Against Likeability

The ongoing conversation about whether protagonists ought to be likeable reveals how shallow the quality is in the first place.

If you know someone who is easy to like, perhaps you don't know them terribly well. The base-level human mess, the mewling, clawed creature inside each of us, is not usually aired with a handshake or mutual Twitter follow. Literature unleashes that beast under the controlled circumstance of art, primarily because of its very intimate nature—the action literally happens inside your own head. Communion with a text, story, or character makes us confront the lowness of the human animal; if you're lucky, the confrontation will raise your spirit.

Last year, an interviewer called the protagonist of Claire Messud's most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs, “almost unbearably grim.” She asked the novelist if she'd like to be pals with her own character, and as you no doubt recall, Messud took umbrage with the question. “Is Humbert Humbert likeable?” she scoffed.

This exchange became a watershed moment, and the dam is still flowing. On BuzzFeed, Roxane Gay recently published an essay about unlikeability, women, and fiction. She cites novels that deal with their characters’ ugly thoughts, from Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and briefly examines the reality-TV (though hardly reality-reality) trope of “not [being] here to make friends.” Even at our lowest, we're social animals, and negotiating our own sense of belonging is complicated at the best of times. Keep in mind: it is never the best of times.

Likeability is not necessarily a virtuous quality, certainly not in a work of art. A good person is not necessarily the one you like the most. Consider the unlikely fact of Toronto's mayor: despite his demonstrated lack of moral fibre, enough people in North America’s fifth largest metropolis tell pollsters that Rob Ford is still likeable—so likeable, in fact, that he may well win again.

“Frankly, I find ‘good,’ purportedly likeable characters, rather unbearable,” writes Gay, and I'm inclined to agree with her. The world is not frictionless, and it never was, however much Facebook wishes it were so. That’s not to say likeability is only a concern in our age of the push notification; in the late ’90s, Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote a whole book against the devastating blandness of likeability, well before favs and likes and other pinprick affirmations became fuel for our daily lives. In Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, she chronicles the good girls that were always bad, from the biblical Delilah to Naomi Campbell to Twin Peaks’ dead and scandalized sweetheart, Laura Palmer. Being a person in the world comes with contradictions. Especially, it would seem, for the sex history has treated so unfairly.


Claire Messud’s exasperation with likeability made for a short paragraph in a recent New Yorker profile of Jennifer Weiner, the commercial novelist and champion for both women and mass-market fiction. Rebecca Mead’s profile is balanced and fair, and repeatedly mentions that Weiner writes books about characters she hopes you’ll want to befriend; it also points out that Weiner’s books have sold more than four and a half million copies. (One has been made into a romantic comedy.) Friendly fiction is, by all appearances, working very well for Weiner, but Messud’s earlier comments bothered her; she told Mead that it gave her “a sinking heart, and an unhappy sense of recognition. Once again, as a reader and a writer, I was out of step, out of fashion.”

Last month, Gawker’s Tom Scocca published a long, meandering essay on what he identifies as “smarm.” In contradistinction to snark, smarm is the tendency to dull any and all points of dissent through appeals to civility, to niceness. The smarmy are here to make friends, to write Upworthy headlines, and to impose, a la BuzzFeed, a totalizing “No Haters” policy.

Scocca identifies smarm as “a kind of moral and ethical misdirection” that glosses over the content of any given claim and instead questions its tone. It has an oily quality, a layer of rhetorical grease that renders the world a frictionless place. By faking allegiance to a higher level of decency, smarmy squeakers smooth over the world’s more difficult truths.

In reading through Scocca’s many thousand words on the obfuscating uses of smarm, I keep thinking about my own experience of femininity—aren't women in particular told to throw up their hands and ask why we all can’t just get along? It’s a tactic I've availed myself of in the past, appealing to my own likeability to defuse a confrontation. Catching more flies with honey.

But for bigger game, honey isn’t much of a weapon.


Elizabeth Wurtzel has made a career out of eloquent badness. Her first book, Prozac Nation, described the horrors of depression; Bitch, her second, featured a photo of herself topless on the cover, flipping her reader the bird. For the past year, Wurtzel has been publishing essays in various publications about the unlikeability of middle age. Hers is a rage that just won’t quit, and bitching is clickbait.

Take Hannah Horvath, the young, female fuckup and e-book scribe at the centre of the television show Girls (perhaps you’ve heard of it?). As The New Yorker pointed out last year, she is a kind of watered-down Wurtzel in her own, fictional right. Hannah and her friends have launched a thousand stink pieces online and in print; Girls behaving badly is fodder for a digital ocean of thinking and recapping. I’ve seen only a single episode of the show, but I’ve loved observing the snapping and snarking and defensive praise occasioned by it. If Hannah and her pals weren't annoying and manipulative and, frankly, unlikeable, what the hell would everyone talk about?

As Lionel Shriver pointed out, in an essay on the fatal attraction of flaws, “Were Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina both faithful wives, we would never know their names.”

Girls, and Lena Dunham specifically, bear the brunt of many pressures. The show and the show runner are both expected to be role models for tasteful success. More than that, they’re expected to be all things to all young women: the characters are dissected both for their fictional choices and for what they say about women of this generation. Dunham herself has slyly addressed this expectation over and over again, most noticeably when she had her narcissistic protagonist tell her gobsmacked, respectable Midwestern parents that Hannah's voice is, if not the voice of her generation, one of a generation. That voice may be annoying, even unlikeable. But we'll talk about it anyway, because it's fun to think and have opinions, and in the click-economy, opinion sometimes pays the bills.


One of the Frequently Asked Questions on Weiner’s website is “What's your problem with Lena Dunham?” Weiner cited Dunham’s stated distaste for “airport chick-lit,” smarmily appealing to some notion of political solidarity with women who write books—especially books written in the same mode as her own. “Women writers should at least try to support one another,” she pontificates. As long as those women aren't Lena Dunham or Claire Messud.

It’s a likeable idea—female solidarity in the literary arena. A civil notion, even. But as Jesse Barron recently pointed out on the Harper’s blog, among romance novelists, Weiner is more or less alone in her desire for the legitimacy bestowed by hoary institutions like The New York Times. The happy endings crafted by writers of her ilk are posed no threat by the despair thematized in literary fiction (and hanging over the publishing industry as a whole). And Barron, despite disagreeing in part with Weiner, didn’t feel the need, as other critics have, to reassure his reader that he likes her anyway, that she's charming, that she’s, yes, likeable.

Yet the more I read about Weiner, the less I like her. Mind you, to “like” is a shallow disposition, and has been since long before Facebook began exhorting us to like literally everything. Social media, and Twitter in particular, has changed the pace of public discourse. Where once letters were sent to the editor, now published work occasions immediate feedback, as if the price for levelling the playing field is that the game speeds up. Smarm greases the track, advancing the notion that we should all be civil, ladylike even, even at the height of our manic frenzy.

After NW came out, Zadie Smith told an interviewer that “women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts.” Women are people, and people aren’t always likeable. It's complicated. Wiener told Mead that her deepest desire as a writer is to “give my characters the thing that none of us get, which is the promise that it’s going to be O.K.” But it’s not okay, and it never will be. That’s why I turn to art. Like it or not.