I have just been reading a sample of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” on my new Kindle (more on this later) and I have to confess now that I shall not persist with it.
Why not? It is not that it is not extremely well written. It is. It is full of acute social observation, detailing life amongst the middle class intelligensia. It is spot on in its satire, and crammed full of domestic detail. Usually this is the stuff I love – a rich- textured, lovingly rendered world. But I know I don’t want to read on because the characters just don’t work for me. Mostly I don’t like them. I wouldn’t want to have them as my neighbours, which is ironic since this is a book about a neighbourhood.
I have my doubts that this is a valid criticism on my part. In great literature, the thing to which Franzen, no doubt, aspires, is the likeability of the characters really the most important thing? He is aiming after veracity in his depiction of humanity and I am sure Freedom is full of that, and it will be very unpalatable, even if very well done. So I am sorry I shan’t read it.
This makes me feel like a coward in terms of literature. Perhaps I am, but I do want something for my trouble when I read a novel these days. I don’t want to spend time with people who leave me cold or whom I actively dislike. I want to be pulled into a world and care about what happens to those people. I wanted to care about the people in Franzen’s Ramsay Hill, but I couldn’t. They repelled rather than attracted me.
I think this is a big question that all writers have to deal with, because real people are often extremely unpleasant, and it is often such extreme people who cause all the conflict and chaos in life. They are subjects of fascination for anyone who is a student of human nature, and I would say that any fiction writer or storyteller is that. To what extent do we make our characters palatable to our readers? Is it an abnegation of our responsibility as writers to make at least some of the people in the story aimiable and sympathetic?
In popular fiction likeable characters are essential. The vast majority of the book-buying audience expects and desires it to be so. They want people they can emphasise with and root for. The rules of popular storytelling see no the point of putting an unlikable character in a life and death situation or giving them a heart breaking moral dilemma to deal with. The point of such stories is that you do care and by caring you feel the pain and the anxiety and misery along with the characters. But what about in Literature with a capital L. Surely that does not need to be made palatable for weak minded souls like me? That would be sugar-coating the pill and real art, great art does not compromise, surely?
I think the great novels are those where the subtlest balance is achieved between telling the truth about people and making us care; those novels where we can love the characters but also see that they are portrayed with blistering honesty. Take Middlemarch by George Eliot for example. She does not spare Dorothea or Lydgate the brutal exposure of their follies, yet we still fall for them. They are idealists who make silly mistakes. I supsect if Dorothea or Lydgate were co-workers you would go home and complain about them, but George Eliot makes us care, she makes us want to befriend them, to worry about them, to wince when they make those terrible mistakes. Who has not exclaimed with horror at Dorothea’s decision to marry Causabon?
For a slightly different approach we might look at Wuthering Heights. Here the central protagonists Heathcliffe and Cathy are a pair of pyschopaths. They are not people you would want to know socially and yet their appalling behaviour, their destructive yet inevitable passion is the absolute and memorable core of the novel. But Emily Bronte has a trick to make it bearable, to keep us on board. She presents them to us through her narrators, firstly the sophisticated and urbane Lockwood (who seems to have strayed from a novel by Jane Austen) and then Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, who witnesses much of the action first hand. Both Lockwood and Nelly are in their different ways extremely likeable. In this way, Emily Bronte gives us people to care about and to admire, while at the same time presenting an unflinching portrait of people behaving very badly indeed.