I came to a Child of God by Cormac McCarthy late in life -- so late that I remember going to a dinner party and loudly objecting to the protagonist, Lester Ballard, dragging the frozen corpse of a woman he'd murdered from the attic and waiting for it to thaw before engaging in necrophilia. "Was it necessary?" I asked shrilly, "Was it really necessary?"
Some at the table were of the opinion that it was, others weren't so sure, and so the discussion progressed along the old familiar lines of what makes any story a good story. I mention Lester Ballard because it doesn't get any worse than Lester Ballard in fiction yet I don't recall anyone that night lingering on his moral shortcomings, his failures as a citizen, or his less than perfect record as a taxpayer. Lester Ballard's right to inhabit the lowest level of human experience was never subject to a vote, just as no direct link was ever made between the rectitude of the character and the quality of McCarthy's work.
I just wrote a book called The Boy ($24.99, Little, Brown) in which a single mother called Anna makes the twin mistakes of drinking too much and falling for a boy half her age. She's a paragon of civic virtue compared to Lester Ballard yet she keeps attracting deeply irate comments from people who find her inability to feed the dog regularly too much to stomach. Add to that the sin of self-absorption and a less than nurturing home environment, and the response from some readers starts to blur some pretty heavily demarcated lines, such as the one between personage and work. I have traced an undeniable correlation between Anna's flaws and the dislike the book keeps provoking -- as if the two could or should be linked.
So why is it okay to be Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo -- two gigantic wastes of cosmic, never mind terrestrial, space -- in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but not a woman who packs the less-than-perfect school lunch as she falls for the boy next door? I've never heard anyone call the egregiously stoned pair in Hunter S. Thompson's work "selfish", yet not a day goes by without the protagonist in my novel being called a disgusting drunk.
I studied literary theory in college but I don't think I need to dig to deep to hit on the fact that Anna is a woman and there is a limit to what women can and cannot do in fiction.
Let's imagine a female Lester Ballard: a woman brutalized into deviancy wandering the American countryside blowing people's heads off, then doing unspeakable things to the bodies of her increasingly young victims. God knows women are no strangers to brutality, yet even Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, narrows her vengeful rage to those fully deserving of it. As bad-ass Scandinavian-punk as she comes to us, Lisbeth Salander hasn't got a bad bone in her body. She is, it turns out, as pure as snow.
The same cannot be said of Anna. Not only does she embark on an affair with a boy barely the age of consent, she literally loses sight of her only child as she does so. An unprecedented occurrence? A completely foreign concept? Hardly. The two extremes may not frequently come paired or at the expense of one another, but the day has yet to dawn in which good looks won't turn a woman's head or a mother won't fail her children in some small way. (As an aside I'd like to quote Joan Didion, who said: "If people think they are good parents, they ought to think again.")
The truth is that while women engage in this type of behavior every day, experienced in the pages of a novel it can bring on a curious lack of empathy, followed in some cases by a suspension of critical faculties. The female protagonist has no redeeming qualities? Well then. Neither has the book.
How does it get to that, and why? The answer is as old as literature itself. Bad men get to be king. Bad women get to swallow poison and die.