Tuesday, May 24, 2016

To like or not to like, that is the question

I recently read another rant by a literary person about readers like me who judge books based on whether or not the characters are likable. How boring it would be, she prosed, if the only books you read were filled with people you liked. How bland the literary landscape would be if we only had books about likable people.

She has a point, you know. It would be boring if everyone in a book was tediously nice. But also I've read books I could barely get through--sometimes didn't get through-- because they were filled with a such a seedy, slimy, selfish bunch of people that there was no one I could bring myself to care about. In real life, maybe not everyone is likable, but neither is everyone awful.

Maybe I'm lucky, but I've never been in a situation where there weren't at least one or two people I liked or admired or at least respected. When you read one of those dismal, depressing literary books, it's as if they take place in some anti-universe where only bad things happen and only awful people are real. Everything good or hopeful is fake, shallow, and/or laughably stupid.

I don't live in that world. I don't get this everything is awful mentality. When I read a book like that, it seems cold, chilled, unfeeling. There's no warmth. Maybe I need some warmth to keep reading.

Anyway, back to the likable characters problem. Since I do sometimes say I couldn't get through a book because I didn't like any of the characters, her arguments made me think. Maybe I'm not accurately describing the reason I couldn't get through a book. Is it that no one is likable? Maybe it's that no one is lovable-- it's possible to love someone, to find someone adorable, who isn't very likable.

Nah, that's not it. Maybe it's that when I read a story full of people who are abusive, or spineless, or victims of one piece of bad luck after another, it doesn't seem real. It seems false to me in the same way it would feel false if everything was great. Sometimes I enjoy chick lit because the characters seem like people I know. Even though chick lit gets a bad rap in the literary world, to me it sometimes feels more realistic than the more highbrow fare.

Or maybe I can't bring myself to keep going in a book where I don't care what happens to any of the people. I don't really have a definite answer here, I'm just thinking. Of course I think the problem here lies with the literary snobs, who seem to disdain anything fun to read. They would probably argue that the problem lies with readers like me, who prefer to be (what they would call) "mindlessly entertained" rather than to have my mind stretched by a grittier version of reality. (Thankfully there's a vast ocean of the written word that hits somewhere in between.) What do you think?

And p.s. for the record, I do think this dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow fiction is getting less pronounced. I've read a couple of books in the past year, and even a handful of short stories--which are often the worst culprits of the plotless, despairing school of writing-- that offered warmth without resorting to happy ever afters or neatly resolved endings. Beautiful Ruins comes to mind (Jess Walter), and some of Sherman Alexie's stuff, some stories we read for my short story class by Maile Meloy and Pete Fromm. They're out there.

1 comment:

KarenB said...

It's not quite true that I need to like a character to stick with a book, but I do need to care about what happens to them. I've gotten to the point where I read what I want to read, and if it's not highbrow or whatever enough for someone, well too bad. I'm the one who is reading it.

I have found the occasional book, however, that would have benefited from me being in a literature class with it and able to discuss it with others. I can't think of one right off the top of my head though . . .