May 10, 2017

Bring on the unlikable women, says Roxane Gay!

Roxane Gay (photo: Jay Grabiec)
One of the pieces I liked best in Roxane Gay's anthology Bad Feminist -- yes, that Roxane Gay, the one who will be appearing this month at the Auckland Writers Festival, and if you can't make it, you'll be able to read about it here -- is the one called Not here to make friends, subtitled On the importance of unlikable female protagonists.

"U" is the scarlet letter of our times, says Gay. It's a brilliant metaphor, unlikability as today's most terrible sin (I remember Hunter S. Thompson identifying stupidity as the number one sin of his time, or maybe it was looking stupid), and for how often it's the female who ends up wearing it, just like Hester with her "A" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic tale of adultery among the Puritans.

Apparently the unlikablest protagonist of recent times is Amy from Gone Girl. The equally amoral Patrick Bateman from American Psycho is nominally unlikable, okay, but no critic is saying he needs to display a big "U" on his Valentino shirt. Partly of course it's because he's so much fun to read about, if not to be around, with his "scathing self-awareness" (quoting Roxane Gay) that you have to love (speaking for myself-- Gay more pragmatically deems him "a very interesting man").

But it's not just that. How many men in fiction are allowed to get away with murder -- not necessarily literally -- compared to women? Gay is fierce on "this liking business" which crops up time and time again with female characters, quoting the term Lionel Shriver used for that combination of approval and affection readers were peeved not to have felt for the narrator of her provocative novel We need to talk about Kevin. An ambivalent mother! Horrors!

Why would I want to read about "likable" characters, Gay asks. Just the opposite!

"I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things -- human."

(I know - you already want to read the whole essay! And you can, on BuzzFeed, where it first appeared, although it's worth getting your hands on the whole anthology.)

Gay either picked up on a trope whose moment had come (she notes that the novelist Claire Messud had recently asked "Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?" in an interview in Publishers Weekly about her book The Woman Upstairs), or generated new interest in a phenomenon that I'm thinking goes back at least as far as Euripedes's Medea, which is to say over 2000 years ago. At any rate, it's hard to read around in book culture these days without coming across lists like Book Riot's 100 Must-Read Books with Unlikable Women.

So far none of them have featured my most-memorable book with an unlikable woman, Good Morning Miss Dove, a book I read in my formative years, thank you Miss Petit, School Librarian, for the recommendation. You can't be exposed to too many unlikable women -- or, as they were called then, women with "an independent streak" -- in your formative years. Actually, having recently reread the book after finding a copy in the Central City Library basement -- a hallowed copy 'presented' to our library by the Blockhouse Bay branch of the Labour Party in 1976 --  it did me good even now.

Miss Dove herself is not a librarian but a geography teacher, a gray-haired, bun-coiffeured institution at Cedar Grove School where she has been known to generations of pupils as "The terrible Miss Dove", for reasons you can probably guess, having to do with discipline and expectations. She doesn't want to be anyone's friend. She turns down a proposal of marriage from the Bank President. She refuses to let herself aspire to anything except being strong and useful.

As it turns out, she has other things as well, like gallantry and guts, which her pupils can only dimly perceive, if at all. Some come as a revelation even to herself. The biggest of these is when she wants to say something profound about life, after having learned that hers is at risk, and the words which come out of her mouth are "I have been happy".

Good Morning Miss Dove, described in two of its cover blurbs as a minor classic, was my gateway drug to all those books I've loved with tough old women who make different choices and have a different regard for consequences. Miss Brodie from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Aunt Augusta from Travels with My Aunt. Mrs Moore in A Passage to India. I wonder if Miss Petit, the gentle, meticulous librarian who put her in my hands, and who is inextricably linked with Miss Dove in my memory, guessed. I think she did.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 18:06


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