When Lionel Shriver finished her now-legendary novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, her agent wrote to her: “For the life of me, I don’t know who is going to fall in love with this novel.”
The subject matter was too dark, the agent said, and the characters were unsympathetic. The book was rejected by around 30 publishers before it was finally accepted.
Well over a million sales later, on the release of the film version, Shriver wrote: “Many objected that its narrator, Eva, is ‘unattractive’… Rife with difficult characters and climaxing in a high-school massacre of the sort Americans are rightly ashamed of, Kevin was a poor commercial bet from the get-go.”
This isn’t just a gratuitous dig at those who rejected her, however.
Shriver is pointing out a phenomenon that has troubled me for some time: the way some readers, and perhaps more depressingly, literary agents and publishers, need to find a character likable before they can love a book.
My new novel Animal People has been out for less than a week, but already in some responses I am detecting a whiff of this complaint, that my protagonist Stephen – an unambitious, slightly lost 39-year-old man making his way through a single hellish day in his very ordinary life – is not likeable enough.
This vibe, it has to be said, is coming mainly from a particular kind of woman – capable, smart, no-nonsense women with forceful personalities. And I can understand their frustrations, and even be amused by it.
One woman, at a pre-publication publishing do, took me aside and admonished me, sotto voce and with a kind of prim disappointment, that she had found Stephen “very frustrating” in my previous novel, The Children.
I had to snicker inwardly at this, because I was still very much carrying Stephen around in my head; it was all I could do not to say, “And I know exactly what he would think of you.” But she also sort of missed the point.