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Like? Whatever: Likability and the Nonfiction Writer

PUBLISHED: July 11, 2013


bloomua / 123RF Stock Photo
bloomua / 123RF Stock Photo


Until my memoir came out, I had no idea how many people did not want to be friends with me. To be fair, I also didn’t know how many people thought they could be friends with me.

I’d almost forgotten about this, now six years ago, until I read the recent interview with Claire Messud. When the interviewer at Publishers Weekly asked Messud if she’d be friends with the prickly protagonist in her novel The Woman Upstairs, she replied:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

For those of us who write nonfiction, particularly memoirs and essays, we write about characters alive in the real world, people buying groceries and interacting with our neighbors and celebrating holidays. Does the success of our work hinge on coming across as likable human beings?

I asked Cheryl Strayed, author of the No. 1 New York Times bestselling memoir, Wild. “Many people have told me they loved me when they meant they loved something I wrote. I understand that feeling—I’ve had it as a reader too. On the other hand, I’ve also read reviews in which the reviewer says he/she found me to be unlikable (or worse), but they couldn’t fault the quality of the prose. Other times, they just hated everything. Fair enough.”

Roxane Gay, a prolific essayist, agrees. “I’m sure reviewers or readers have conflated the personal with the professional. It is inevitable.”

And, according to some, getting even more inevitable. Last summer, Jacob Silverman penned Against Enthusiasm: The epidemic of niceness in online book culture, in which he declared all the niceness and liking of authors was supplanting good old-fashioned criticism of their work—to the detriment of the reader. “Cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments. As if mirroring the surrounding culture, biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person,” he writes. (Ironically, some 2,600 people “liked” the Slate piece on Facebook.)

In this climate, I wondered how other writers present their personalities on the page.

“I am not worried whether the reader will want to invite me over for a barbecue or hang out with me in a coffee shop—but I am conscious that the reader needs to ‘like’ me enough to care about my story, to feel curious about what happens to me next,” says Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire, The Accidental Buddhist, and many other books.

“As a teacher of writing, I run into lots of student memoirs where the writer (often, a nice enough person in the flesh) comes off as whiny or obnoxious or effusive on the page. That’s a quick way to make the reader put down the book or essay. The reader doesn’t have to like me, but she has to like my voice and my way of seeing the world if she is going to stick with me for any distance.”

And there are essays and memoirs aplenty for the reader to choose from. If I had a dime for every time I saw someone post or tweet Christy Wampole’s The Essayification of Everything, I could buy myself a pretty decent pen. “The genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America,” she writes in The New York Times. Wampole calls the essay “the talisman of our time” and attributes the genre’s booming popularity to its very humanity.

Essayist, novelist, and journalist Marie Myung-Ok Lee says, “I can see when I’m trying to be likable; for example, I’ll be more self deprecating than I need to be. From a writing perspective that’s a detriment because then the prose comes off as sounding false, disingenuous, and for the reader it’s that grating feeling when people are fishing for compliments.”

Strayed puts it this way: “When using the self in literature, the task isn’t to tell us who you are. It’s to tell us who you are really. The negative and the positive and all the stuff in between. Sometimes I wince when showing the icky stuff, the stuff for which I know people will judge me. But writing requires such things. It isn’t about covering your ass. It’s about showing it.”

I’m an unabashed fan of Strayed’s work, but the qualities that I find so beautiful in her voice—the rawness of it, the genuineness—may be the very things that put some other readers off. Take, for example, this passage from her essay “The Love of My Life”:

Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me … I did not deny. I did not get angry. I didn’t bargain, become depressed, or accept. I fucked. I sucked. Not my husband, but people I hardly knew, and in that I found a glimmer of relief.

It’s not exactly the vanilla ice cream of essays.

Who your readers are adds another wrinkle. The author of Body Geographic and My Lesbian Husband Barrie Jean Borich says, “We have to ask the question ‘liked by whom?’ An urban, alt-world, in-your-face political lesbian writer, for instance, might be beloved by readers who’ve lived in a similar milieu, and disliked intensely by readers who don’t see the beauty in worlds that seem harsher or less protected or raunchier than their own. … This is why the independent press is so vital to the continuation of diverse literatures.”

Paul Hanstedt took his audience into account from the get-go, on his blog White Boy from Wisconsin, which grew into his memoir Hong Konged. “When I was writing first my blog and then my book, I was very conscious of creating a persona that was a little bit goofy, a little bit clueless. Because I knew people from Hong Kong were reading the blog, I made a conscious decision never to mock Hong Kongers or portray them as mean. Myself, on the other hand, I felt free to mock all over the place. I was running a workshop up in Vermont for my day job, when one of my hosts noted the fact that ‘neurotic’ came up a lot in some of the reviews of my book, she wondered if that bothered me. It doesn’t really.”

The writers I contacted all agreed that race, class, and gender play a role in the likability issue. Essayist Deesha Philyaw recently co-authored Co-Parenting 101 with her ex-husband Michael D. Thomas. She says, “As a black author of a co-parenting book, I recognize that mine is not the traditional face of a parenting ‘expert.’ We were married, we got divorced, and we now jointly raise our kids. Race isn’t a factor. Except that it is to the extent that people who look like us aren’t supposed to be writing books together. My co-parent and co-author is supposed to be a deadbeat dad, and I’m supposed to be a barely-surviving single mom.”

Philyaw says that audiences with a culturally privileged perspective tend to reward books that reaffirm the status quo. “We don’t like black characters who aren’t maids or who aren’t waiting around for someone white to save them. We ‘can’t relate’ (a close cousin to likability) to black characters with agency, being in places they’re not supposed to be.” She offers as an example Lonnae O’Neal Parker’s I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work. “The premise of the book is that black women in this country have always had to juggle work and family, and that any national dialogue about work and family that doesn’t include black women and that doesn’t consider this historical perspective is no dialogue at all, but rather an echo chamber. Lonnae was writing as a black, married, college-educated, professional mother—as a peer, an equal, to other women who published and offered commentary on this topic.”

Philyaw says Lonnae’s book garnered much less attention than similar books by white writers or even books by another black writer, Star Parker—Pimps, Whores and Welfare Brats: From Welfare Cheat to Conservative Messenger and Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do About It.

“Parker is a black former welfare recipient who boot-strapped her way up to the middle class. Her narrative, unlike Lonnae’s, doesn’t challenge the status quo about race and inequality in this country,” says Philyaw.

Lee also feels the burden of stereotypes in some reactions to her work. “When I write about having a disabled child and also having a career as a writer, some people will react to it as, ‘Oh, you’re so self-sacrificing’ in a sort of Pearl Buck The Good Earth kind of way, while someone with totally different issues of gender/race will say ‘How can you leave your child and go off to a colony, you bad mother!’”

“I’ve been called a slut for writing about experiences that wouldn’t elicit the same response if I were a man,” Strayed says. “When it comes to writing about class, there’s a different challenge. It’s harder for me to put my finger on what it is, but it’s there. It has to do with daring to write about it at all.”

Beyond the work itself lies the promotion of it—and another potentially fraught likability quagmire. How does an author promote a story she wrote about herself without coming off as totally self-absorbed?

Gay says that gender plays a role in how one’s efforts are perceived: “There are plenty of unlikable writers who do very well for themselves, though they are, generally, men. Women are subject to a different kind of pressure when it comes to likability and how they present their work. Sometimes, I feel like there is an unspoken need for women to be more humble, more self-effacing, more ‘aw shucks, well I guess I wrote this thing, won’t you read it?’ It’s a tough thing to balance.”

Strayed points out that the difficulty varies from writer to writer because of personality. “There is no relationship between the quality of the writing and the conviviality of the writer who wrote it. I think it’s ridiculous to expect to like someone who wrote a book you love, but the increasing visibility of writers on social media—who are expected to be the ambassadors of their books—amps up the pressure to be well-liked.”

Moore agrees: “Likability in a radio interview, bookstore event, or TV show is very different than likability on the sentence level. They are connected, but different,” he says. “Surely, though, an attractive writer with a winning personality has a great advantage in marketing.”

Borich says that the whole point of writing is not to win the literary equivalent of the Most Popular senior superlative. “I hope we still have the ability to ‘like’ more than one thing about a book. I can think of many nonfiction books where I don’t like the cadence or politics or personality of the narrator but I do like what the books reveals of the world. ‘Like’ is a feeling word, but books should also to make us think, whether we like the speaker or not.”


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Jo Ostgarden's picture
…”but I do like what the books reveals of the world.” That’s it right there. Many times, I have picked up a book and found the protagonist or main character so repugnant, I could not wrap my mind around the whole story. Sometimes, I even have been moved to put the book down and quit reading because of it. That’s more of a reveal about a problem with character development and perhaps the writer’s need to show off how good (insert favorite idea: cool, hip, smart, outrageous, etc) they are, then the overall thrust of the story. But the reality is I only have so much time to read. So the writer better not lose sight of that if they want high book sale numbers. And sometimes a great book comes along and you just don’t care about the shock value stuff and read right past it. But there’s a way to share, reveal, tell, particularly in memoir, the nitty gritty of an experience without throwing it all out there. I dare guess that the majority of readers would rather imagine a bare shoulder or a little leg than a total naked body. Leaving some of it up the imagination gives the reader a chance to participate—imagine—themselves in the story—much like you do when you walk into a “staged” home for sale. The stripped house feels bare and empty. It’s a wasted proposition. A waste of time. And those house take a lot longer to sell. The shocking, in-the-face details can be like a splash of water on the face; wake a reader up from their fevered dream. Of course, this also depends on how you like your dreams…the writer, make or female, who sells lots of books knows exactly how to balance this. A writer who is more interested in selective eyes than high book sales numbers doesn’t need to bother. But then why bother to write the book if you don’t want to get your story out there?
John Carter's picture
Likability is a tough nut to crack, especially in writing. I think this article has a lot of good things to say, but I think the most important thing is to be honest with the reader. Cheryl Strayed said it pretty good in the article: “When using the self in literature, the task isn’t to tell us who you are. It’s to tell us who you are really. The negative and the positive and all the stuff in between. Sometimes I wince when showing the icky stuff, the stuff for which I know people will judge me. But writing requires such things. It isn’t about covering your ass. It’s about showing it.”
Alison Hodgson's picture
Likability isn’t as important to me, or maybe I like and trust someone trying to tell the story as honestly as compellingly as he or she is capable of telling it. Humor certainly goes a very long way whether or not I like what the writer is doing. What absolutely puts me off is when the writer is trying to make a case for herself or, as Strayed says, “covering your ass.” I once read a book by a woman who described what she carefully chose for a date with a man who—it was clear to the reader— wasn’t that in to her. The rest of the book was about the dissolution of their non-relationship. The thorough description of what she wore was painful. It was so obviously, “I looked good! Why didn’t he fall in love with me?” She wrote the book and was still wondering this. Honesty, skill, humor and enough distance to write somewhat objectively—that’s what I’m looking for in a memoir.
Shirley Hershey Showalter's picture
My 86-year-old mother and I had a conversation about this very topic on the phone last Sunday. I have a memoir coming out in Sept., the publisher is advertising it, and friends are asking her questions. She worries that the memoir might offend some people. Maybe she worries that she, as a character in my story, might not be likeable enough. I told her that most offended people just need time to absorb perspectives not their own. And, more importantly, if the story inspired a score of people to live their own lives more fully for every one it offended, that was a risk I was willing to take. She seemed to like that answer. I’m now steeling myself to live into it.

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