A confession: I am not an objective voice in this.
My novel, Chinese Gucci, has an insufferable little shit at the center of it, and I think books that use this approach allow for a terrifically dissonant reading experience. You gut-laugh and guffaw, you scoff and scorn...spit-take, if things are working really well. You, as the person reading, look at the character and think, "what the hell are they thinking?!" And yet, like a trainwreck, you don’t want to take your eyes off the page for fear of what you’ll miss. That, to me, is a kind of narrative wizardry: part Schadenfreude; part empathy; part judgment – all from a safe remove. It allows writers to plumb the deepest recesses of the human animal, to skewer cultural norms, and as readers, allows us to live other, possibly dangerous realities without suffering the actual consequences. Which means that stories accomplish their most basic goal: connecting disparate people through shared experience.
There are, however, readers out there who conflate their feelings about a book’s characters with the overall worth of a book, take the narrator as a surrogate for the book’s writer. And, as a way to read, and as a measure of a book's objective quality, that's a problem.
There are PLENTY of GOOD ARTICLES written by folks wiser than me addressing UNLIKABLE CHARACTERS including those many female leads of many recent novels-turned-blockbusters. I encourage you to read the articles.
But it does make me worry, a bit, about our culture at large – the blurring of the line between creator and art. Maybe it's because we’re fairly self-involved, Narcissistic even...because there’s the "selfie generation," or the redemptive/destructive power of social media, and everyone's highly curated digital faces – all carefully scrubbed of obvious flaws and insecurities. Maybe we prefer simplicity...prefer taking things only at face value. Maybe it's because we're all unreliable narrators but don't want to admit it. Ah, but do we want to manufacture a world so perfect that we never see any discomfort, any disagreement, and experience only things that reaffirm our current façades and prejudices?
Or is there still value in willingly subjecting ourselves to the snow-blind blizzards of complexity, uncomfortablity, and imperfection for the many unexpected virtues they will teach us?
Anyway, I think so. Maybe it’s because Banned Books Week 2016 is ending, or because ten years ago, they closed CBGB – where THIS was said. Culturally, it’s hard to say if things have improved in the decade since. Anyhow, go read it, re-read it – take it in. Our cultural vibrancy hangs on these very freedoms and ideas.
Defend what offends you as a stop-gap for our own lazy thinking.
Then go make something beautifully weird.