By Jennifer Weiner
May 22, 2013
Quick: What’s the most unforgivable sin a writer can commit in fiction? A writerly crime so awful that major, award-winning novelists are condemning it on the pages of Publishers Weekly and inveighing against it in The New Yorker? If you said lazy plotting, dull language, or cardboard-thin characters, well, shame on you. Currently, the most gauche thing a modern-day writer can do is write protagonist who is—oh, the horror—likable.
Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?
Step back in time with me a few weeks. In a Publishers Weekly Q-and-A about her novel, The Woman Upstairs, literary novelist Claire Messud went all Jersey Housewife on interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson. Messud’s protagonist Nora Eldridge is an angry woman, a character Messud says fills a void: “Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that, for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus.” When Wilson asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud did everything but flip the table as she answered: