Do you think that authors really dislike their villainous protagonists as much as they claim to?

6a00d8341c69f653ef019affcdee3a970cI started reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is about the machinations of a very wealthy and dishonest and villainous widow. And I love her. She’s pretty much the best. But Trollope does not love her. He’s constantly talking about how evil she is and shit.

In fact, lots of Victorian novels are about very evil characters, and they always have this very moralizing tone. For instance, Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp has to be one of the most vivid characters  in literature, but Thackeray clearly very much disapproves of her and is constantly giving you these sly little asides (an authorial intervention that was much more allowable in Victorian literature) about how awful and unfeeling she is.

But I don’t believe him. Thackeray constructed the novel. He chose to write her. I don’t see how a person could write an entire novel about Becky Sharp without, in some way, thinking that she is awesome. In some ways, I feel like he just inserted the judgmental tone so that his audience would let him get away with writing the novel. It’s like how you can write a crime novel about a character who gleefully kills and steals and cheats and rapes…as long as they get their comeuppance in the end.

Personally, many of my protagonists are awful people. I don’t really intend them to be that way; it’s more that I just don’t think about morality when I’m writing, which means that all my work exists in a pretty amoral universe. I would never consider having a character not do something because it’s “not the right thing to do.” But I’ve learned to disguise that, and to play tricks on the reader in order to artificially build sympathy. For instance, if you put the protagonist in a pitiable situation, they’ll come off more sympathetic. And if you have them do something good for someone early on in the story, then the reader will give them leeway. And if there’s a perception that the protagonist is fighting against some greater societal evil, that can also help  (this is often the reason why crime novels get a free pass, for instance).

But, to me, all of that stuff is just tossed in because, for some reason or another, most readers can’t sympathize with characters that are not, in some way, good.

For instance, at AWP, I was talking to someone about that interview in which Claire Messud talked about how she didn’t think characters need to be likeable. In that interview, the primary character under discussion was Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. And I have to say…I didn’t find her unlikeable at all. I sympathized intensely with her feeling of being abused and toyed with and ignored. And so what if those feelings mostly came out as inchoate rage? What’s wrong with that?

What I think people ignore about “unlikeable” characters is how likeable they actually are. For instance, I found myself dazzled by Scarlett O’Hara and Humbert Humbert. They’re amoral wretches, but they’re actually exactly the sort of people that one would want to be friends with, because they seem like they’re charismatic and they always have something to say.

Actually, Scarlett O’Hara is one of my favorite characters, because rarely has there been a heroine with fewer redeeming characteristics. And yet the novel revels in her. She doesn’t really come in for much, if any, oppobrium. If anything, the novel gradually reveals that Ashley Wilkes and Melanie whatserface are hothouse flowers who can’t really exist outside without the privileges accorded them in the antebellum south. And Scarlett comes out looking pretty good in the end. Her ruthlessness, the book argues, is exactly what a person needs to have if they’re going to survive.

The mark of a good writer, I think, is that meaning comes through even when you don’t intend it to. Take Dickens, for instance. He wrote the broadest characters imaginable, but sometimes you can’t really tell whether they’re scoundrels or not. Take Mr. Micawber for instance. He’s perpetually penurious, and he constantly borrows money without intending to pay it back. His family suffers because of his flightiness. And he eventually ends up transported to Australia. But he still gets a very loving portrayal in David Copperfield. And, in the end, it’s hard to say whether he’s a hero or a villain.

Still, there’s a level of esotericism there. I don’t think that most readers are sophisticated enough to hold opinions about a character that are different from what the book tells you. Most readers will say that Mr. Micawber is a great guy, and that Harold Skimpole (from Bleak House) is awful, even though the two characters are pretty much exactly the same, because Dickens tells you that one is good and that the other is bad.

So when you’re writing a book, you have to determine a surface interpretation of the character (will I portray them sympathetically or unsympathetically?) and then allow the opposite interpretation to remain buried in the text, for the benefit of readers who care to dredge it up. And somewhere in the intermingling of the two interpretations, you end up with a more complex and true portrait of a person.

Quick thoughts on books that I haven’t read in a long time

  • gone_windI’ve only read Gone With The Wind once, when I was in 9th grade, but it made a huge impression on me. I still remember its strangely hopeful ending. There was something so perfect about Scarlett deciding to go back to Tara and regroup. It was exactly the right note on which to end the book. That was also the book that taught me that heroes don’t need to be sympathetic; they just need to be interesting. Scarlett was unintelligent, selfish, and cruel, but there was something riveting about her: she demonstrated how far you can get in life on sheer ruthlessness.
  • I was thinking the other day about Voltaire’s Candide. It’s a famous book, but not as widely-read as it should be. I think this one book that’s seriously suffered from being labeled ‘literature.’ Whenever you hear about it, it’s described as some deep philosophical tract on the education of the youth. But that’s not it at all. It’s a super-fun romp. It’s way more Arabian Nights than Bhagavad Gita. And it’s also weirdly bawdy and horrifying. People die in monstrous ways and if they don’t die, they degenerate and become haggard shells of themselves. It’s definitely worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.
  • One year, I spent so much time reading Saul Bellow and I’ve retained very little of it. It’s all blended together and left me only a mental picture of a slovenly but handsome man of letters who wanders around making caustic judgments on the people around him. Anyone who’s going to read him should just start with Ravelstein and then maybe not go any further. It’s not only one of his shortest books, but it also feels like his kindest and his least self-absorbed.
  • I wish George Orwell had written more nonfiction books. I enjoyed Homage To Catalonia, Road To Wigan Pier, Down and Out In Paris And London, and Fifty Essays much more than I enjoyed any of his novels (and I enjoyed his novels quite a lot). No one explains stuff quite as gently and kindly as he doess
  • On Wednesday, I saw The Silver Linings Playbook, which has a scene where the main character reads the end of A Farewell To Arms and then gets angry and throws it out the window. I loved A Farewell To Arms and I think its last line (one of the most famous last lines in literature) is an exactly perfect one. That line should not have been anything else. It’s deeply affecting and it, obviously, added something to the toolkit of modern literature. But that last line is also very upsetting, because it feels cheap. You have a character who’s cool and collected and slightly shell-shocked and then, at the very climax of the book, you pull away from him and refuse to pierce that dignity. It feels like the book can’t bear to ever allow its protagonist to ever seem less than utterly manly. And I don’t think that books should be solicitous of their characters in precisely that way.
  • John Steinbeck is so weird. I still find it hard to believe that the author of Grapes of Wrath could’ve also written Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. They’re all about impoverished people, but Grapes is so righteously angry in a way that the other two simply are not. Tortilla and Cannery almost kind of glorify a life of poverty and portray poor people (or at least certain subsets of poor people) as being more genuine and more authentically in touch with life. But Grapes says exactly the opposite: it’s about how poverty destroys families and shreds human dignity. Ever since I read Tortilla Flat, I’ve never been able to get excited about Steinbeck in the same way. It’s a good and interesting book, but it’s also repulsive and cold-hearted one and, honestly, more than a bit racist. I still haven’t read East of Eden. Every description of it makes it sound rather unappetizing to me (a retelling of Adam and Eve using a ranching family in 1930s and 1940s Salinas, California), but I really do need to get around to that someday.
  • Other strangely-unappealing books that I’m constantly picking up and putting down and which I plan on getting around to sometime in the next forty years:
    • Crime And Punishment
    • For Whom The Bell Tolls
    • Ulysses
    • Gravity’s Rainbow
    • As I Lay Dying and Light in August
    • Middlesex
    • Song of Solomon and Beloved
    • A Passage To India
    • Mrs. Dalloway
    • Lord of the Flies
    • Invisible Man
    • Where I’m Calling From

Is there a value to being locked out of the literary canon?

The literary canon is a body of ‘great’ literature created by a dialogue between college professors. These professors then the canon to college students. The college students disseminate the canon to the general public (largely through the medium of middle and high school English classes). The authority of the college professors is partly a result of their institutional power (you need to listen to them to get your degree) but it’s mostly because their students accept that the professors’ years of dedication to the topic have given them a superior ability to define and discern literary quality.

Millions of people (including myself) have enjoyed reading canonized works and have profitably used the canon as a way to guide their reading. However, most people consider it to be something of a bore: a body of knowledge that is equivalent, in its uselessness, to calculus or chemistry.

This silly-looking fellow (Harold Bloom) is one of the people who creates the literary canon

But to adherents of genre literature, the canon is something more than a bore: it’s an active irritant. To some people, it is extremely vexing that the books they love have been deemed, by the nation’s authorities, to be lacking in literary quality.

As for myself, I sometimes wonder if there’s not something of an advantage in being shut out of the literary canon. I feel that there is something there, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

There’s a temptation to say that the canon is a tool used by the power elite to colonize our imaginations. But there’s something that feels wrong about that. First, the canon isn’t nearly popular enough to be a very effective tool of colonization. Second, the canon frequently includes works that are daring and anti-authoritarian. Third, many of the works in genre literature’s unofficial canon are extremely supportive of the status quo. For instance, The Lord Of The Rings and Dune contain racist / eugenic themes and are quasi-fascist in their embrace of a mythic savior figure–the hero as leader–who unifies a people and directs their energies towards the defeat of a national foe.

Then there’s also a temptation to say the opposite. The canon is the way that powerful and vital works of art are institutionalized and sapped of their emotional value. For instance, it’s very difficult to really feel the confusion and rage in The Catcher in the Rye after it’s been marked with the stamp of approval by the phonies who run your school.

But that also doesn’t feel right, somehow. Without the canon, I’d have never known to read The Catcher In The Rye. Flawed as the canon is, it is the only thing that can keep a book alive.

It feels like genre literature has come to a similar conclusion. Nowadays, the focus seems to be on getting genre work included in the canon. The usual approach is to think of authors whose work has certain canon-approved characteristics (a focus on detail; an information-dense writing style; experimentation with form; ambiguity as to intention and meaning) and then crying out for these authors to be placed within the canon.

To some extent, this approach has succeeded. Harold Bloom has included Tom Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and John Crowley in his canon. Philip K. Dick also looks like he may enter the canon.

And that’s totally fine. But that’s just an attempt by science fiction writers to get into the literary game.

What I find fascinating are the ways in which the parallel science fiction / fantasy canon is very different from the literary canon and includes works that could never be included in the latter. Dune and Lord of the Rings might be studied as cultural artifacts, but I don’t think they’ll ever make it into the formal canon.

And yet, they’re alive. Gloriously alive. Without the influence of teachers or classes or lists or any sort of appeal to cultural authority, people read them and enjoy them. They’re part of a shadow-canon, along with books like Gone With The Wind and Ender’s Game and How To Win Friends And Influence People and Atlas Shrugged and Battlefield Earth and the novels of Georgette Heyer and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the whole Sherlock Holmes corpus.

Now…many of you probably winced at a few of the titles that I named. There are certainly some authoritarian and racist themes amongst them. And many of them are very poorly written. That’s why this stuff (with the exception, perhaps, of Lovecraft) is never going to get into the primary canon (or, in the case of Kipling, has fallen out of the primary canon).

But yet…this is the stuff that our cultural imagination has preserved. And I don’t think they’re without value. I’ve enjoyed many of these works. And I’ve enjoyed them in different ways from works within the literary canon. While these works (largely) lack literary virtue, they also have a vividness, an economy, and a structure that are almost unknown in canonized novels.


So, okay…even if you take it as a given that there’s this shadow-canon that rewards different virtues from the primary canon, the main question is “So what?”

Personally, I am glad that the shadow canon exists. First, it’s just nice that there’s something in our culture that’s not completely under the thumb of mysterious authority figures (although Hollywood does do its best to influence even the shadow canon). Second, I think that the purpose of books is to entertain people, and the books in the shadow canon are often quite entertaining. Third, the shadow canon is democratic in a way that the literary canon is not.

It’s not that the literary canon can’t be influenced by the average reader…but…there mostly the reader’s role in the literary canon is to either accept or reject the judgment of authority. There’s no room for the reader to form and disseminate opinions about the literary canon. All the air in the room is taken up by the tenured professors whose job it is to form those opinions (and who are really, really good at it).

But the shadow canon is almost entirely the creation of readers. Although the recommendations of authors and newspaper critics (and the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies) do play a role in forming the shadow canon, even these authority figures have far more interplay with the reading public than a university professor does. An author’s recommendation is only respected because people like his or her work. A Hollywood movie is usually greenlit for a property because that property already has fans. The LotR films made the books more popular, but the movies were only successful because the books were already fairly popular.

And, furthermore, there’s a huge part of the creation of the shadow canon that takes place entirely outside of formal authority structures. Is there anyone in authority who’s pushing Lovecraft or Ender’s Game?

Whereas the essential relationship with regards to disseminating the shadow-canon is the teacher/student relationship, the shadow cannon is usually disseminated either friend to friend or (at advanced stages) from parent to child. To a large extent, the shadow canon is still a word of mouth phenomena.

And I think that there’s something valuable in that. It is a way of keeping our literary culture grounded in the most essential function of the book: providing pleasure. At some level, books have to answer to the people. The existence of the shadow canon means that the literary canon can’t completely take flight into rarefied heights. If the literary canon does not give people what us what we want, then at least there is another place where they can find.


Err, okay, so I didn’t really answer the title question. I am going to do that in the next post, though! I think it will be entitled Is it possible to destroy the shadow canon?

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”