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Jonathan Franzen and others on how important "likeability" is in fiction.

I hate the concept of likeabilityit gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook. Youd unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would. But not the ones you actually love.

The reading habits of Hilary Mantel:

Sad to say, I do like a bit of action. I get impatient with love; I want fighting. I dont like overrefinement, or to dwell in the heads of vaporous ladies with fine sensibilities. (Though I love Jane Austen because shes so shrewdly practical: you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.)

Have you seen Baz Luhrmann'sThe Great Gatsby yet? Here are five English professors on the most recent film adaptation.

Separating the teacher-scholar in me especially one who specializes in American literature and adaptation from the readermoviegoer is tricky. Yes, LuhrmannsGatsbyis dynamic, loud, different, and vibrant. It changes scenes and language, leaves out some, and adds others. Its also brilliant.

Daniel Mendelsohn on the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Greek tragedy.

It was hard not to think of all thisof the Iliad with its grand funereal finale, of the Odyssey strangely pivoting around so many burials, and of course of Antigoneas I followed the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaevs unburied body over the past few weeks. I thought, of course, of canny politicians eyeing the public mood, and of the public to whom those politicians wanted to pander. I thought even more of the protesters who, understandably to be sure, wanted to make clear the distinction between victim and perpetrator, between friend and foe, by threatening to strip from the enemy what they saw as the prerogatives of the friend: humane treatment in death. The protesters who wanted, like Creon, not only to deny those prerogatives to an enemy but to strip them away again should anyone else grant themto unbury the body. I thought of Martha Mullen, a Christian, who insisted that the Muslim Tsarnaev, accused of heinous atrocities against innocent citizens, be buried just as a loved one might deserve to be buried, because she honored the religious precept that demands that we see all humans as brothers, whatever the evil they have done.

 

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Messud's response was pretty much exactly what it should have been, and anyone who is paying attention should be able to see how gendered that sort of question is (Remember a year or so ago, when some putz on Slate complained about how Web culture had made book criticism too nice? The subtext to his complaint was pretty clear: women were to blame. So there's a real damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation here: it's a problem when women aren't nice in fiction, and a problem when they are nice in discourse on fiction). I share Franzen's exasperation with the notion that likeability is a crucial ingredient in a character, and I think that the problem is closely related to the tendency with some to fail to distinguish between fiction that relates immorality and immoral fiction. Listen to an America Magazine podcast on something like Mad Men (to give an example with which readers here may be conversant). Do you want to put your fist through a wall after listening? If you do, then you're probably with me. Evaluating a book because it's characters manage to attain to some sort of virtue is not to be privileged over evaluating a book because its characters attain to something human. I wouldn't want to drink a beer with Humbert, but I would read about him drinking a beer with somebody else.It must just be because I live with one foot in Colchis, but when the burial scandal erupted, I couldn't help but wonder how anyone could fail to quake at the thought of denying the primacy of the corpse. Antigone is rightfully the champion of doing the right thing in this situation, but perhaps Tobit should be evoked, as well.

Yes, Abe, I'm totally on board both with your reading of the question (Franzen, for instance, probably wouldn't be asked that kind of question, and is there a more unlikeable character than Chip from The Corrections?) and with Messud's response. This discussion reminds me of the recent Wikipedia controversy, where women were systematically removed from the "American Novelists" page and relocated to "Female Novelists." One of these days, I'm going to get around to writing a post on gender dynamics and literary reviewing. My jumping-off point: the fact that I've never--and I mean ever--been asked to review a female writer.

You could always link to VIDA (especially since the issue tends to come up whenever Commonweal does its "in this month's issue" post).http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2012