Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber
A few months ago, The New York Times’ Book Review section ran a “Bookends” item that asked, “Are we too concerned that characters be ‘likable’?”. It’s an interesting question, and the answers that Mohsin Hamid and Zoe Heller wrote raise all sorts of questions that a book person like me has fun thinking about (you should definitely take a minute to read it), but it also reignited an ongoing conversation in my house about books that are driven by character or by plot.
I, like many readers I know and in the vein of Zoe Heller’s response, feel that I need to connect to the main character in some way in order to enjoy a book. I don’t have to love the character or feel that they are entirely likable, but if I spend the whole of my reading annoyed, disgusted or disinterested in the majority of the primary characters, I’m just not compelled to keep reading (that said, I tend to slog through even if I don’t particularly like the book). No one wants to spend an evening with someone they just don’t like, so why would I want to spend an evening reading about that person? For my overall experience of reading a book to be positive and for me to care about the outcome of the book — and therefore be invested and interested in moving forward with my reading — I have to find something redeeming in the people that I’m reading about.
My husband, a voracious reader of all genres, reads to find out what happens. He is interested in the plot, with the characters featuring more as players in the game rather than people to spend an evening with or to feel invested in. As a literature professor, he’s obviously very aware of character development and motivation, but whether or not he likes the characters — or connects with them in any way — has no bearing on his interest in or enjoyment of a book.
And so we’ve gone back and forth discussing this issue. He can’t see why not liking characters changes my enjoyment of the story, and I can’t fathom how it wouldn’t. What we’ve found is that this argument seems to, at least anecdotally, divide down gender lines. As my husband has said, he almost never hears a man say that he didn’t like a book because he couldn’t connect with the characters, a claim that he and I have both heard frequently from female readers.
So what do you think? Is this another way in which reading — in many respects an egalitarian activity — is actually gendered?
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Miri joined the JBC team in Winter, 2004 upon graduating from Brandeis University. Originally from Philadelphia, she has lived and studied in Israel and London. Prior to working with JBC, she interned for the Jewish Publication Society. After seven years as the director of the JBC Network program, Miri has shifted her focus to book clubs, working to develop resources to better serve book club readers.