In a widely circulated interview with Publishers Weekly, writer Claire Messud was asked if she would want to be friends with the protagonist of her new novel, "The Woman Upstairs." She responded with frustration: "For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?"
Her point: Humbert Humbert was a creep, but "Lolita" didn't suffer from his lack of likability.
Messud went on to list a number of other iconic characters who would make lousy friends, including Hamlet, Oscar Wao and Raskolnikov. Then she started getting bigger, adding anyone ever written by Thomas Pynchon, as well as all the characters in "Infinite Jest" and "The Corrections."
Today, the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog turns to the author of "The Corrections," Jonathan Franzen, to find out what he thinks about likable and unlikable characters. The blog has asked several, too, who didn't appear on Messud's unlikable list: Margaret Atwood, Rivka Galchen, Donald Antrim and Tessa Hadley. Here's a selection of their responses:
Margaret Atwood: Do women writers get asked this more than male ones? Bet your buttons they do. The snaps and snails and puppy-dog’s tails are great for boys. The sugar and spice is still expected for girls.