Monday, January 12, 2009

On those unsympathethic females

Last week I read Christine Pountney's novel The Best Way You Know How, which-- apart from some ghastly clanking similes-- was a pretty good read. Though on a personal level, I'd probably relate to any book about a Canadian girl who runs away to England to find a husband (and thank goodness I had better luck with my pick than Pountney's poor old Hannah Crowe). But I was surprised to have enjoyed the book as much as I did, considering the mixed reviews. For as engaging and witty as Pountney's writing is, I found Hannah Crowe to be as obnoxious as promised, but it occurred to me to wonder: do we have to like a heroine to like a book?

I wouldn't have even though of Alice Munro, except by chance I picked up her selected short stories following Pountney's book, and as I read the first two pieces (from Who Do You Think You Are?), I realized how much Munro's Rose is like Hannah. Self-destructive, all her evil cards on the table, manipulative, immature, lacking self-confidence and self-esteem, and fascinated by the power she holds over her boyfriend/husband. Desiring to be dominated, but insisting on remaining indomitable.

I suppose it is Munro's retrospective approach that casts Rose in a more sympathetic light, though if I remember from my most recent read, even in the later stories in the book, she never becomes wholly agreeable. Whereas the immediacy of Pountney's narrative makes Hannah quite unbearable, and the third person narrative makes us witnesses to her blunders without the benefit of her perspective to cast the incident differently. Though the point is that Hannah doesn't have this perspective, lacking as she is in self-awareness.

This all made me remember Kate Christensen's comments about her novel In the Drink, which became marketed as "chick lit," Christensen supposing all the while that she'd been, "consciously co-opting a predominantly male genre”. She explains, “I trace Claudia’s lineage through an august tradition of hard-drinking, self-destructive, hilarious anti-heroes beginning with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and continuing through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and David Gates’s Jernigan...”

As the chick lit it wasn't, Christensen's novel didn't succeed, and reader responses reminded me of the criticisms of Pountney's book. Claudia, like Hannah, fails to win our sympathy, and to many readers, that was all she wrote. But now I'm wondering if "loser lit" is an exclusively male domain; is co-opting impossible? Is sympathy required of female characters in a way it isn't necessarily of males, or does it have to be won differently? Is sympathy a demand female readers make that male readers might not? Are these female characters unsympathetic in a different way than the males, rendering them fundamentally disagreeable as literary characters at all?

No answers of course, as it's late and I'm tired. But I'm going to be thinking about unsympathetic heroes and heroines this next while, and looking into the different ways they're constructed. Any of your comments would be most helpful, so do leave some.