I tried to do some genuine research for Sympathetic Character Week, to try to shape my rhetoric, if nothing else. Besides Wayne Booth's book, enormously helpful, and to which I'll return later in the week, I did not have much luck.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: these all seemed like good candidates. None mentioned the issue at all, and the reason was clear enough. None of them took the question seriously. Of course you don't dismiss a book because you don't like the characters. Now get back to work!
The same person who suggested the spot-on yet off-point Freud essay led me to Samuel Johnson's Rambler #4, (1750), on the "new realistic novel." Anybody want to defend this position:
There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved than the art of murdering without pain.
Or more concisely: "It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn" (emphasis mine). I think that cat is pretty much out of the bag by now.
Virginia Woolf always comes through for me. From "How Should One Read a Book" (1926):
Reading is not merely sympathizing and understanding; it is also criticising and judging.
Sympathizing with whom, one should ask? Woolf is clear enough, but we'll return to that on Friday.*
So (again excepting Booth) none of these books were that helpful. One argument, my strongest, is perhaps so obvious that no one bothers to make it: a lot of great novels (stories, poems) have characters with whom no sane, mature person should sympathize. And another swath of books is constructed independently of our concept of sympathy. You shouldn't like them, you shouldn't want to be their friend, you shouldn't wish them well. You should wish some of them ill, frankly.
One group of books is more or less Modernist; the other is more or less pre-modern. Pre-modern first. One reason we call Don Quixote the first novel is that we've hijacked it, turning it into a novel, and one way we did that was by learning to sympathize with the travails of Our Lord Don Quixote. My understanding is that at the time it was generally read as a collection of side-splitting cruelty, an early Three Stooges. Ha ha - poke him in the eye again! We aren't capable of reading it that way any more; sympathy is a powerful thing.
But what to do, then, with Egil's Saga, about a sociopathic Icelandic poet, or Grettir's Saga, about the last of the monster-killers, who is something of a monster himself? So much pre-modern and early modern literature was created under entirely different assumptions of the reader's response. Sometimes, a sympathetic response works; sometimes we have to find another way in to In Praise of Folly or The Lusiads or Orlando Furioso.
Now, the Modernists, deliberately working against sympathy: Charles Baudelaire titles one of the Paris Spleen prose poems "Let's Beat Up the Poor." Or how about the poem "Against Her Levity," one of the six banned poems from The Flowers of Evil, in which the speaker expresses his desire to copulate with a wound he has made in his lover. Yuck! Baudelaire's art presents a challenge to the notion of sympathy.
Every third French writer seems to ends up following in his path: Rimbaud, Ubu Roi, the Dadaists and Surrealists. Icy Gustave Flaubert, contemptuous of his own characters -- not that you have any obligation to read Madame Bovary like he wanted you to (and let's revisit Flaubert in a couple of days). And it's not just France: As I Lay Dying. The Castle (he's never going to get in). The Voyeur. Beckett, or Bernhard, or Borges ("I sure hope that nice Pierre Menard finishes his Don Quixote book.") There are exceptions on this list - see Beckett's heartbreaking Krapp's Last Tape. Surrealists aside, I haven't even mentioned the genuinely avant garde stuff, mostly because I'm not sure I want to call any of it "great." Additions to this list, or the one above, most welcome.
One could make a much longer list of wonderful Modernist books that do depend on some type of sympathetic relationship between the reader and the characters. That is, and should be, the norm. But there's this other world, too. What should one tell the reader who refuses to look into Wuthering Heights because the characters are unpleasant? Stay away from all those other books? Or, try another approach - it's a lot more pleasant than it looks.
* In fairness, I should mention that Woolf called this essay "a lecture, for schoolgirls," which suggests a certain amount of contempt. In more fairness, those schoolgirls were undergraduates at Yale.