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Would novelists want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?

May 16, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • James Mason as Humbert Humbert with Sue Lyons in the 1962 film version of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita."
James Mason as Humbert Humbert with Sue Lyons in the 1962 film version of… (Los Angeles Times )

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.

Donald Antrim: I can think of plenty of likeable characters, even some who are murderers.

Rivka Galchen: I would suggest that we are well-trained to like “unappealing” male characters — so much so that I would imagine anyone who wanted their male character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a challenge. Even Céline, poor thing, whose appalling protagonists I still feel compelled to find charming. Conversely, we are not well-trained to like anyone other than the basically virtuous and proficient female protagonist.

Tessa Hadley: I think people are less judgmental in real life than they are when it comes to fiction — isn’t that funny? But it’s so obvious to a writer that they need the grit of bad behavior, or recklessness, or sheer cruelty, or suffering in order to write something true and vivid. No one would want dreary novels full of people behaving considerately, would they?

Jonathan Franzen: I hate the concept of likeability — it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook.

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Carolyn Kellogg: Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+

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