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January 13, 2009

On those unsympathethic females

Last week I read Christine Pountney’s novel The Best Way You Know How, which– apart from some ghastly clanking similes– was a pretty good read. Though on a personal level, I’d probably relate to any book about a Canadian girl who runs away to England to find a husband (and thank goodness I had better luck with my pick than Pountney’s poor old Hannah Crowe). But I was surprised to have enjoyed the book as much as I did, considering the mixed reviews. For as engaging and witty as Pountney’s writing is, I found Hannah Crowe to be as obnoxious as promised, but it occurred to me to wonder: do we have to like a heroine to like a book?

I wouldn’t have even though of Alice Munro, except by chance I picked up her selected short stories following Pountney’s book, and as I read the first two pieces (from Who Do You Think You Are?), I realized how much Munro’s Rose is like Hannah. Self-destructive, all her evil cards on the table, manipulative, immature, lacking self-confidence and self-esteem, and fascinated by the power she holds over her boyfriend/husband. Desiring to be dominated, but insisting on remaining indomitable.

I suppose it is Munro’s retrospective approach that casts Rose in a more sympathetic light, though if I remember from my most recent read, even in the later stories in the book, she never becomes wholly agreeable. Whereas the immediacy of Pountney’s narrative makes Hannah quite unbearable, and the third person narrative makes us witnesses to her blunders without the benefit of her perspective to cast the incident differently. Though the point is that Hannah doesn’t have this perspective, lacking as she is in self-awareness.

This all made me remember Kate Christensen’s comments about her novel In the Drink, which became marketed as “chick lit,” Christensen supposing all the while that she’d been, “consciously co-opting a predominantly male genre”. She explains, “I trace Claudia’s lineage through an august tradition of hard-drinking, self-destructive, hilarious anti-heroes beginning with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and continuing through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and David Gates’s Jernigan…”

As the chick lit it wasn’t, Christensen’s novel didn’t succeed, and reader responses reminded me of the criticisms of Pountney’s book. Claudia, like Hannah, fails to win our sympathy, and to many readers, that was all she wrote. But now I’m wondering if “loser lit” is an exclusively male domain; is co-opting impossible? Is sympathy required of female characters in a way it isn’t necessarily of males, or does it have to be won differently? Is sympathy a demand female readers make that male readers might not? Are these female characters unsympathetic in a different way than the males, rendering them fundamentally disagreeable as literary characters at all?

No answers of course, as it’s late and I’m tired. But I’m going to be thinking about unsympathetic heroes and heroines this next while, and looking into the different ways they’re constructed. Any of your comments would be most helpful, so do leave some.

6 thoughts on “On those unsympathethic females”

  1. Damon says:

    The Underground Man is horribly unsympathetic, but intriguing, arresting.

    This makes for great losers or anti-heroes: they grab our interest, even if they don’t excite our sympathy.

    But I’d say the same of Medea – once she’s murdered her own children, and escaped, she’s lost a great deal of our sympathy. And yet she’s still a compelling character.

    The same could be said for some of Maupassant’s female protagonists (in short stories, admittedly).

    Even Madam Bovary’s become a little less sympathetic by the end – yet still a fascinating persona.

    At first blush, I’d say both genders are capable of being grippingly unsympathetic (even if one is less common).

  2. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    This is an interesting argument, because many of the people I know who hate chicklit do because they find the characters fundamentally unlikeable–as one friend put it, “Self-conscious is just another way to be self-absorbed.” Some people hate Briget Jones because she’s shallow, self-absorbed and not all that bright. Another friend said, “We like her because we feel superior to her; at least we’re not *that bad.*”

    I like reading about both Briget and Rose, but if I had to take a long car trip with either Rose or Briget, I’m not sure who I’d choose, to be honest. Both could be tough on the nerves.

  3. Kerry says:

    Thanks to both of you (and Damon, belatedly for the scone recipe awhile back).

    Rebecca, I’m glad you brought up Bridget etc. as it brought to mind an idea that the female equivalent to “loser lit” is a certain “spinster lovable for her quirks lit” (which really isn’t too catchy, is it…). Like how when I first saw Amelie, and decided I was Audrey Tautou because I didn’t have a boyfriend. (Now I know I am Rachel Weisz, however, because we are both so ravishingly beautiful). Mark Darcy loves Bridget “just as she is”, for her loserish qualities (and some of them are quite appalling). So I think an unsympathetic female character’s flaws have to be lovable, in a way that men’s don’t. They have to be able to attract one a boyfriend…

    Note that nobody in real life loves someone for their worst qualities, or at least I’ve never seen it happen. Try as I might to make him love my cellulite, shaggy eyebrows, tendency to belch etc, my husband insists on loving me for more poetic things. V. unromantic.

  4. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    I wonder if what you are saying, KC, is that the reader needs a certain sort of cue to like a female character, and that’s the validation of other characters *inside the book*. Like, if BJ hadn’t gotten MD at the end, would we like her as a quirky heroine, or dismiss her as a twit who eats pavlova with her hands and doesn’t know where Germany is?

    Did Mark Darcy *peer pressure* me into liking her?

  5. Damon says:

    I would’ve thought BJ was lovable for her warmth, humour, generosity and so on. She’s a bungling, superficial fool, but she’s sweet in her way.

    The same for Austen’s silliest heroines, Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Morland. They’re self-absorbed and stupid at times, but sweet.

    Isn’t this par for the course in the romance genre? The heroines have to sympathetic, despite all their infuriating faults.

    But (and this is my clumsy point): there must be male equivalents in romantic fiction. Annoying, stupid, shallow prats redeemed by someone’s love.

    By contrast, the male ‘loser lit’ stories (e.g. Notes From Underground) aren’t in this genre. And neither are Madam Bovary, Medea, and so on. They present horrible characters, doing horrible things, and we’re compelled to watch by their intense, intriguing faults, not by their likeable, loveable features.

    In short: there are male and female characters for every genre, and similar demands are made of each.

    I don’t know if this makes any sense. But it’s a good question, so I thought I’d give it a crack.

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