Posts Tagged ‘Claire Messud’

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A few weeks ago, Publishers Weekly interviewed Claire Messud about her new novel, The Woman Upstairs.  The interview emphasized the fact that Messud’s main character, Nora, ventures into “unseemly emotion” territory more commonly explored by American male authors: rage, obsession, deep dissatisfaction with her life. Women in literature are often allowed to be mildly frustrated, to want more from life, but apparently Messud’s main character goes far beyond that. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book.)

Which is perhaps why Messud got a bit tetchy when the interviewer asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Messud responded. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” She then rattled off a laundry list of well-known characters and authors – mostly male – whom no one in their right mind would want to befriend.

You can feel her frustration, and I don’t blame her. Books by women tend to get pigeonholed as either “women’s fiction” or “chick lit,” with bright, fluffy covers even when the story within is much darker. We’ve advanced past the days of Jane Austen publishing anonymously, but women still have a long way to go to gain equality in the publishing world, as they do in most other spheres.

However, it was Messud’s next remark that stopped me in my tracks.

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?”

I agree with Messud’s second sentence above. We do read to find life, in all its forms and permutations, which are unbelievably numerous and not all pleasant or tidy. I have read my share of deep, harrowing, complicated books that left me wrung out, brokenhearted or simply unsettled, and most of those books had something important to say about the human experience, whether their renderings of it were enjoyable or not.

But I do read to find friends. I have done so since I was a little girl, reading Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Christy, the Little House on the Prairie books, and several American Girl series over and over again. These are all books written for children, it is true, but in my adult life I have also discovered many book characters whom I consider friends, or with whom I would like to be friends, were it possible across the time/space divide.

I believe it is perfectly valid to read to find friends (as long as you also have actual human friends). I read, in part, to reassure myself that there is still beauty and light and hope in the world, and those qualities are often embodied in the characters with whom I would love to be friends.

I appreciate that Messud’s frustration likely stems from the fact that no one would have asked that question of a male author. The question shows the reductive thinking often applied to fiction by women, and I concede that a character’s likeability often has little (or nothing) to do with whether he or she is valid, real, alive. But I want to say – as I clutch my favorite books to my heart – that I’ve made many friends between the pages of books, male and female, human and nonhuman, likeable and otherwise. And that is as real and valid and true a book experience as any other.

What do you think about Messud’s comments? Do you read to find friends?


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