Social Contracts and “the Cult of Likability”

by Nathan Pensky

There is a common complaint among book critics that takes aim at readers who judge a narrative to be poor, because they “didn’t like” one of the characters. A middle-schooler is forced to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” and says the book is no good, because “Scout is a brat.” A high-schooler has to read “Romeo and Juliet” and calls the play dumb, because “Mercutio is conceited.” These complaints make their way to the Internet, and critics swoon with disgust.

Claire Messud’s response during a 2013 interview offered such critics a sort of rallying cry. The interviewer asks Messud if she would want to be friends with the main character of her novel “The Woman Upstairs,” and Messud responds:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

No word on whether the interviewer ever recovered.

YA writer Frank Portman recently dubbed those cursed readers, the Cult of Likability. The Cult is as old as misreading itself, though no doubt more visible with the advent of the Internet.

But the argument, or should I say the loudness of the argument, against the Cult of Likability has always seemed strange to me. The argument is so obvious it hardly needs mentioning. A novel is not a scrapbook of cuddly personalities. Okay, point taken. Why get so bent out of shape about something so self-evident?

I agree with Emily Gould, when she said that “readers who find characters’ ‘likability’ to be a book’s paramount virtue inevitably fail to seem very likable themselves.” But I’d add that the writers and critics who rail against those readers are, themselves, at least as bad.

Zoe Heller, in the second half of this NY Times piece, comes closest to the truth.

When the novelist Claire Messud rebuked a reporter earlier this year, for asking if Messud would want to “be friends with” the protagonist of “The Woman Upstairs,” her latest book, I was among those who applauded. It’s always cheering to have someone stand up for the not-nice in literature. Messud’s citation of various mad, murderous or otherwise unpleasant literary characters who have managed, despite their moral handicaps, to enthrall readers, was apt and enjoyably furious.

I grew a little uneasy, though, when in subsequent Internet discussions a consensus seemed to emerge that caring at all about “likability” was an embarrassing solecism, committed only by low-rent writers and hopelessly naïve readers. This struck me — and strikes me still — as faux-highbrow nonsense.

If anything, Heller doesn’t go far enough in calling out these critics’ snobbishness. “Likability” isn’t merely a bad criterion to judge characters by. It’s a totally meaningless cultural term, the blankness of which shows itself most readily in protests against the Cult.

The reason “likability” smacks in the face of cultural critics is that “likability” is essentially a political, or social, distinction, a code word for in-groups. And being socially constructed, “likability” must refer to a given society of “those liked” who determine the rules of the club. Most arguments either for or against “likability” fall apart, because the term is too conditionally defined to serve either as a useful critical tool, or as a subject of criticism itself.

In a round-up by the New Yorker on the subject, Jonathan Franzen states succinctly “I hate likability.” Franzen compares likable characters with public officials chosen by voters based on their all-American good-natured attitude. Americans wanted to “have a beer with George Bush,” and thus they gave rise to eight years of his hateful Presidency.

The Franzen response is instructive. It shows that what Franzen means when he says he “hates likability” is that he, personally, hates certain behavior. “Likability,” to him, means “enjoying a pleasant feeling of trust and camaraderie independent of any other consideration.” But if you were to ask American voters who actually cared about issues, then Bush’s aw-shucks affability would have seemed, and in fact did seem for a great many people, very unlikable. Likability, then, is a measure of certain coded behavior. The question of “Would I have a beer with this candidate?” only matters to people who like beer.

Following Franzen’s metaphor to its conclusion, all Presidents would be subject to the same criticism. They became well-liked and were voted in. His illustration demonstrates that “likability” isn’t a qualitative attribute so much as a cultural agreement between certain players. “Like” is a transitive verb; one must like…something. And it’s a person’s reaction to that something, and how that reaction agrees or doesn’t agree with others in a community concerning that something, that defines whether or not a person is “likable.”

Citing “likability” as the sole virtue by which every literary character should be judged is, of course, ridiculous. And yet, in the same way that Franzen didn’t see that his definition of “likability” was dependent on social cues, critics of the Cult don’t seem to see the distinctly politic flavor of their positions. What I think such writers and critics really want isn’t for readers to stop caring about likability, but for them to like the right things.

One imagines the Cult of Likability best represented by a white, Suburban YA reader who is forced to read “Pride and Prejudice” for high school. But a member of the Cult could just as easily be a gay teenager living in a state where Marriage Equality laws haven’t been passed, who finds Elizabeth Bennett’s obsession with finding a husband, not merely shallow in the sense that the book’s satire is meant to convey, but utterly disorienting. Obviously the Suburbanite is wrong. But does that make the gay teenager just as wrong? Does the vitriol against the Cult of Likability work equally well for either example?

Accusations about writing unlikable characters have been lobbed at women authors much more frequently than male writers. The gender politics of the debate are impossible to ignore. Roxane Gay sums up that phenomena in her Buzzfeed essay “Not Here To Make Friends.” Gay argues powerfully that “unlikable” female characters are necessary to upset the patriarchy. But Gay’s essay also acknowledges that her definition of “unlikable” reflects “likability” in another sense.

What is “unlikable” for those who would rather be pretty and nice and make friends with other pretty, nice people becomes “likable” for those who, like Gay herself, would value self-affirmation above blending into the crowd. It isn’t just citing “likability” as an attribute to be undermined. It’s also making a value judgment about those for whom “likability” serves as a criterion for acceptance. Gay admits that she herself employs a similar criterion of likability for her own group, and draws attention to the fact that, as “likability” acts as a criterion dependent upon the group one is supposed to be blending with, it becomes a rather slippery tool to judge the critical analysis of a faceless, amorphous reader.

Why is likability even a question? Why are we so concerned with, whether in fact or fiction, someone is likable? Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn’t behave in a way the reader finds palatable… That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd. It implies we are engaging in a courtship. When characters are unlikable, they don’t meet our mutable, varying standards. Certainly, we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether or not we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.

It’s no accident that the Cult seems to reveal itself clearest in Franzen’s and Gay’s thoughts, where those writers make explicit connection between “likability” and politics. But there’s a right and a wrong way to engage in talk concerning people who hold with different political, or social, views. Most critics don’t even consider that, even if they’re right, they might still be acting like snobs. Snobbery, after all, doesn’t happen when people are wrong. It’s being right in the wrong way.

Most protests against the Cult reinforce critical exclusivity. The way is narrow. Only the elect shall pass. For such prescriptivist critics, any art that employs representational aesthetics requires a sort of cultural agreement between artist and reader, a hard-won code. This cultural agreement is needed even if art means to undermine preconceived notions; one can’t undermine a notion that doesn’t yet exist. And with that received knowledge comes all sorts of attending emotions and ideas. It’s important to feel and think the right thing.

And that’s all proper and fine. Same as it ever was. It’s the flavor of this talk that irks, not the content. Critics of the Cult are right. But they rarely mention that great characters are neither “likable” nor “unlikable,” that “unlikability” functions according to the same coded rules as the dreaded “likability,” that if the temptation arises to use either adjective in describing a character, a better one would probably be “flat.”

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