The Unlikable Protagonist

Was having a conversation about this the other day, about whether or not the cultural mainstreaming of asshole characters in TV and film had made unlikable protagonists more palatable in fiction. As little as 50 years ago, Wayne Booth made a reasonable and pretty convincing argument that without a sympathetic protagonist, a piece of fiction wasn’t going to work. Now we’re much more likely to accept protagonists that we can all more or less agree are morally repugnant people with nothing to redeem their awfulness. And we’re much more likely to see the rebuttal, “is this person interesting?” to the question “is this person likable?”

But all that said, I think the part of the point being lost here is likable vs sympathetic. Yes, I wouldn’t want to be friends with Raskolnikov either, but what makes Crime and Punishment work is that we can sympathize with him even though we don’t really like him. Tony Soprano? Not so much.

David Daley called what comes next in the Publisher’s Weekly interview another “reductive media question about the likability of her main character — a question that might not be posed to a male author in quite this way.” Annasue McCleave Wilson lamely asks Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Enter the brilliant smackdown that has been making the rounds on Twitter:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

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