Guest Post: On Writing Unlikable Places

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On Writing Unlikable Places

A few months back, like many writers—and women writers in particular, I suspect–I followed the literary debate over “likable” characters with some interest. For those who might have missed, it all started with an interview Publishers Weekly sat down to with novelist Claire Messud, and their guileless assertion that Nora, the unambiguously furious main character of Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs, wasn’t someone they’d “want to be friends with.” As Jennifer Weiner later put it in Slate in her thought-provoking response to the exchange,  Messud all but “flipped the table”:

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.

For some readers—Weiner included—Messud’s outburst was gender inflected; a thinly-veiled critique of so-called “women’s writing,” and the perceived tendency of such writing steer clear of “unseemly” female characters. This may well be the case. But on a broader scale, it reflected something I’ve long puzzled over in my own writing (which, incidentally, has also been labeled “women’s writing” by some, though this mystifies me), which is my proclivity to write about historical moments and places that are often almost unbearably dark.

It’s not like I set out to write exclusively about bummer subject matter–or at least, that wasn’t the case with my first novel. The Painter from Shanghai was originally intended (and remains, really) a celebratory re-imagining of a life that still strikes me as miraculous: that of Chinese post-Impressionist Pan Yuliang, who began life as an orphan in sexual slavery and ended up as one of China’s most renowned—if controversial—modern painters. Overall, it’s a happy story. Or at least that’s what I thought when I started to shape it on the screen. What I learned, though, was that while Pan’s discovery of art and its redemptive powers was intriguing to explore literarily, I was even more drawn to those dark moments she endured before and after finding those powers: her years in a Wuhu brothel; her near-starvation as a student at the Beaux Arts in Paris; the vilification she suffered as a concubine under her husband’s first wife, and from her own audience in China upon displaying images of her own nude body. When it was all done, I was both elated and emotionally-drained. And I wasn’t altogether surprised to find others felt the same: Marie Claire, for example, called the book “harrowing.” (I chose to assume they meant that in a good way).

With my second novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, I was more prepared for immersion in grim detail. After all, the subject matter—the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which incinerated 100,000 civilians in a matter of hours—was inescapably bleak. My goal in writing about it, however, was to explore not only the horror of that particular historical moment, but also the hope that evolved from its ashes. For the most part, I believe I accomplished that—but not before adding several other indisputably grim moments (war atrocities, marital betrayal, racism and insanity, to name a few) and that were purely of my own making. This time, it was Library Journal that called me “harrowing,” though it helped a little that they did it in a starred review.

In the months since, my fascination with the more macabre moments in history hasn’t waned much–my initial idea for my third novel involved Nazi experimentations on Jewish children, an abusive mother and a vengeful ghost (though I eventually decided that was too bleak even for me). But it has made me consider exactly why it is that I like to write as I do. Why, exactly, do I perpetually  “harrow” my readers? Why immerse them (and myself) in situations most people would probably rather not even really think about—much less experience personally?

For me, at least, the likeable/unlikable discussion helped to articulate that drive, at least a little. For while Messud’s heroine (or anti-heroine, depending on your perspective) is clearly angry, and would likely make a crappy friend, that anger serves a higher purpose in the novel than simply exploring what it feels like to be pissed off.  Nor is it  “unbearably grim,” in its author’s mind. Nora, Messud says, may be “deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much.”

In other words, the darker emotions of this woman serve to highlight the brighter ones; the ones we all like and want to experience. And in Messud’s mind—as in my own—writing about the grimmer aspects of a character’s experience only enhances how precious the bright ones are. Which makes sense, right? Write a novel in which characters are happy and funny and bright alone, and you end up with a smiley cartoon. You need the shadow to throw those lighter emotions into dimension—in essence, to make them real.

So it goes, to my mind, with “unbearably grim” moments in time. They may not be particularly reader-friendly. But they are essential for creating a balanced understanding of how we not only survive them, but move on to happier times—times that, in light of what came before, are shown to be even more precious and necessary than we might otherwise realize.

Of course, for an author like myself, finding the right balance is the real challenge. You don’t want your readers hurling themselves from bridges before reaching the good stuff in your story—any more than Messud wanted poor Nora written off as a socially-challenged harpy with major anger issues. Have I found that balance yet in my work? Like everything else literary, it really depends on who you ask. I’ve had readers who confided to me that they couldn’t get past Pan’s brothel experience, or Yoshi’s three hours in Tokyo’s inferno, because they were simply was too painful. But I’ve also had those who did get through them, and wrote me to tell me how gratifying and illuminating doing so proved to be for them. And to be honest, it’s those notes that give me the drive to go back into the darkness in my next novel—if only to come out the other side even more brightly.

 A lush, exquisitely rendered meditation on war, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tells the story of several families, American and Japanese, their loves and infidelities, their dreams and losses, and how they are all connected by one of the most devastating acts of war in human history.

In this evocative and thrilling epic novel, fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.


Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.


  • Give­away ends: Sep­tem­ber 17, 2013

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