Who Needs "Likable" Characters? Not Jonathan Franzen, or Me

Last night my writer friend Tom Barbash (his most recent work is the excellent story collection Stay Up With Me) interviewed Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom, and other novels and nonfiction) at my local bookstore, Book Passage. Perhaps because it was the very day Franzen's latest novel, Purity, launched, it was a particularly upbeat affair -- lots of thoughtful answers to good questions, but also many laughs and even a whoopee cushion. Now making the rounds to publicize his fifth novel, and having experienced more than his share of media gaffes (see, e.g., O: for Oprah Winfrey), Franzen told us, "You sit onstage on a kind of whoopee cushion after spending a couple years making a book." We didn't think he meant it literally, until he stood up and...yes.

So he had my attention throughout, but I really perked up when the conversation turned to the notion of likability. Who says we have to like a character? Yet Franzen claims that "the safest thing" in writing fiction is not caring what the reader wants, in the sense of realizing, "Not everyone will like this guy." In Purity, that would be Andreas. Yes, he's a murderer, we find that out early on ("I hope the book doesn't depend on withholding information"), but Andreas needed to have a secret life, and what better secret than having killed someone? That makes him someone we want to know more about, right? We're not looking for a best friend here.

"Sympathy is very different from likability," Franzen pointed out. "You wouldn't want to have a beer with Raskolnikov."

"Maybe a short one," Barbash mused.

I'm with Tom. I'd love to sit quietly at our little table while Raskolnikov ranted, or Ahab raged about his lost leg, or Humbert Humbert rhapsodized about his little love, "light of my life, fire of my loins." Yes, ew, but how fascinating! Would any serious reader turn away from Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick, or Lolita because the protagonists were not likable? What is this, high school?

It does seem like wanting to hang out with only the most popular kids, even if they're not particularly interesting or simpatico. The word itself seems lame, and likability, ugh. Do generations of readers care about Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard or, say, characters created by mega-selling writers like Stephen King or Danielle Steele because they are likable?

Or looking at it another way, consider all the furor over Go Set a Watchman, the recently unearthed novel (or draft) by Harper Lee. The early reviews I read all seemed to center on one shocking fact: Atticus was a racist! Actually, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus completely accepted the segregated norms of his time and place; he just thought everyone deserved a good defense and once told his brother, "Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up is something I don't pretend to understand." He was a nice paternalistic racist, not a bigot. And he was likable! If he hadn't been so likable -- if we hadn't seen him through his young daughter's eyes, and later exemplified for all time by handsome, upright Gregory Peck -- would we be so upset to hear Atticus's views in his later years?

When it came time for the audience to ask Franzen questions, the woman sitting next to me prefaced hers by saying, "Thank you for Patty," referring to a character in his previous novel. Afterward, a man and woman struggled through the crowd to where we were sitting. "Are you the one who mentioned Patty?" the man asked her. "She is the reason I stopped reading Freedom, about 600 pages in. I found her unbearable."

Now, this is what I love about novels. We get so entirely engaged with people who are "only" characters in a book, "just" words on a piece of paper or digital device. We get angry or upset or bored with them; we argue with them, we fall in love with them, just as we do with flesh-and-blood beings. Plus: we don't agree in our responses. What could be more gratifying to a novelist than that? If we all found every character in every novel we read likable, we'd have much less to talk about.

Pamela Feinsilber is a San Francisco Bay Area book editor and writer with an avid interest in the arts. Formerly senior editor at San Francisco magazine, she edits both fiction and nonfiction, coaches new writers, and can help them self-publish.