Cover Your Ass; or How to Manage the Character of Your Narrator if the Narrator is You

I’ve been reading the book White Sands by Geoff Dyer, a collection of essays about place and travel. I like, in general, essays about place and travel. I am interested in place and travel, and in the essay form. Geoff Dyer is a member of the Royal Society of Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he’s won a Somerset Maugham award, an E. M. Forster Award, a Lannan Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award. He also seems to be, based on his presentation of himself in these essays, a bit of an asshole.

He may not object to this appellation. He might bristle, but in the end would likely own up to at least a modicum of assholeness. Or maybe he does not realize he is depicting himself as such; in fact, believes he’s a great guy. Or maybe he just doesn’t care how he’s coming off in these stories. Bold of him. Brash. Or it may be possible that he is only depicting himself as an asshole for some artist reason of his own. This seems an odd choice.

But it is an issue for us writers — what if our protagonist is unlikeable? And what if that protagonist is me? How do we learn to perceive how our characters/narrators are coming off to the reader? To what extent does it matter?

I am sure in my own work that I have inadvertently revealed myself to be an asshole. I am, in part, at times, an asshole. Have I at times with some deliberation depicted myself as such for some artistic purpose? Perhaps. An asshole in the story may create a useful tension, may serve to alert the reader to some point or perspective.

As it turns out, traveling to nine different places in nine essays with such a person is proving to be tiresome. Or maybe I only have room for one such companion, and I’m it.

A friend observed to me recently that many of the novels she’s read of late have protagonists that are obnoxious. She says one or two of those are fine, but it seems to be a movement.

I think the story is the thing, and the emotional or psychological or experiential oomph behind it. I think with a good enough story well enough told, I’m willing to spend time with any variety of questionable characters. A good tale will buy my indulgence, for quite a while anyway. So maybe it’s not Mr. Dyer himself, but the quality of the essays that make me weary of him. Be an asshole, sir; but tell me a better story. And certainly, I need to be prepared to take my own advice.

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