In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable. Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.
Why is likability even a question? Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable? Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn't behave in a way the reader finds palatable. Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that "this 'liking' business has two components: moral approval and affection." We need characters to be lovable while they do right. ("Not Here to Make Friends," p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)
I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June. It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues "in real time" before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist. Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay's wit and honesty.
The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others. Grouped into five categories ("Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me"), Bad Feminist's essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema ("Surviving Django" and "Beyond the Struggle Narrative"). In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic. Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity. This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.
One shining example can be found in "What We Hunger For." Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of "darkness" in contemporary YA fiction:
In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations. She wrote,
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.
She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren't grounded in damage, brutality, or loss. More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)
The remainder of "What We Hunger For" discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow "safer" for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side. Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise. This ties in directly to the next essay, "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label "Trigger Warning." She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued. It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:
This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings: there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done. A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.
I don't know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary. When I see trigger warnings, I don't feel safe. I don't feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)
An interesting feature of Gay's essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances. Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough "space" for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix. Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay's essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs. Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section. Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.
The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples. The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a "bad feminist." If Montaigne's Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.