to be rejected by an agent or obliterated in the fiction workshop. That’s a chronic problem we need to confront.

Empathy—that most rare and most important of skills—requires enormous work, dedication, humility, and initiative while swiping right and left requires nothing except a digit. With empathy, we have to step into another person’s space that’s not our own and sometimes find comfort in not being comfortable. With pleasure, on the other hand, reading becomes a trophy for the id.  A ribbon for our own egocentrism. Frankly, white readers in the West have gotten to see themselves in almost every written word since the invention of movable type. They get to take it for granted because they can. They get to be the template in every unwritten manuscript, the default setting in every digital, cinematic, and literary narrative. Maybe, just maybe, white readers have to work a little harder to understand other people who don’t look, act, pray, talk, or write like them, not just in reality but also on the page. Maybe, the expectation of work is the best way to honor ambitious, challenging, complex, and important characters (and the writers who create them) but also the best way to wake up lazy readers who treat characters like American Idol stars they have to vote for or Twitter trolls they have to mute or pile onto. Of course, reading can be and often is pleasurable, but many beautiful and important novels have characters that may be hard to read or like or understand at first, not because they’re badly written or the characterization is off or the writing isn’t universal enough, but because those novels ask readers to do the work for a greater purpose than just pleasure or heterosexual love or class self-reflection or cultural self-centering or maximizing of book sales.

Ultimately, characters are the family members of fiction: we may hate them, despise their politics, fail to understand them at all, or never love them, but we don’t need to banish them or reject them simply because we don’t understand them or like who they are (or who they’ve become). Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that soon the holiday dinner will all be over and then we’ll each go our separate ways in our separate modes of transit. If we just deal with characters as best we can, force ourselves to remain open-minded, try our best to learn about (and from) them—their identities, experiences, histories, challenges, and culture—then we can cultivate our own empathic skills and help develop our own humanity in the process. We literally lose nothing by being less judgmental, by not basing our artistic (or social) evaluation on how much we like a person, whether in fiction or in real life. It’s enough that, for a few moments, our polarized worlds intersect and bring us to the other side. It’s enough for us to simply listen to them and decide later on if we agree with them, if we like them, if we understand who they are or how they live their lives in a world with very different rules than our own.