Name the last time you read a literary novel about an exceptional, gifted, attractive man who loves his life and work, loves women, loves sex with women in his own age range, falls in love with one particular woman, marries her and remains (essentially) faithful to her, despite extreme tests. Name one male protagonist in recent fiction who, however complicated he may be, assigns himself an audacious goal and achieves it; a man who is admirable, yet also fairly conventional in his desires and dreams.

Until the last few years, I would have been hard-pressed to come up with a single example of such a character, later than Odysseus or, to be fair, David Copperfield (though Dumb Dora was no Penelope). Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre) and Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) also hold great appeal, but are, effectively, unemployed, which (for me) compromises their status as paragons. I love contemporary (and older) fiction, and am compelled by its characters—male, female and other; heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.; cowardly or brave; hale or infirm— and their knotty problems. The work of literary fiction, on the whole, is the exploration of difficult, atypical lives and trying times. I applaud that endeavor, and am fascinated by its provocations and revelations. And yet…a decade ago, when a close friend of mine was going through a wrenching period in his personal life, and asked me if, as a critic, I could recommend a recent novel in which the male protagonist was not unhappy, was not drug-addicted or selfish, was not cynical, was not negative, did not screw up his relationships and let people down, was not on some level a bastard—who did not, in short, fail as a human, I was startled to realize that I could not think of one.

And I wondered: is there no place in the ambitious writerly imagination anymore for what used to be called the heroic male ideal? Dickens, in the opening line of his (largely autobiographical) novel David Copperfield, wrote, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Was that premise—that a man would set out intentionally to be heroic— now “out”? Did it strike modern sensibilities as embarrassing, cliché, conceited or retrograde? If so, what then should a man set out to be? Was no one left but Luke Skywalker to uphold a pattern of male excellence? Perhaps so, I thought. And yet, like many of us, I grew up reading works which have lived for centuries (not only Homer and Dickens, but Trollope, Stendhal, Tolstoy—even Louisa May Alcott), which made me think that this goal must be recognized, if only subconsciously, as worthy. The blueprint existed, but had been discarded, rejected, as out of date, uninteresting, or perhaps childish—something for YA and bodice rippers and airport novels, not for serious readers.

And so, it was with surprise and elation that I read a novel this fall called Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff, which set out unapologetically to present a male protagonist in the heroic tradition— a charismatic, strapping, loving and beloved, prolific playwright named Lotto, who is devoted to his wife, Mathilde. (She turns out to be named Aurélie, actually, and constitutes a more familiar, tricksy, postmodern construction of attitude and artifice). But reading the author’s portrayal of Lotto in the book’s first half (which presents Lotto and Mathilde’s story primarily from his perspective) was for me like taking great gulps of oxygenated air, reviving the fainting corpse of romance between men and women.

Before reading Fates and Furies, the most moving and convincing romances I had read in decades had concerned either love between men—André Aciman’s breathtaking, passionate “Call Me By Your Name” and Annie Proulx’s heartbreaking short story “Brokeback Mountain;” or love between a woman and a weak-willed scoundrel (for instance, “One Day” by David Nicholls) or a woman’s platonic affair with her doomed, paraplegic boss (“Me Before You,” by Jojo Moyes). But in Lauren Groff’s novel, I discovered a vital protagonist who could give hope to cisgender women readers; that is, a male character who could make such readers believe it was not futile and senseless to fall in love with a heterosexual man.

As I pondered the dearth of such characters in ambitious contemporary fiction, it occurred to me that I had overlooked a striking example of the heroic everyman in a highly acclaimed recent body of work by another author. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s deeply detailed, introspective six-volume saga My Struggle has been lauded and examined ad infinitum by legions of critics (including me) who are astonished by his unconcealed emotionalism and his preternatural recall of the particulars of his past. But if you consider those books together, as one unified project, you see that they relay the story of a man who doggedly overcame obstacles to achieve creative and domestic fulfillment: a man who, to paraphrase Dickens, became the hero of his own life. Knausgaard, who is notoriously self-deprecating, likely would dispute that assessment. Still, the popularity of Fates and Furies and My Struggle proves to me that the power of this archetype endures.

There is room in the reading world for fiction about every kind of person on earth, whatever their sexual or gender identity or preference; whatever their deficit or surfeit of ability, whatever their weakness or strength of personality; whatever their luck, good or ill. My literary appetites are catholic and insatiable, and I require neither conventional plot structure and subjects nor happy endings (nor does Fates and Furies supply one, it is not a wish-fulfilment novel).

But when I remember my troubled male friend, who asked me not so long ago, during a dark moment, to recommend a novel about a man who succeeded, I am so glad that I can now give him a title. (Even now, I am not sure he should risk the Knausgaard).

A good man is an extraordinary thing; but more of them exist among us than literature likes to show.

About The Author

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade, and became a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vogue, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Medium, and many other publications. Her translations include the novels “Every Day, Every Hour,” by Natasa Dragnic (2012, Viking), and “The Lady of the Camellias,” by Alexandre Dumas, fils (Penguin Classics, 2013); and she is the author of “Wordbirds” (Simon & Schuster 2013), an illustrated lexicon of 21st Century neologisms.

8 Responses

  1. Jason

    Thank you for this, Liesl. It seems, especially in the last couple of years, that it has become almost fashionable to show men being stupid or violent, being cheaters, wife-beaters and rapists, and of course being powerfully opposed by female characters. I too have been wanting to see more male characters who are strong and good and yet interesting as well, not just the sickening stereotypes that seem to be condoned right now. If you come up with several more recent books that have characters such as this, I (and I’m sure others, too) wouldn’t mind seeing a list.

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  2. N

    ” I could recommend a recent novel in which the male protagonist was not unhappy, was not drug-addicted or selfish, was not cynical, was not negative, did not screw up his relationships and let people down, was not on some level a bastard—who did not, in short, fail as a human, I was startled to realize that I could not think of one.”

    Ummm, Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular authors in the world and has been writing novels about this guy since the 80s (well, 90s here). I would be very surprised if you had not heard of him, so I’m surprised that he was overlooked. Sure he doesn’t right heroic ideals , so this doesn’t apply to your article as a whole, but at least on that recommendation.

    And his character’s may not fit that archetype, but they are heroic in at least the author’s own ideal sense. They are always Murakami’s own ideal versions of himself, the hero he would like to be, And I’m sure Murakami’s stoic protagonists might have even helped him through his trials. There is plenty of advice about getting through hard time in his work, focus on the little things, the ritual habits, clean your house, work out, eat fresh food, live a simple life, and most of all, endure. And most of all, they have plenty of healthy sexual desire and, for the most part, have sex with women their own age.

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  3. John Lemon

    How about The Swede Levov from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral? I think he was a pretty positive and successful male character whose troubles were not a result of his own actions? He is by design “a man who is admirable, yet also fairly conventional in his desires and dreams”, much like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illich with whom Roth draws overt parallels.

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  4. Jen

    While I appreciate the thought behind this article, that being a dearth of heroic protagonists, I think that this article reveals, more than anything else, the narrowness of the writer’s reading. Science fiction and the literature of the fantastic in the last ten years has brought us a vast array of heroic characters. Unfortunately, as an graduate student, I see a lot of people ignoring non-realist genres out of some sort of belief that none of it has literary value. If this author read more non-realistic fiction, she would have found a plenitude of heroic characters in a score of fine novels. Take Kvothe in “The Name of the Wind,” for instance.

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  5. Jim Swearingen

    Thoughtful piece and Schillinger has nailed–no pun intended–the man-problem in fiction, as well, I might add in many films. The startling exception in my limited reading of recent fiction is Pete Hammill’s North River. Dr. Delaney is certainly emotionally damaged. But, the appearance of his abandoned baby grandson and a Sicilian housekeeper reconnect him to what is worth fighting for!

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