There seems to be a recurrent complaint in reviews of novels these days: the reviewer, who may or may not be a professional reviewer – announces, as if it were the last word in literary criticism, “I just didn’t like her/his characters.” Sometimes the complaint is about something the character did – had adulterous sex, left her children, told a lie, let someone down. I say “her” because mostly these complaints seem to be directed at female characters. Men are still allowed to swear, leave home, have adulterous affairs, even kill people. Men – or male characters – don’t have to be “likeable”, as long as they are strong, tough and good-looking. I’m not just talking about pulp fiction here, either, or about the sado-masochistic fantasies of books like “50 Shades of Grey” or the bloodsucking activities of vampires.
No, in contemporary novels, over the last ten years or so, women characters have often been taken to task by readers for not being well-behaved. Forget the fact that it’s almost impossible to write a novel in which everyone behaves well – what would the plot be? Well, the women must behave well, the men can behave badly. Then the women reform the men. Or die. There’s a strong tradition of badly-behaved women dying in fiction: Anna Karenina, Tess Durbeyfield, Emma Bovary for a start. But that was two centuries ago, and the writers were male, punishing their more interesting female characters with death – so they themselves could remain moral and go scot-free? But what about now? Writers are not supposed to kill off their main characters, generally speaking. They can leave them to budding critics to destroy in reviews, instead. I welcomed the appearance of a “bad” woman in Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” Simply, she revokes the edict about writing badly-behaved heroines, and good luck to her for her success.
But, what is going on in readers’ minds when they read of adulterous, murderous and child-ignoring heroines (or should they be anti-heroines?) I think if you let yourself, as a reader, identify with a protagonist in a novel, you begin to accuse yourself of harboring those same desires for anti-social activities. You may find you have fantasized about cheating on your spouse, or even killing someone. Shame on you. You are a moral person. You are an upstanding citizen. You throw the offending book down, or decide to write something censorious on Amazon. The protagonist in all her naughty glory showed you up, and you didn’t like it. I imagine that early readers of say, “Anna Karenina” may have felt the same. Oh, she left her husband for a wayward lover, abandoned her son? Ah, yes, but she ended up under a train. So not only the author (Tolstoy, who later in life criticized his own novel for immorality) is exonerated, but the reader can be too. Is this what we are repeating when we complain that this or that female protagonist was “unlikeable”? Not that we wouldn’t have her for a friend, or that no woman should behave that way – but that she is showing us an “unlikeable” part of ourselves? Flaubert knew it – “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But then, he was a man, and could have it both ways. Who are we, as we read, as we judge, as we secretly identify? Have we, as readers, become too smug for our own good?
Rosalind Brackenbury is the author of several novels, short stories, and books of poetry. Recent poetry collections include: The Joys of the Nearly Old and Bonnard’s Dog. Some novels include, The House in Morocco and Becoming George Sand, (my favorite) that features more than one woman behaving badly in more than one era. I loved it! Read my review here.
She is currently wending her way to an appointment at a Parisian bookstore to read from her latest book of poetry, Bonnard’s Dog.
In the Spring of 2015 Rosalind Brackenbury was awarded the title of Poet Laureate of Key West.