Sarah Dunant

To like or not to like. That is the question . . .



As you might have noticed, there is literary spat on going at the moment about whether unlikable women characters in fiction are judged differently from men. It all started with the American writer, Claire Messud, attacking an interviewer who suggested the central figure in her novel The Woman Upstairs was the kind of person you wouldn’t want for a friend, and therefore makes for grim company. Messud sank her teeth into the journalist’s jugular and shook her about a bit to make the point that men don’t get asked this kind of question and that fiction is full of unlikeable men who we follow avidly.

While there is a lot to say about this, it might help to define our terms a bit. What exactly do we mean by ‘unlikeable’? And does the word mean the same thing for men or women?

Certainly, unpleasant, amoral, dark, or outrageously cocky men in literature are common and often irresistible. As Claire Messud herself points out, the likes of Roth, Rushdie and Amis used to write them all the time. Indeed Roth still does, but it seems to be his life journey to penetrate the dark self-obsessed centre of masculinity and as a woman reader, I’m happy to be educated on the project, not least because he is fantastic writer.  (It makes no sense in this debate for us not to give credit where credit is due.)

The follow up then might be – are men readers as interested and enthralled by the idea of reading about the dark centre of being female? To answer that, all you have to do is ask an even bigger, balder question:  are men that interested in reading much serious fiction at all, regardless of who is writing it or what it is about?  Because if they aren’t (and all the evidence shows that it is women who make up the great majority of the reading public) then this problem of unlikeable females and whether or not we enjoy reading about them is largely down to women to decide.

So let’s go a little deeper into unlikeability.

In terms of successful fiction it’s true that often the nastier the character the more compelling and dynamic they are likely to be. No one could call Hannibal Lecter likeable, but oh my, his darkness is provocative, compulsive and, in plot terms, extremely dynamic. Indeed it is the action of the book.  So can we have a female Hannibal?  Well, we can get close. The deranged fan, Annie in Stephen King’s Misery is violent and psychotic. It is her psychosis with its grotesque vulnerabilities that runs the thriller narrative.  Those are both male writers.  So what about women writing bad women?  Margaret Atwood is a clear star here. The Robber Bride (twenty years old now) has a female character who is devious, driven and treacherous. But all those attributes help fuel the action of the book. Or there is Fay Weldon’s classic Life and Loves of a She Devil – the study of a woman’s fury activating a tale of gothic revenge. You wouldn’t want either of those women in your immediate address book, but my God you want to keep turning the page.

What they all have in common in their ‘unlikeability’ is power. And this is surely the secret. Think of all the women in history who live on in popular imagination precisely because they have not been ‘likeable’: Catherine the Great, Elizabeth 1st, more recently the rewriting of Ann Boleyn.  I would add to that Lucrezia Borgia, though having just spent some years in her company there is a big caveat here – more on that later.  The reason they are all remembered at all, is that they were operating in a male arena, which meant that to survive they had to behave somewhat like men: ambitious, driven, potent. Not exactly nice attributes, but you don’t ignore them.

When it comes to Lucrezia Borgia the exact opposite is actually the truth. Say her name out loud and among the adjectives you get back are licentious, incestuous, poisonous, murderer. How unlikable is that? (I suspect the key here is ‘licentious and incestuous’ since sex always works well for giving women prominence in history).   Yet if you dig deeper you find it is all rubbish.  A fabrication. A case of a lot of mud slinging through the 15th century equivalent of tabloid journalism and the truth not getting a look in.

So when I wrote Blood & Beauty my challenge was to get the history right – which meant making her more likeable – without rendering her boring compared to her more genuinely villainous family.  The job was made easier by the fact that whole book is driven by action, politics, survival, revenge and that as she gradually understands that she is being used as a pawn in the game and starts to rebel against it, so, in the end, she does gain some power over her future. Though it also follows that she isn’t quite as sweet by the time history has roughed her up a bit.

So if the secret is that the more power you have, the more you can afford to be unlikable, then maybe Clare Messud’s dilemma is that her lead character does not have any – or at least not in the outside world. As she herself says ‘We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation … not a soul registers that we are furious.’

While for some reviewers all that internalised fury has made for a wonderful character study, others seem to yearn for something more active, the pleasure of seeing what might happen when that fury (likable or not) is unleashed onto the world at large. To make up your own mind you’ll have to read the book yourself.

As to women and power, I offer this final thought. The reason I am writing this at all is because I was asked to debate this issue this morning on the BBC’s Today programme:  (For those outside Britain, Today is our flagship radio news show with a huge listenership.)  I sat for an hour waiting to go on and in all that time I never heard a single female voice on air. The presenters, the newsreaders, the commentators, the politician, the experts were all male: men talking about IMPORTANT matters with AUTHORITY, even a sense of their own POWER.  And you know what? I genuinely don’t think anyone had noticed till we got into the discussion about women writers and I decided to mention it.

So – put that world into fiction through the eyes of a heroine and imagine the structure of a dynamic novel.  I can’t help thinking she  might have to be a tad angry and unlikeable to get things changed.

One response to “To like or not to like. That is the question . . .”

  1. Kate Ashton says:

    Dear Sarah Dunant,

    I was listening to you, as always, giving A Point of View (Radio 4) this morning. You were talking about the ‘ancient football’ in Florence, and you were wonderful.I was in that city with my son a year ago, just for two days. It is of course glorious.

    But I missed your remark on the Today programme about women recently, and only caught the subsequent comet’s tail rushing across the air waves.I wish I could say I was surprised that no one but you had noticed the paucity of female voices preceding yours on the programme, but I wasn’t. Now they are doing their best to find token female contributors, but last week Edward Sturton managed to superbly interrupt, giggle at and then cut off for lack of time the eminent French scientist they had invited on to elucidate that very subject.

    I have written a book about a woman who turns the moral tables on masculine received wisdom in motherhood. She goes ‘mad’ and abandons her husband and child along the way to defining what motherhood really implies. It took me twenty-odd years to write the book.

    Male editors at UK publishers have been nonplussed and/or outraged at the idea of publishing it. Women editors are much more empathetic, but daren’t or can’t take the fianancial risk. Several have said how ‘extraordinary’, ‘challenging’ and beautifully written it is – oh sweeteners! I’m not going to self-publish; I want a decent and discerning editor.

    Sian Busby’s book The Cruel Mother perhaps benefited from her being married to Robert Peston? The only other book as brave has been Beside the Sea, a French novella published in translation by Pierene.

    No, nobody wants to hear about woman’s dark interior, I promise you! But I shall certainly read your book.

    Thank you for your thoughtful Sunday morning talks, and for their beautiful delivery.

    Best wishes,
    Kate Ashton.

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