Lazy reviewers – often online reader-reviewers – tend to be deeply concerned about whether or not a character is “likeable” and use this as the foundation of their overall critique of a book. Laura Miller skewers this propensity in an article for Salon‘s reading club:
I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
James Wood, in his book How Fiction Works, wrote that this complaint implies that “artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.” That we might recognize a character’s unappealing qualities while simultaneously seeing life through her eyes, “and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind,” doesn’t seem to occur to far too many readers. Wood calls this sort of criticism, so common in Amazon reader reviews, a “contagion of moralizing niceness.”
The Salon reading club is currently discussing (what else?) Freedom. Miller describes her feelings about one of the main characters:
Patty is not nice. She does some bad things, and she can be grouchy and bitter. I wouldn’t necessarily want her as a friend, but then that’s not really an option because she’s not a real person. She’s a literary character — which means it’s not imperative that we take a moral stance on every single thing she does. Literature is an experiment of the imagination, and if we don’t try to leave behind our contemporary compulsion to pass judgment on everything and everyone when we enter into that experiment, then we are the ones who lose out.