Does a likable character equate to a likable book? How does an unsavory character effect ones experience of a book?
These questions come to me after reading—actually, devouring—the autobiographical saga Tracks DB 18639 by Robyn “The Camel Lady” Davidson and absolutely loving it, but finding that many other readers are critical of the book because of her strong (read: unlikable) personality.
Robyn had reason to be headstrong as she went through the remarkable transformations in her 1978 book describing a 1,700 mile trek across the Australian desert, with just her dog and four camels that she learned to care for and train. She encountered treacherous men, displaced and disrespected aboriginal people (and the rampant racism that surrounds their existence), and the prying eyes of an entertainment obsessed media, eager to put her story on the front page of the world.
Patty, a fellow reader adviser and I facilitated the book club at LBPH in reading this book, and we both fell head over heels for the adventure tale, and we were both sorely disappointed to find no sympathetic hearts in our club. I’ve checked out my go-to forum to get inside the heads of other readers, goodreads.com, and found unfortunately similar reactions to Robyn.
This has led me to consider what we, as readers, expect of our protagonists and how our perception of them influences our experience of the entire piece of work.
In looking for examples in my reading history, which is mostly limited to fiction, I’ve reflected that it’s often the case that we struggle with the decisions and repeated mistakes of our narrators. Harry Potter DB 47260 is arrogant and egotistical. Lily Bart of House of Mirth DB 35369 creates the disasters that befall her. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall DB 21671, our beloved narrator strikes a man on the head out of jealousy and leaves him on the side of the road! So is it just me, or is it the difficult characters that keep us enthralled?
Perhaps the stakes are higher with non-fiction. Fictional characters “died” due to Harry Potter’s stubbornness, but we don’t hold that against him the way some seem to hold the death of a feral bull camel against Robyn. (uh, sorry, spoiler alert?) True stories, it seems, pack a stronger punch than invented, and the writer pays the price in “likability”.
For myself, I was refreshed to read a story of a strong woman who wasn’t worried about her “likability” at all.
If you’re interested in joining in on our next book club discussion here at the Library for the Blind in October, call us at 412-687-2440 and we’ll send you the book!