Dear Roxane Gay: yes to unlikable, but no to unredeemable

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In her essay, “Not Here to Make Friends,” Roxane Gay calls into question the gender double-standard that female protagonists can’t be unlikable, while literature, TV and film are full of male leads who are despicable—and we love them. It’s a fascinating and maddening situation that she tackles with aplomb. I’m enjoying all of the essays collected in her book, Bad Feminist, for how they make me think about the many ways that gender stereotypes show up (and are hidden) in our culture.

“Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.”

I do have some quibbles with this premise. Unlikable characters are certainly more realistic, and therefore more like us. They may be less relatable because we don’t want to see those traits, our shadow qualities that have been carefully hidden, or ruthlessly suppressed and denied. Still, I hold out that positive characters can be alive. A literary example doesn’t come immediately to mind, but Joanna Macy and the Dalai Lama are pretty interesting people.

In this essay, Gay praises several recent novels with unlikable women as the lead character. About Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!, she says, “There is no redemption or lesson learned from misdeeds. There is no apology or moral to the story, and that makes an already incisive and intelligent novel even more compelling.” She cites several other stories with miserable, bitter, manipulative, or otherwise unlikable lead characters.

This made me wonder, other than to admire the brilliance of the writing, why put in the time to read a book like that? I thought drama was supposed to take us somewhere, through some change in the character for better or worse, or both. I trust Gay’s assessment that the writing is superb, but why does a writer earn higher marks for resisting the temptation for a protagonist learn or change? Gay dismisses such epiphanies as pandering. When I read books like these, I miss the satisfaction of catharsis, which is maybe the point.

These are restless, unsatisfying times we live in and our literature should reflect that. Our entire culture does, indeed, remind us at every turn. We need that truth-telling counterpoint to the artificial, and false, positivity that’s constantly forcing itself on us. I do question whether that’s the only, or primary, function of culture, though, to be that mirror, the one that doesn’t lie to us.

I’ve been watching back episodes of “Boardwalk Empire” lately, and it is a treat to see Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson be such a greedy, manipulative, back-stabbing user. It is. The show’s rampant sexism either reminds us how far we’ve come or gives today’s unapologetic sexists a chance to indulge in some serious nostalgia. There are intriguing parallels between the futility of Prohibition and the current War on Drugs. Certainly, both are breeding grounds of violent criminals who care nothing for the lives they destroy.

I do come back to the question of mirror or lamp. I understand that it’s not a binary choice, an either/or. These mirrors that Gay praises in her essay are necessary, if only to give us new insight and make us think, to question our own motivations and actions. I have always been drawn more to the lamp camp, and that’s probably my blind spot.

As soon as I see something unpleasant in the mirror, I want to turn and shine the lamp elsewhere, towards something good, something hopeful. And beautiful—there is so much beauty in the world, even now. We need truth-tellers as much as we need spinners of imaginary worlds and visions. We need it all. Activists and dramatists, designers and builders. Those who tear down and those who build up. And those who choose to sit it out entirely (although maybe a few less of them).

I could probably spend more time standing still at the mirror once in a while, plumbing its dark depths, if only to remind myself of the real horrors out there (and in here). The aphorism that you get more of what you focus on does haunt me. I worry that focusing on the darkness in the mirror—at the misery, suffering, depression, and despair that rightly demand and deserve our attention—will only pull me in more.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

I welcome an expert’s opinion on the craft of great literature, especially one as honest and intelligent and fun to read as Roxane Gay. It forces me to be more honest about my own predilections, and to question the assumptions in my current work. I choose to hold out that redemption is not only possible, it is interesting and worth reading about. It is worthy of being great literature, today, as in the past. That is the challenge I have set for myself.


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  1. Pingback: In support of fiction that gives voice to the living world | Thriving on the Threshold

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