Someone told me the other day that the main character of my novel-in-progress wasn't likable enough. That my main character wasn't particularly likable didn't come as a surprise: she is a French opera singer who sings for the Nazis during World War II and has an affair with a German officer - the striving type who took her chance when she saw it. She isn't supposed to be likable. What puzzled me more was the strongly held opinion, strongly expressed by that reader and one other, that my main character should be likable. They read excerpts from the middle of the book without reading the beginning, which covers why the main character turned the way she did, and apparently her unlikability was too much, although she's not even as dark as I could have made her: she doesn't denounce anybody, she would do anything for her son (who loathes her for associating with the Nazis and joins the Resistance).
This struck me as a fundamental difference between French and American reading tastes. In France, The Kindly Ones, written in French by American-born Jonathan Littell, which focused on a (very unlikable) rising star in the SS, won the Goncourt prize and the Grand prix du roman de l'Academie Francaise, two of France's most prestigious literary awards. The English translation was panned by a number of media outlets in the U.S. French literary tastes are also less action-driven and more character-driven, a nice way to say that there can be tens of pages where nothing happens. My book is more action-driven but I have an instinctive distaste toward using likable characters with World War II as the backdrop. Then for me it'd become really trying to use a tragic history to make money by, say, having a heroine who locks her younger brother in a cupboard when the police comes to arrest them, thus causing his death by asphyxiation, or a heroine who goes blind when she was a child. All very cute. Likable protagonists sell a lot of books in the U.S., as did a likable would-be journalist writing about the situation faced by her African-American maid during the heights of segregation in the U.S. Those books have sold extremely well.
But what interests me isn't a story that a lot of people are going to find touching. Literature is a business and you don't write a touching story of epic scale unless you are hoping for the big bucks. I am writing this book because I want people to think about how collaborateurs - people who behaved disgracefully during the war - turned out the way they did, how they moved step by step toward the line that defines right from wrong, and crossed it. This for me is more interesting. I've said before and I'll say again that one of the most relevant metaphors I've encountered about life is the frog in boiling water. (And the engineers and scientists around me can't resist telling me that's not how a frog would behave in real life, to which I say: it's a metaphor, alright? let me finish my story). If a half-decent person sees something really bad all of a sudden, hopefully he would take a stand against it. But if he sees a small bad thing and doesn't let it bother him and then something just a tiny bit worse that doesn't seem so much different from the first thing, he probably won't bother speaking up, and then the third thing is only slightly worse than the second one so it doesn't seem worth speaking up about either, and in the end he witnesses terrible things and doesn't lift a finger. Now, some people did terrible things during the war and showed they were intrinsically evil. My main protagonist isn't one of those people, and I find her more interesting for that. She is an opportunist focused on her own success, that much is clear, and she will pay for her behavior at the end of the war.
I suppose what bothered some of my readers was that they weren't sure where I was going with it and didn't know if my protagonist would pay for her actions. (They're some of my newer readers. They haven't spent the last year slugging through my many rewrites.) There is only so much time one can spend watching someone do bad things - I am one of those people who enjoyed House of Cards's first season and then promptly got tired of it.
So my purpose for the book is to show readers what they don't want to become - but have them empathize enough with my protagonist that they follow her through her rise and fall and ultimate small-rebound-out-of-the-abyss-but-definitely-not-rise-again. This may be an ambitious goal for literature and I'm glad I have a day job to remove the need of writing a bestseller in order to pay the bills. In the end, I want to put the book into the hands of as many people for whom it will resonate as possible, but that's probably not going to mean everybody, although I wouldn't mind having my protagonist turn into the Scarlett O'Hara of the 21st century (people find Scarlett annoying but they always root for her, especially in the book where she is so much better than in the movie). Every time I hear about a character that should be made more likable, I worry it's the first step toward selling out. I don't want people to find my protagonist likable. I want them to recognize the risk they might turn like her under certain circumstances. What would people do to be successful today? Preventable environmental disasters, loans with soul-crushing interest rates, banks that push people toward foreclosure or bankruptcy: we have plenty of reasons to worry losing our humanity in the quest for more money.
But then this is a long post because there is always the question of whether I'm writing in the right language - whether I was right to write in English for the past 15 years or if I should've stuck to French. Each country has the culture that fits its priorities. How many U.S. indie movies have you seen that were actually good? The U.S. has its blockbusters and its mega-stadiums and everything has to be big, cars, trucks, portion sizes at the restaurant, house sizes. There are some good U.S. novels that reach a wide audience, though. (They usually don't have any message so I can't say this bodes well of my book, but anyway I've enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Painter by Peter Heller and The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. My fiction tastes are very different from my nonfiction ones, which center around theater, Eastern Europe and biographies... I actually like very few World War II novels.) Hopefully my novel can find its audience too. And if it doesn't, I can always translate it into French.