A shit for a main character

Let me break the rules by quoting a negative critique of Trading Futures by someone to whom I was hoping to sell it three years ago:  

‘Another major issue … is the characters and primarily Matthew and Anna (as they are really the only two people we experience). Matthew, rather than coming across as acerbic and amusing in his grumbles, feels bitter and spiteful and selfish so it’s impossible to empathise with him and that [is] the quickest way to losing the reader. If they don’t like him at all then they won’t care what happens to him. And the same unfortunately applies to Anna. I found her very cold and I couldn’t see what he saw in her so again when it came to their joint fate I wasn’t moved or bothered enough what happened.’

I still fail to understand the comments about Anna. She was intended to be (as she was for Matthew, and in fact for me) an archetype of the type of woman that a young man might fall in love with circa 1967. It is true that she is detached, for good reason, but that’s not the same as being cold. Perhaps archetypes have changed, for both men and women, in the intervening years. Or perhaps I did fail to put across the Anna I had in my head.

Matthew, though, was intended to be ‘bitter and spiteful and selfish’. But the comment that struck me as odd was that ‘if [readers] don’t like him at all then they won’t care what happens to him.’ And later in the same email, the comment that: ‘I’m not sure we want [the novel] finishing with him on the verge of suicide. If he’s amended into a more sympathetic character then the reader won’t enjoy such a brutal ending.’

The implication seems to be that a good, or at any rate a commercial, novel should feature agreeable people who suffer a few ups and downs, but whose lives turn out happily in the end. I can think of little more boring than picking up a new novel and knowing in advance that this is what it will contain.

It seems almost superfluous to add that if the requirement is, first, for a pleasant protagonist and, secondly, for a happy ending, then the existing store of literature would need to be culled extensively. Some novelists (Graham Greene springs to mind) spent a lifetime writing about difficult, often disagreeable people. Jay Gatsby was not a man one would care to spend much time with. Even the idyllic Brideshead Revisited features two main characters who are irredeemably selfish. And let’s not start on the novels of Dostoyevsky or Kafka. Neither do most of these works, or many others, pay much attention to the need for a happy ending.

Surely the only requirement for a main character is that the reader should feel involved with him or her. Readers are not solely interested in characters they like; in fact, they can be gripped by a character who repels them. If one feels involved, one will care what happens to the character. If one cares what happens, one will want to read on. And, since real life presents an endless variety of endings, readers should expect fiction to do the same.

There are people who have read Trading Futures and liked it, and people who have read it and not liked it. Nothing new in that. There is no novel that has been loved by everyone who has read it, although there may be a few that have come close to being universally disliked. What are generally considered to be great novels are no exception to this rule. I would not try to convince anyone that The Grapes of Wrath is a bad novel, but I found it unreadable.

And I don’t mind that Trading Futures divides opinion. For one thing, that is inevitable. For another, I would rather write a book that triggers a strong reaction than one that produces indifference.

For some people, especially young people, Matthew Oxenhay might seem exceptional. Perhaps most men they know aren’t like him, or don’t appear to be like him. He is a shit, and who cares what happens to a shit. People tend to have friends in roughly their own age group. Younger people are friends with other younger people, and they all have dreams and ideals, and few of those have been dashed yet. And thank goodness for that.

But life changes, and personalities and attitudes can change too.

I am not young and I don’t see Matthew as exceptional. My experience is that, over time, a Matthew or two appears in everyone’s lives. Some of us become Matthews. Others get married to Matthews, or have friends who are Matthews. We can identify with what happens to Matthew in Trading Futures, not least because we know it might happen to us. To some of us, people like Matthew are not really shits, however badly they behave, because we can remember them before they got that way and a part of us feels sorry for them.

Over time, an Anna or two appears in everyone’s lives as well.

On the whole, the generation gap, has narrowed. The oldies are much closer to their children than they were to their parents. But, just as there are some things that the old will always find hard to understand about the young, there are some things that the young might find hard to understand about older people. One of them, perhaps, is what life can do to a person.