Monday, October 26, 2009

Sympathetic Character Week - in which I tell people they ain't readin' right - what a bad idea!

Surely learning to meet "the others" where they live is the greatest of all gifts that powerful fiction can offer us.

Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988), p. 414.

Welcome to Anti-Sympathetic Character Week!  Or Sympathetic Characters: Pro and Con!  Or Sympathetic Characters! What Are They Good For?  I guess I didn't think of a good title.

What do I mean by "sympathetic character"?  What I mean is, whatever someone means when he says "I did not like Wuthering Heights because it did not have any sympathetic characters."  Now, what does that reader mean?  Check out this horror show for something similar.

Literature professors hate this kind of talk.*  What a conversation-killer.  That's how I see it used in LitBlogLand, too.  Didn't like the characters, therefore didn't like the book, therefore we're done.

We all, as humans, have a taste for sympathetic characters.  That taste is natural, perhaps a social animal's evolutionary adaptation, who knows.  Sigmund Freud, in his 1908 essay "Creative Writers and Day-dreaming," sees the actions of both writing and reading as akin to day-dreaming, with the sympathetic hero providing a "sense of security".  But look at this caveat:

for the purposes of our comparison, we will choose not the writers most highly esteemed by the critics, but the less pretentious authors of novels, romances and short stories, who nevertheless have the widest and most eager circle

So a disclaimer of my own: I'm only talking about the writers most highly esteemed, the more pretentious authors, with the narrowest yet most eager circles.

Tastes, I am told, cannot be disputed.  Tastes can be cultivated, though.  The taste for characters with whom one does not sympathize should be cultivated.  That's what I want to argue.  And, honestly, I'm not convinced that a taste for "characters I can identify with" or "characters I understand" is any less arbitrary than not wanting to read about poor people, or not wanting to read depressing books (examples drawn, sadly, from life).

Wayne Booth, and he's not the only one, argues that we readers actually have an ethical imperative to seek out characters unlike ourselves.  Fiction (including poetry) gets us closer to other humans than is otherwise possible.  No other form allows this particular intimacy.  This is our chance to fight against our own limits and experience true sympathy.

Or is this just another arbitrary preference, a taste for cosmopolitanism, a taste for otherness?

One more disclaimer, while I'm jabbering about tastes.  One of my problems with that Wuthering Heights straw man up above is that I don't really care if he likes the book.  I don't care that much if I like the book!   Something about Wuthering Heights has kept it alive, has attracted so many good readers.  I want to figure out what it is.  Looking for sympathetic characters in Wuthering Heights is a hindrance to understanding the novel.  The strange thing is that once I do begin to figure out what the author is up to, what is actually in the book, I begin to like it, a lot.  This is what I mean by cultivating a taste.  Critical distance is pleasurable.

I'm going to spend a couple of days arguing my position, which, again is not against sympathetic characters but for putting them in their place, for critical distance.  Then I will try to recover the sympathetic character.  It turns out that I want sympathetic characters, too. 

All of this barring ideas from my readers, who are likely to understand the issue better than I do.

* This week I'm likely to be wrong a lot more than usual.  Please, correct me.  Who knows, maybe professors love this.  Please, student, more about your likes and dislikes.  Wonderful.

** Freud quotations from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1959), ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press. p. 149.  Thanks to JRussell (see comments) for this source, and for a Samuel Johnson essay I'll mention later in the week.


  1. As a pro-sympathetic character person, I'm looking forward to this week. I'm still trying to formulate what I mean by a sympathetic character (most of the time my definition is not limited to somebody I like, but somebody I actually care about, that I can suffer pathos with. I can endure pathos with many jerks, but only if I care about their fate) and why it matters to me whether or not the book is a romance (in my mind, for a romance to work, I must sympathasize with the characters and usually I need to like them some). I'm hoping your arguments will help me define mine, as thus far I have failed at articulation.

  2. Actually, I was over here looking for your e-mail, not to argue with you (of course we should read books about people unlike ourselves and sometimes we should read books we don't like). Anyway, I was going to send some images of a very sympathetic young man and find I have only your former work e-mail. Could you e-mail me a current address?

  3. Excellent! I will be watching these posts with high interest! I enjoy books that make me uncomfortable, and liking characters is not a requirement for me. They do, however, have to be interesting in one form or another.

    As for Wuthering Heights, I have a similar opinion. I hated nearly every character in that book, but the writing was gorgeous. There was something about it that kept me going even through intense dislike. I'd have to read it again, most likely multiple times, before I could put my finger on what it was.


  4. As a teacher of undergraduates, I regularly encounter students whose critiques of literature are limited to their assertions about their likes and dislikes (characters included). I then try to lead them in the direction of explaining their likes and dislikes using appropriate critical "jargon" (i.e., literary terminology and concepts). Even the most resistant students come around to understanding how their likes and dislikes are subjective reactions to qualities that can be objectively analyzed. If readers want to focus on sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, the discussion can be easily redirected into something substantial. When a reader comes to understand why he or she likes or dislikes something (and can clearly defend or explain those preferences), that reader has made an important step in the right direction--becoming a thoughtful and discerning reader.

  5. Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but when I go to a restaurant, I always order either something I like or something I've never had before.

    I never order something I don't like.

    Am I missing out on something?

    I read the article. I wonder if this strategy explains the presence of the mushy and interchangeable characters that appear in so many novels today.

  6. RT, yes, that's what I'm trying to get at it. We all come to a book with a bundle of preferences and prejudices. But we have to push past that if we want to communicate with anyone, if we want to do anything but tally votes (Liked/Disliked).

    SpSq, a romance demands sympathetic characters so the reader can enjoy the wish-fulfilling aspects of the daydream (Freud is so useful). But when we move to the "more pretentious" authors, to the books that are not merely romances, or are not romances at all, what should the reader do?

    Lezlie, yes. The reader should cultivate the taste for discomfort. Discomfort can be a signal that you're getting somewhere.

    I suppose I should forgive readers for their misreadings of Wuthering Heights, since the novel is deliberately designed to create misreadings, as I seemed to recognize last year. But if people could spread the word that the book is not a romance and is not like the movies, that would be a useful service.

    Fred - are our literary tastes physiological? Can our tastes for food and drink be cultivated? I'm pretty sure the answers are "no" and "yes."

  7. Present company excepted from this indictment, too many literary critics are not much interested in communicating about literature; instead, flaunting their erudition and "I know better than you" attitude, too many literary critics seem to intentionally exclude others from any conversation about literature, and the result is the literary critic's monologue.

    We have all read those literary critics. In response, let us always eschew the holier-than-thou monologue and seek the dialogue. That is the way to do "literary criticism."

  8. "are our literary tastes physiological? Can our tastes for food and drink be cultivated? I'm pretty sure the answers are "no" and "yes."

    "Literary tastes physiological?" Hmmm, I wouldn't rule that out completely.

    Can "tastes for food and drink be cultivated?"

    The answer, I agree, is yes.

    But, the next question must be-- Should we spend our limited time (we have so little actually) cultivating tastes for something we don't like and lose the opportunity to enjoy something we do like?

    And, I have found in the past that attempts to "cultivate" a taste don't always succeed.

    I also enjoyed _Wuthering Heights_ and have read it several times, and I also do not find any "sympathetic" characters, but never found that to be a problem with the work.

  9. Fascinating.

    I actually don't think there is much of a problem with saying "I didn't like the characters and therefore didn't like the book", that's a mere statement of preference ("I didn't like the book") and an explanation for that preference ("because I didn't like the characters"). I don't much care myself if characters are sympathetic or not, but people have a right to enjoy or not enjoy as they see fit.

    Where I find it very problematic is when it goes further, into an expectation that novels should have sympathetic characters or that their absence is a flaw. Wanting sympathetic characters is like wanting a novel to have epic space battles or a bit of romance, an expression of taste. Requiring them to is limiting the form.

    For me, the greatest novel I have read is Madame Bovary. There isn't a sympathetic character in the novel. It's a masterpiece. The presence or absence of sympathetic characters is orthogonal I think to literary quality, it's only relevant to taste.

    It's a bit like plot in that, plot isn't necessary for a novel, but some people's tastes are such that without a good plot they won't like the book.

    Most people like plot and sympathetic characters, that's cool, but it's an arbitrary element of taste, or put another way I agree with this:

    "I'm not convinced that a taste for "characters I can identify with" or "characters I understand" is any less arbitrary than not wanting to read about poor people, or not wanting to read depressing books (examples drawn, sadly, from life)."

  10. Yes, we should spend some of our limited time cultivating tastes for things we don't like, despite the risk that the attempt fails. How else will we know? I know what you mean, though - how much time, and directed at what goal?

    It's so easy to just apply investment theory - this is half-parodic. We should, when young, invest as much as possible in taste cultivation (since we can enjoy the payoff over a long period of time) and make riskier investments (since our time is generally worth less). Actually, I think this is what most people do, and it's not limited to literary tastes.

    I don't completely rule out physiolgical literary tastes either - that's why I mention the evolutionary aspect - but for my purpose the effect seems minor. My observation has been that engagement with literature (or most other artistic or intellectual fields, and food and wine, too) greatly changes the taste for it. What once seemed alien becomes an object of pleasure. What once seemed pleasurable becomes cloying. I'm pretty sure that this happens whether we try to direct it or not.

    I actually do find one sympathetic character in Wuthering Heights, a crucial one. But I'm saving that for Friday.

  11. Fascinating question.
    I'm pretty sure "La Princesse de Clèves" is the first book I deeply understood, and the reason was -- I had to read it for class and I hated the main character with a passion. It didn't seem like the right thing to say, so I pushed to find 1001 reasons to hate her, to use in my dissertation. And then a world of meaning opened, and I also learned a ton about me. It was one of those few illuminating experiences of a lifetime.
    (I still hate her. And she's still with me, informing my choices, 20 years later.)
    I'm looking forward to the next posts!

  12. I agree that people should know it's not a romance or like the movies. I suspect that many people who adore Heathcliff as a "dark hero", for lack of better terminology, have never actually read the book.

    I went into the book the first time with certain expectations that turned out to be completley false. I've never seen any movie adaptations, but things I had heard led me down a wrong path and, consequently, to a certain level of confusion and disappointment. If I hadn't had those false expectations, I think I would have enjoyed the book more. Now that I know what to expect story-wise, I'm looking forward to reading it again from a different angle.


  13. Charlotte - thanks for the story. That's it, exactly. I have nothing so dramatic in my own life. Tomorrow I'm going to deal with pre-novel novels just a bit.

    Max - yes, exactly (again), that's where I want to go. To push a step farther, though - we don't think taste is ethically neutral, right? Preferences have ethical content. "I don't like to read novels by women." This is a taste held by (at least) one of my favorite writers. VN has a right to think this way - but I should argue against him.

    Lezlie - there are plenty of so-called spoilers that are anything but. Heathcliff is not Laurence Olivier, Frankenstein has no Igor or lightning-catching machine, in Pinocchio - well, don't get to attached to that cricket. Knowing these things are genuinely helpful.

  14. Ooh, I applaud your bravery in opening this can of worms. :-)

    Having just finished and loved Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, I'm obviously not in the camp that requires sympathetic characters in order to find value in a novel. And I agree that in-depth analysis about what's fascinating and compelling in a given work is more interesting than a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." The reading experience is so much more complex than that, anyway - that type of review bypasses most of what I find interesting in talking about books.

    But I'm not sure I agree with going to the opposite extreme - that we shouldn't care if we like the books in question. I can mean a lot of different things when I say I like a book - I could like the characters, I could like the writing style, I could like the thought-provoking plot, I could like the way it makes me feel like my universe expanded through having read and thought about it. But if there's nothing in a book that speaks to either my soul or my intellect, then I think that's worth noting. And I don't think I should be forcing myself to read more books that make me feel that way (and yes, I do think it can happen that one person's masterpiece is another person's black hole).

    I guess what I'm saying is that, in the quest to become fairer, broader and more careful readers, we shouldn't repress or discount our visceral reactions to a piece of literature. I think it does matter if we like, love or hate a book. Honestly, if people hadn't liked Wuthering Heights, I don't think we'd still be reading it. Of course, liking or not liking is just a starting-point as far as understanding a book, but I think it's an important starting-point.

  15. PS - I just clicked over to that "sympathetic character" link, If that's the level on which we're operating, I have absolutely no argument with anything you said.

  16. Emily, well said. Particularly: "we shouldn't repress or discount our visceral reactions to a piece of literature."

    Yes - we should pursue our visceral reactions. Especially the negative reactions. That's when I know I'm really going to get somewhere. Work through those, and I've made it into the book.

    Maybe I should remind everyone, in my case, liking or not liking a book (overall) is a particularly useless measure. I like everything. And at the same time I enjoy it when people dislike great books!

  17. I'm looking forward to this week. I don't care if the characters are sympathetic or not, and now that I think about it, I'm not entirely sure what that means. If an author creates a character who makes sense to me, or is realistic, or is interesting, or who says interesting things, then I'm good.

  18. Dorothy, a challenge, then - name a great book (story, poem, essay) with none of the items you list. Doesn't matter if you like it or not.

    With that "is interesting," you may have covered everyone worth reading.

  19. I have a professor who is THRILLED when we talk about how we loved this or that, without necessarily needing us to qualify. Mind you, he also brings a dog to class that he rescued and that can't be left alone; it was the greatest joke of his life that I was mute for the first 2 weeks of class; and he does impromptu impressions apropos of nothing. He is both incredibly sweet and incredibly weird, and therefore perhaps not the best one on which to base the appropriateness of discussing likes and dislikes.

  20. "we should pursue our visceral reactions..."

    Yes! I definitely agree with this. Although I actually find it less challenging to pursue my negative reactions: they're more specific, and therefore easier to sharpen and hone. I tend to want to "prove the author wrong" in some way, so hating a book is activating. :-) In comparison, it's always a struggle to articulate the specifics of what it is in a book that wins me over completely. I tend to feel overwhelmed by the perceived genius of my favorite books, and the temptation is strong just to bask in the warm glow of beautiful passages. I've been trying to challenge myself and press on, though. I'll get a lot of practice during the Woolf readalong in January/February.

    Oh, and I'm intrigued about which character in Wuthering Heights you find sympathetic!

  21. I think whether a reader likes or dislikes a character is fascinating and valuable information - but I think it is the start of a discussion and not the end of one.

    Critics have the business of showing how books work, uncovering their mechanisms, exploring the complex interplay between words, reality and readers. The implications, once you start to get to grips with them, are legion for our lives, our culture, our history and our future. And so if you go deep enough into any work you usually emerge with a handful of things well worth knowing and appreciating. For that reason, I would always encourage any reader to work with their likes and dislikes and learn something curious and valuable about themselves, if nothing else.

    That being said, there will always be a percentage of books that one simply can't appreciate. I will never be able to finish Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, and I think I can live with that! Very interested to see how this discussion develops over the week.

  22. raych - given what I said, any counterexample is valid. What a hoot. But you could test my hypothesis. Pick the right book, tell him you hated it because you don't like stories about poor people, and then refuse to discuss further. Tell him it was a bad book, and authors should not write about poor people. Find his limits! Teachable moment, etc.

    Emily, that's so interesting. I react the other way. The path of least resistance to something really challenging is to look away, or ignore it. I have to confront my fears!

    For example, my fear of meaning, and my fear of philosophy. Litlove, I completely agree with you, and do not want to dismiss that initial reaction. But I identify my fear of philosophy as an intellectual weakness, not as some arbitraty preference as valid as any other. I don't tell people that Kant wrote bad books - how can anyone read that - overrated - people just say it's good because it's old - on and on like that.

  23. I am super psyched for sympathy week and super horrified by your link. It even talks about the dreaded two-dimensional character! Things like that make me want to just close up shop and forget books exist.

    No, scratch that. It makes me want to only read, and forget real people exist. How's that for sympathy?

  24. nicole, welcome back. Do you think a single successfully sympathetic character has ever been created following the advice in that missive?

    I had another link, which I have misplaced, in which a horror writer suggests that you give your protagonist a handicap as a way to create sympathy. Or a damaging childhood trauma.

    And then there's the one I'm using tomorrow, which I probably shouldn't, because I'm being mean, but it is Unsympathy Week, and if you wanna publish a novel you should step up your game.

    Anyway, please bash away at me. My readers have been so helpful, and I've tried to keep up the conversation. Thanks to everyone.

  25. You mentioned a horror writer who suggested a childhood trauma as a way of gaining sympathy. Well, I don't read many contemporary horror works (and why I don't is another story), but mystery and thriller writers certainly have followed that advice.

    It's very hard today to find a mystery in which the perps have not had an abusive childhood which resulted in the horrific crimes they commit today. (perhaps these are the new horror stories?) It's the lazy writer's way of appearing knowledgeable of the "human condition."

    One more crime committed by pop psychology.

  26. Fred, I think the horror writer was talking about the hero of the book, not the villain!

    But you're right, although that practice has credentials. See the last chapter of Faulkner's Sanctuary, where Popeye, up to this point a symbolically overladen anti-fertility god is suddenly given a troubled childhood that "explains" his behavior. I've never been able to absorb that chapter.

  27. Do you think a single successfully sympathetic character has ever been created following the advice in that missive?

    Um, Bella Swann? Ooh, that was harsh.

  28. I know. But, sometimes I wonder who the real "hero" of horror and contemporary mystery/thriller stories really is.

    Is Satan the hero of _Paradise Lost_?


  29. Fred, good point. I should have said "character who survives to the end" rather than hero. Or maybe they're all sliced to ribbons now, as a gesture of nihilistic despair. What do I know?

    Nicole, ha!

  30. Those who survive?

    Like Freddy and Jason and... [g]

  31. Fred, Satan is--to my mind--very much the "hero" of Milton's poem. Of course, then you need to define "hero," which is an overused and poorly defined term that ought to replaced by the word "protagonist" since the character's position with respect to the agon (conflict and struggle) is the key.

  32. Agreed: protagonist or main character is a much more appropriate term today.

    Hero carries overtones that frequently don't fit today.

  33. I know I'm coming late to this post - but then again, I'm coming late to this whole blogging lark - but over the years, posting on various discussion boards, I have felt I've been repeatedly dashing my head against a brick wall (yes, I know, but clichés can sometimes express things quite precisely) on this matter. "I quite liked 'Anna Karenina' but I couldn't identify with Anna." I feel like saying "You're reading 'Anna Karenina', for heavens' sake, not some piece of middlebrow pap - what does it matter whether you identified with her or not?"

  34. I have been thinking about expanding on this exact post, maybe a whole series. I will argue not just against liking a character, but against liking a book! Contra Enjoyment.

    If I am the measure of the world, what else matters but whether I like whatever I encounter?