Shortly after Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau was published in the spring, the New York Times book critic Janet Maslin dismissed the novel on the basis of the main female character being an “insufferable American narcissist.” The story, a modern Anna Karenina-Madame Bovary hybrid set in a suburb of Zürich, features a compulsively unfaithful housewife named Anna. While Maslin wasn’t a fan of Essbaum’s writing (which she compared to “a sink full of dishwater”), her criticism lingered on Anna’s unsavory traits. “This may be hard to believe, but Anna becomes even more myopic and selfish in the book’s later stages,” Maslin wrote. “[Anna’s husband] becomes more interesting, she grows less so, and still she snivels at center stage, whining about her bad luck and mistreatment.”
Yet in 2015 the publishing industry saw a bevy of novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff. The narrator of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is a newly divorced woman who’s irrationally jealous of a stranger. The novel became a number one New York Times bestseller within a month of its release and its movie rights were quickly snapped up. Another instant bestseller, Jessica Knoll’s debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive, centers around Ani FaNelli, an unapologetic social climber. After Birth, the raw and celebrated account of motherhood by Elisa Albert, is driven by the new mom Ari, who’s conflicted about her role as a parent. And Fates and Furies, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, ultimately reveals that the seemingly selfless Mathilde has long been raging behind the scenes of her own multi-decade marriage. Meanwhile, Hausfrau, insufferable narcissist and all, was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month in March.
These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures. Perhaps most refreshingly, these novels aren’t so much heralding a new age of female-centric literature as they’re building on a much older English-language tradition of works about complex women.
For one, these novels allow their protagonists to navigate vulnerability, pain, and disappointment—and all the awful thoughts and behaviors that may arise. In After Birth, Ani adjusts to the toll motherhood can take on one’s relationships and psyche, dispelling the myth of delirious happiness emblematized by modern baby showers. While Hausfrau’s Anna loves her children, being a stay-at-home mother and the comfortable wife of a banker isn’t enough to cure her profound unhappiness. And Girl on the Train’s 32-year-old Rachel Watson simply gets to be a spiteful complicated mess: an addict who loses her job and routinely lies to her roommate.
Luckiest Girl Alive’s Ani FaNelli is acutely aware of the ridiculous expectations placed on her as a woman, but she’s willing to play the game anyway to get ahead: from extreme dieting to picking the “right” man to marry to improve her social status. Fates and Furies cleverly splits its narrative in two to show how two people in the same marriage can have grossly distorted views of their relationship: In the first part, told from the husband’s perspective, Mathilde is an angel who puts his career before her own, while the second part reveals Mathilde’s darker, more violent side. The end result in all these cases is a fairly uncommon one in literature: sympathy for a woman who has done terrible things.
Heightening the complexity of these novels is that their narrators and characters fall on a spectrum of unreliability—characters whose recounting of events, plots, and details might, or it is later revealed, be entirely inaccurate. There’s a certain appeal, as a reader, in being kept guessing or intentionally deceived by a character’s tenuous relationship with reality.
It’s worth noting that all of these transgressive fictional women are white and come from a very specific socioeconomic background. Still, what Hausfrau, Girl on the Train, After Birth, and Luckiest Girl Alive have in common with 2012’s Gone Girl is their attempts to examine and complicate their own version of white suburbia and upper-class normativity. Each protagonist toys with the notion of having “made it” (or conversely having lost it) in primarily upper-middle-class worlds with the traditional markers of house, spouse, children, and career.
The publishing industry remains regressive in many ways when it comes to embracing complex female characters. Earlier this year, after analyzing the last 15 years’ worth of winners of six major literary awards, the author Nicola Griffith determined that books about women are considerably less likely to win prestigious awards. Of her findings, she ultimately concluded that “the more prestigious, influential, and financially remunerative the [literary] award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, [or] distasteful.”
Which makes the very act of creating an unlikable female protagonist feel that much more meaningful. In 2012, Publisher’s Weekly interviewed Claire Messud about the angry, middle-aged lead character of her novel The Woman Upstairs, asking her, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud 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 construct of female likability may continue to influence which books earn the highest praise, but fiction has served up memorable examples of female characters known for their general lack of regard for “niceness.” Anna Karenina was unfaithful to her husband, left him and her son, and took up with a count who ultimately left her for an 18-year-old. Madame Bovary was no better: Even after “marrying up” from her humble farm origins and becoming a doctor’s wife, Emma found elegant balls and outings to the opera so boring that she had an affair with a landowner. (Motherhood turned out to be a total bore too.)
Meanwhile, Becky Sharp of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is just about the biggest female opportunist English literature has ever seen, seducing wealthy men to advance her social status. In Pride and Prejudice, the witty and designing Elizabeth Bennet is clearly the enduring favorite over her saintly older sister, Jane, remembered for, yes, her niceness and beauty. In Little Women, the ambitious younger sister Jo March, who’s uninterested in marriage and (selfishly) wants a literary career, feels like the true main character.
The major difference is, of course, that many of these unlikable ladies were written by men. Today, much remains to be done to achieve anything close to gender parity in the literary world, with women far outnumbering men as book-buyers, but with men still dominating criticism. And yet authors like Essbaum and Hawkins are helping to fix things by giving life to protagonists who challenge the gendered boundaries of morality and normalcy. If enough writers do the same, literature might arrive at a day where book critics treat an angry, selfish, but ultimately compelling female character the way they would Hamlet or Oscar Wao—not as a deterrent but as an invitation to keep reading.