Monday, 12 March 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: The Age of Oprah; 'Unlikable' Characters

   The protagonist of The Age of Cities, my first novel, is named Winston Wilson. The form of the novel is that of an unpublished manuscript—telling, discreetly, of a gay man's ultimately frustrated coming of age in 1950's Vancouver—discovered in a thrift store and presumably written by an anonymous author some time during the mid-1960s. Questions raised by Winston's vagueness and overall passivity were built into the 'found object' nature of the manuscript. It had never been published; it may have been unfinished; it could have been written by someone with no experience as a professional writer...readers could factor in these unknowns when gauging their reaction to Winston's character.
   Marta and Jake in This Location of Unknown Possibilities have been occasionally frustrating insofar as they've been polarizing: someone will tell me that they wouldn't want to spend five minutes with Jake because he is self-absorbed and cold-hearted in equal measure. My partner, meanwhile, likes Jake and finds his confidence sexy, but would cross the street to avoid any encounter with Marta, who he thinks of as being a joyless, uptight, and, well, boring. I see them as flawed and difficult (like, ahem, I am), but also capable of self-reflection and gradual transformation.
   If we judge the merit of characterization by how we react to them as people (okay, they're just printed words on a page, but the suspension of disbelief for reading a realist novel is that our mental process transforms squiggles of ink on paper into into figures that are analogous to flesh and flood humans), then I suppose it's a measure of success if various readers have differing feelings about Marta and Jake. As in real life, one person's meat/treasure is another's poison/trash.
   From professionals? I've heard different responses.
   A literary agent in Toronto who generously made the effort to read the entire novel, emailed "They're not very nice, are they?" by way of explaining how impossible it would be to sell the novel to a North American market—the U.S. much more so than Canada, in her view, presumably because American readers demand redemption, closure, and successful journeys more than despondent Canucks. As a writer who accepts the commandment "Be neurotic" quite readily, I was initially perplexed by the lit agent's implication: make them nicer, for nice characters sell. I thought of fiction by Mary Gaitskill, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis...not nice, not even close. After that, I flirted with paranoia ("That's her official explanation, but what's the real reason she's turning me away?). After that? I gave up on long-distance mind reading, short-distance reading between the lines of an email, and reminded myself that paranoia is a lose-lose state of mind.
   Anyway, this (apparent) requirement of niceness seems idiotic, and seemingly insulting to both readers and publishers. Do publishers really need to create digestible and non-threatening and redeemed characters over and over and over because readers in the Age of Oprah only buy product that follows a 'journey to healing and wisdom' trajectory? That might make sense for genre fiction of various kinds and self-help books because they're consumed exactly for their formulaic properties. To my mind, though, literary fiction is exempt from (or less concerned about) reiterating the tried and true.
   Another professional claimed that she didn't "believe" Marta, that in her estimation Marta was not convincing as a female character. The implications here are ranging. There's identity politics (a man can never understand a woman/create a realistic female character, but creates instead unconvincing 'drag' facsimiles in the Desperate Housewives vein, or mere reflections of their male bias and unconscious sexism). And there's imaginative failure (the clear limits of imagination and technical ability are evident in my inability to create a female character a female reader accepts as legitimately realistic).
   I'd be happier to accept failure of imagination. Being told that I cannot write a convincing female character because I am male is an ideological trap. It would result in writing myself (the person I know best). But something other than me would be an impossibility. I'm Canadian, left-handed, Caucasian, vegetarian, and gay... there's no way I could ever hope to invent a right-handed, meat-eating, Mexican-American straight guy from Texas, right?

[Blogging is messaging in a bottle, I'm learning. If anyone reads this and want to throw back a comment, I'm all eyes.]


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