May 21

This week: May short-story read-along, a new Q&A feature, our thoughts on “unlikeable characters,” and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

I’ve announced the May Short Story Read-along, To Do by Jennifer Egan. We’d love your participation. Head on over, read the story, and then see if you can write a story in “list” format. The best way to share your story is to post it on your own blog, tumblr, or in a Google Doc, and put the link in the comments of the read-along post. If your story is very short, you can post it in the comments, but be aware that much of the formatting will be lost.

We’ve made it easy for you to ask us all of your burning questions. We loved doing the live podcast Q&As at recent Booktopia events, so we’d love to make it a more regular feature. If you have a question for either or both of us, we’ll try to answer it on the podcast. Ask about our jobs, the podcast, request a book recommendation, or ask us about anything you like. If we can answer, we will. Depending on the volume of questions, we’ll either do a Q&A episode or integrate the answers into regular episodes. Thanks to Book Fight for giving us the idea (I’m a huge fan of their “Writers Ask” episodes).

To ask your question, just click on the BOTNS Q&A form:


Looking for Friends (in all the wrong places):


Claire Messud was recently interviewed by Publishers Weekly about her novel, The Woman Upstairs. In the article, the interviewer asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud’s answer is terrific, and started a conversation on blog posts and social media about “unlikeable characters.” Michael and I share our thoughts about these complicated characters. Some of the other books that we mention during this conversation: The Corrections, Gone Girl, Finn, Lolita (audio read by Jeremy Irons), Tampa, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving We’d love to hear your thoughts, too.


Two Books One book we can’t wait for you to read


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Michael talks about Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a novel about a man who saves the daughter of his neighbor from abduction by Chechen authorities. Beuatifully written and emotionally compelling, it spans the whole of 2 Chechen civil wars. Michael has coined a new term for this type of book: “clutch-worthy” — the kind of book that after you finish, you clutch the book to your chest.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to postpone my segment 3 recommendation because I do feel strongly that this book is important and you should think about reading it. Anthony Marra is touring (he’ll be in Corte Madeiera and Santa Cruz in June), and many bookstores have signed copies. Check with your local bookstore. It is also the May pick for Powell’s Indiespensible — I know many of you are members, but even if you’re not, as of now it appears to still be available to order.

  • Thanks for the link to Book Fight, Ann!

  • I can’t wait to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Just waiting for my signed copy from Odyssey Books to arrive. It sounds like a great one!

  • Tracy Slater

    As usual, Ann and Michael, such an enjoyable episode! I also really appreciated hearing about the Book Fight podcast.

    I loved the topic of unlikable characters, and I had two things I wanted to add. One is that in my reading experience what makes a character work in a story is whether or not they are *engaging*, which includes whether I can feel some sympathy for them or relate to them in some way, but as you both pointed out, this is really different for me than whether I like them, per se. The other is that I have a character I think really exemplifies this: the main character in Capote’s true-crime work In Cold Blood (can’t remember his name right now). Here was a man who you were horrified and repulsed and scared by, b/c you knew, in real life, he had done awful things. But Capote added these great little details–how his legs were too short to reach the floor so he swung them like a child when he sat, etc.–that also made the character endearing or compelling at certain moments. These are the characters I am most taken by in any kind of writing, actually, probably b/c I think they are the most realistic, the most honest about the good and the bad in all of us. Not sure if you’ve covered this topic, and it may be too similar to the one you just did with Messud’s book (which I just bought on your suggestion a few weeks ago–thanks!), but I’m fascinated by this idea: how an author can make you feel too diametrically opposed things at once about a character.

    Have a question for both of you too, but will add it on your question form.

    Thanks very much for this episode, as for all the ones you do.


    • Dani P

      I completely agree with you on “unlikeable” characters! I often find likeable characters to be boring or one dimensional. I like my characters to challenge me and make me confront certain feelings about my own morality or ethics. I typically think of books with likeable characters as being good beach reads or even light reading. While those with unlikeable characters, are the ones that keep me up at night turning pages or abandoning a party to try to understand the characters like in the book “The Dinner” by Herman Koch.

  • bootsak

    Regarding ‘likeability’ or whatever of characters, I could not like or empathize with Anna of Anna Karenina. Had I been reading, instead of listening, I would have skimmed much of her. I’m curious whether anyone else reacted to her that way.
    Thanks Ann and Michael for the podcasts.

  • Vanessa D

    I absolutely LOVE unlikeable characters. Mostly because I feel
    “likeable” character are easier to write. Ever heard the Ana Karenina
    quote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy
    in its own way.”?…well, that’s how I feel about unlikeable characters. They’ve all got their reasons whether they are simply imperfect (like all of us), pretty unpleasant or downright despicable. I find these characters endlessly fascinating. And that quote Ann read… wow! Could not have said it better myself. Unlikeable characters are “alive” and I love to read them! Also, who are we
    kidding… admit it, everyone loved the Disney villains WAY more than the dumb
    princesses. I want to live in a world that idolizes Ursula and Maleficent.

    Some Favorites Meanies/Conmen/Dispicable Characters from Literature:
    Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice), H.H. Holmes (serial killer from Devil in the White City), Jed Parry (stalker from Enduring Love), Mrs. Danvers (from Rebecca), Arturo the Aquaboy (from Geek Love), William Hamleigh (from Pillars of the Earth), Kevin Khatchadourian (from We Need to Talk About Kevin), Ralph (from Lord of the Flies), Frank W. Abagnale (Catch Me If You Can), The Pollutants (Wump World by Bill Peet), Napoleon (from Animal Farm)

    Honestly, what would literature be without this horrible cast of characters? Boring, that’s what.

  • Beth Anne Mandia

    Unlikeable characters are extremely intriguing. I have a profound
    respect for authors who can write a character that is both loathesome
    and interesting. I agree with Michael when he says that as long as a
    reader can get invested in a character then the book is a success —
    whether or not the character is likeable is less important. My personal
    feeling is if a character can bring out such emotion in a reader (and
    loathing, angry, hatred is surely an emotion), than the story is

    My all time favorite unlikeable character is the
    horrible Madame Bovary. I think she is so horrid she makes me
    physically angry at her, for most of the novel, and that’s why I love
    it so much. A more recent example is Eric Schroder in Schroder, by
    Amity Gaige. Or the narrator in The Dinner by Herman Koch.

    of Nora in The Woman Upstairs. I’m sorry, Ann, but I would NOT be
    friends with this woman. She was psychotic! She was extremely
    compelling and fascinating, but surely I wouldn’t want her to be a part
    of my life in any way but to read about!

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