July 20, 2014

Margaret and the Cult of Likeability

Lately, as you may have noticed, I've been fascinated/horrified by the increasingly prevalent "likeability" standard as the primary criterion for assessing the value of literary works. (James Wood addressed it here; and here's Dan Handler, Brendan Halpin, and me, most recently, here.) The basic idea is, or seems to be, that it is the author's job to provide the reader with pleasant, admirable characters whose predominantly unobjectionable views and laudable actions are endearing, inspiring, indomitably-spirited, just-so-doggone charming etc. And nothing but.

There's a word to describe such characters, their attitudes, and the state of mind that prefers them, which harkens back to an earlier, much maligned, era of social disapproval of and frowning upon art: Pollyanna-ish. It was, and remains, a pejorative when it applied to literary characters, or anything, really, but it seems like its spirit is making a bit of a comeback on the internet these days, though today's readers seem to expect even more from Pollyanna than their puritanical mid-to-late-to-post-Victorian counterparts ever did. The contemporary reader, it seems, wants a novel's narrator not just to be nice and fun and unobjectionable and "positive", but also to be a role model, an all-around wonderful person, the kind of person you want to get to know, spend time with, make out with, possibly even marry, and grow old together with.

Failure to provide the reader with such a virtual soul mate is seen as an unforgivable failing on the part of the author and a glaring flaw in the writing itself, something so bad that it's hard to see why the book was published in the first place or why anyone would give it any "stars" at all. The corollary to this tendency, and possibly its inevitable result, is that the flaws and quirks that were once regarded as important parts of character building and indeed can be the entire reason for the existence of the novel in the first place are seen as little more than careless and infuriating mistakes on the part of the author (rather than, like, what he or she was trying to do all along.) Or the very literary conceits that form the basis of some works are derided in a weird "this doesn't pass the smell test" spirit that I've compared to "reviewing" Hamlet by saying: "of course, there really are no ghosts, and the editor should have caught that."

But here I have stumbled on a much better example from real life (or from what passes for it on the internet), a reader review of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret that I present without further comment as a sort of pearl of great price:

I'm surprised that this has such good reviews. It's about a little girl that really wants to get her period?

I think that the main character is just silly, she doesn't stand up for herself, and she doesn't really seem to like her friends - but she sticks around with them anyway. One girl tells her a big lie and she hardly seems to care.

Hey Margaret, it's me [reviewer] - you should get better friends - and also, getting your period kind of sucks, don't wish away the time you have without it!

Sound advice. Judy, you fucked up.

I suppose if you elect presidents based on whether or not you'd like to have a beer with them, subjecting literary characters and the novels in which they appear to the same test isn't much of a stretch, and isn't a whole lot worse. But of course, if novelists really were to adopt these parameters and follow the logic of the cult of likeability, the end product would be unrecognizable as literature, and pretty lame. And maybe this is a Pollyana-ish view on my part, but the cult of likeability had better be careful what it wishes for because I think even it would hate the result if its implicit program were ever to come to pass.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 20, 2014 08:22 PM