JANUARY 13, 2020
IN A 2007 interview with Dave Hickey, Sheila Heti admitted that she was getting sick of characters. “I’m less interested in writing about fictional people,” she explained, “because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story — I just can’t do it.” This comment has been widely quoted by critics, perhaps because, in retrospect, it seems to anticipate the project of Heti’s breakout book, How Should a Person Be? (2010/2012). That book, subtitled “a novel from life,” tells us what we are led to assume is a real story about real people — about Heti, her best friend (the visual artist Margaux Williamson), and their artist friends in Toronto. Following the example of Chris Kraus, Heti’s book combines novelistic storytelling with memoir, philosophy, and art criticism.
Other recently prominent writers, Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Tao Lin, Ben Lerner, and Teju Cole, have followed suit, writing what is often called “autofiction,” rejecting conventional novelistic character or what David Shields calls, in his manifesto Reality Hunger, the “novel of characters.” Shields writes: “[T]he novel of characters […] belongs entirely to the past; it describes a period: the apogee of the individual.” Today, the high point of individualism is a distant memory, and liberal novelists who think that the novel should be showcasing the fate of the individual life are trapped in an outmoded way of making art.
On their face, Heti’s and Shields’s declarations might be taken as conventional postmodern critiques of realism. (Shields, after all, takes much of his novel theory, word for word, from Alain Robbe-Grillet.) As William Gass once put it, mocking those who “treat fictional characters” as “living creatures,” a character is merely “the noise of his name, and all the sounds and rhythms that proceed from him.” Fictive characters are, on this view, constructions, fabrications, fake to their core. Postmodernists wanted to show that we could never really get behind representations to reality itself, but the autofictionists are up to something different. They don’t get too hung up on questions of mediation, representation, and interpretation. They want real people, real stories, real life, a realer realism.
They hunger, as Shields puts it, for reality.
Literary writers, it seems, aren’t the only ones sick of conventional ways of talking about character. Many prominent critics, too, have changed their tune. This change is evident in Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies, published by the University of Chicago Press as part of its TRIOS series. This TRIOS volume brings together Toril Moi, Rita Felski, and Amanda Anderson to discuss the concept of character in literary studies. Though quite different from one another, these critics each evince their own reality hunger. They’re tired of academic orthodoxies that emphasize that characters are not people but merely words on a page. A new paradigm is needed in which we take seriously the demands that characters make upon us.
The co-authored introduction indicates that they want to focus on characters as “objects of identification, sources of emotional response, or agents of moral vision and behavior.” They want critics to “recognize our responses to characters not only as situated within ideological and sociohistorical contexts but also as importantly moral and affective in ways that much of the historical work in the field has left unexplored.” It is only or at least mostly historicist academics who get confused about this point, they suggest. The ordinary reader, a figure who appears repeatedly in these pages, knows exactly what to do with characters, and we academics should become a little more like them, or remember what it felt like to read a book before we stepped into the seminar room.
Academics confront a difficult decision once they do step into the classroom. In one camp, we find scholars who think that it is reasonable to treat characters as if they were people, as if they had inner lives, relationships, jobs. We would be justified, on this view, to look to characters for moral and ethical guidance, debate their motives, study their decisions, judge their failures, celebrate their victories. Critics and philosophers who embrace this way of talking include Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, and Robert Pippin. All of them accept that you might indeed learn valuable life lessons from fictive persons. On the other hand, treating characters this way is, in the view of many scholars, nuts. As L. C. Knights suggested in his 1933 essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?,” characters are just verbal structures that are part of larger works. We real people are the ones who invest meaning in those marks. To extract characters from these textual shackles, to treat them as if they were independent or portable or alive, would be a mistake. At the limit of this critical perspective is a structuralist tradition founded on the thought of Vladimir Propp, A. J. Greimas, Tzvetan Todorov, and Roland Barthes that redescribes characters as functions or effects of narrative. Propp, for example, reduced characters in Russian folk tales into quasi-grammatical placeholders with names like The Hero, The Helper, The Villain.
This is the dilemma that newly minted academics face. Are characters person-like entities or textual patterns? Does it make sense to treat them as independent of the texts in which they exist, or are they inextricable from those texts? In the 21st century, some critics have tried to undermine the opposition such questions assume. Alex Woloch, for example, has turned the divided way we treat literary characters into the engine of a brilliant analysis of character in the 19th-century realist novel. In The One vs. The Many, he locates the source of the conflict inside representations of character. “[L]iterary character is itself divided,” he writes, “always emerging at the juncture between structure and reference.” Woloch’s “socioformal” solution turns this division into a question of the distribution of narrative attention. Characters jostle for space within the novel, competing for attention. We always develop a sense of primary and secondary characters holistically and relationally. In another major study, Character and Person, John Frow has also sought to resolve the tension between “structure and reference,” again finding the solution within character. Characters, he argues, are “ontological hybrids.”
These solutions are arguably no solution at all but just a redescription of the same critical problem within a now mysterious entity called character. For their part, the essayists in Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies do not so much resolve the dilemma as sidestep it, either by saying that it is a pseudo-problem or by offering a pluralistic view of how we might study character. The authors are also reluctant to subscribe to a major academic consensus about the history of the novel — that realist character is, in various ways, an ideological exfoliation of, bulwark for, or technology that helps construct bourgeois individualism and liberal humanism. Viewing these commitments together, I think it is fair to say that Moi, Felski, and Anderson are calling for a “postcritical” approach to character.
Informed by the late philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Toril Moi is not impressed with discussions of the divided nature of character. She argues that we don’t need a theory of character at all. Instead, what academic critics should do is attend to the ways characters are used in a variety of contexts. We should be debating not how to explain characters but rather what counts as an “intellectually sophisticated” way of writing literary criticism (and writing about character). For Moi, this argument is part of a broader argument against literary theory, which in her view subscribes to a mistaken Saussure-inspired picture of language; Moi develops this argument against theory at greater length in her 2017 study, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell.
In the current essay, Moi elaborates her case by juxtaposing two seminal moments in the history of character-oriented criticism. The first is Knights’s 1933 essay, which I mentioned above. This polemic mocks a tradition of Shakespeare criticism that made grand statements about Shakespeare’s mastery of the process of creating true-to-life characters. This tendency, Knights argues, arose from 18th-century criticism that had lost its ear for Shakespeare’s language. Against this orthodoxy, Knights wanted to professionalize literary criticism, suggesting that Shakespeare was above all a dramatic poet — or perhaps just a poet, full stop — and that the task of the critic was first of all to attend to Shakespeare’s language. Moi persuasively shows that Knights pursued this argument as part of his broader pro-modernist aesthetic commitments. Knights was affiliated with the important magazine Scrutiny and with the Cambridge critics, such as I. A. Richards, F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, William Empson, and T. S. Eliot.
As persuasive as Moi’s historical account is, her contextualization of Knights raises questions about her critical method. Though her goal is to place Knights in his moment, Moi also effectively shows that his argument has major gaps and errors. When the aspiring Cambridge Critic outlines his alternative to character-centered criticism, for example, his “pellucid prose becomes uncharacteristically opaque.” His is, ultimately, a bad argument for ignoring Shakespeare’s facility for creating characters. It was bad in its day and remains bad today. Yet Moi gives Knights a pass, suggesting that his argument was appropriate to his era, and that she herself might have been part of the Cambridge camp if she had lived in his moment.
It is only today, it seems, that we should resist what Moi calls the “modernist-formalist” paradigm. The reason we should do so is that Knights’s recommendation for how critics should conduct themselves has hardened into an orthodoxy. Academic literary critics have internalized the taboo against treating characters as if they were people. Moi turns to Frow to make her case, highlighting how his Character and Person reproduces the taboo Knights argued for. Frow’s account of character is complex, but Moi zeroes in on his repeated claim that characters are ontologically hybrid entities. Moi argues that Frow is trapped in a picture of character that creates false philosophical problems, presupposing as foundational to character the analysis he makes of character after the fact. For Moi, there is really nothing to explain. We read signs on the page, identify some as or with characters, have emotions or thoughts about them, and then talk about them in a variety of ways.
Moi’s critique of Frow is persuasive, but she does not answer the question her analysis raises. She suggests that the real question literary critics ought to be asking is, “What kinds of character discussions are we willing to consider sophisticated and intellectually challenging?” But might seeming “sophisticated” require critics to give reasons for why one picture of character is better than another? Presumably being part of a “profession” (rather than a coterie or book club) means sanctioning some set of beliefs, practices, or interpretations, and rejecting others. At the end of Moi’s account, I am left wondering if there are any discussions of character Moi would herself find intellectually challenging, and I am also not sure who is included or excluded by her “we.”
Rita Felski’s essay is more explicitly normative. Felski focuses on the phenomenon of identification with characters. Like Moi, Felski poses her argument against a presumed academic orthodoxy that is said to be skeptical of any sort of identification with characters. Academics cringe when our students tell us they find this or that character relatable. But why? Felski wants to clear a ground for a more wide-ranging set of approaches. She cites work in cultural studies favorably, noting that it pioneered the audience-focused analysis of how readers or viewers embrace, resist, or reinterpret fictive characters. Arguing that this sort of analysis should be more common in literary (and film) studies, Felski tries to reclaim identification as a serious object of study.
She does so by decomposing identification into four related phenomena: alignment, allegiance, recognition, and empathy. “Alignment” is, as Felski defines it, our orientation toward a field of characters, “the formal means by which texts shape a reader’s or viewer’s access to character.” It’s all about who we pay attention to and invest our attention in. As such, it is quite compatible with established approaches in literary criticism and narrative theory. Whose point of view is presented, suppressed, distorted, or ridiculed? “Allegiance” is Felski’s word for the way that audiences ally themselves with some characters and against others, focusing our attention on “how ethical or political values — that is, acts of evaluating — draw audiences closer to some figures rather than others.” The third category, “recognition,” describes our ability to distinguish characters as characters, and it links up with “self-recognition,” our ability to see a text as a mirror of our experience. Finally, Felski discusses “empathy,” which has to do with “sharing someone’s feelings and responding with concern to these feelings” (and which divides further into “feeling with and feeling for someone”).
This proliferation of terms is a little baroque, but the payoff of Felski’s schema is that she can support a case that fictive characters are quite varied, not just realist characters in 19th-century novels. To speak of character in general and ignore the flat, weird, inhuman characters of our varied narrative traditions — the super-spies, hobbits, demigods, talking animals, et cetera — is to ignore much if not most of what narrative character is. This first dimension of Felski’s argument is very persuasive. The second payoff, about which I am less convinced, has to do with undermining the difference between the academic analysis of character and non-academic approaches to character. Here, as in Moi’s essay, there is a tendency to align academic readers with skeptical, formalist, anti-humanist modes of analysis; the ordinary reader is, meanwhile, associated with strong, earnest emotional responses to characters. We academic critics should become more open to the responses of ordinary readers, Felski argues.
At the same time, Felski does make room for what she calls “ironic identification,” a form of identification “premised or based on irony.” She means the sort of feeling we have about characters like Meursault or Patrick Bateman or the Underground Man. That is, there are characters with whom non-identity is (paradoxically) part of the reason or ground of readerly attachment. While Felski does identify a tradition of anomic, estranging characters, it is not clear why she would describe our relation to such characters as ironic identification (as opposed, say, to disidentification). Her own analysis here becomes hazy and she admits that “the vectors of causality are hard to pin down” when we talk about such characters in terms of identification. Felski ultimately associates ironic identification with the academic study of narrative, and it is certainly the case that academic literary and film critics often cathect onto difficult or inhuman characters as part of our everyday critical practice. We often suggest that such characters are either symptomatic of our damaged life or perhaps exemplary critics of that damage. We also, as Felski notes, sometimes become attached to philosophers and critical theorists in the same way that we once became attached to fictive characters. We may not want to be Madame Bovary or Frédéric Moreau anymore, but some of us wouldn’t mind being Judith Butler or Fredric Jameson.
Amanda Anderson’s contribution may initially seem to be the oddest of the three, in that its focus is less on fictive than moral character. Anderson mounts a defense of the idea that one might look to literary characters to find accurate representations of moral experience. More specifically, she wants to show that literary character can represent the process of rumination, which, she argues, is a morally significant and underappreciated form of moral reasoning. This claim is meant to contrast with the shared tendency among literary critics and cognitive scientists to question the moral coherence of the person and to discount our everyday accounts of moral agency. Against the account one finds in, say, the psychological research of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, the novel (according to Anderson) shows “slow” thinking to be more than a post-hoc rationalization for what the “fast” brain has already decided in advance. More, Anderson’s emphasis on the slowness (the circularity, the fragmented nature) of rumination also licenses a critique of models of moral reflection and judgment that lean too heavily on punctual, decisive, temporally foreclosed instances of choice and action. Sometimes we are decisive, but just as often we chew over problems — Anderson is especially focused on our reaction to shocks and traumas — and take a long time to figure things out.
In Anderson’s account, the realist novel has pride of place in the history of rumination, having the power to get things right about moral experience in a way even peer-reviewed scientific study doesn’t. Even works of modernism come to look very much like realism by the end of her analysis. Anderson distinguishes between the looping thoughts of characters in works of modernist fiction by Beckett and the proper forms of rumination one finds in works by, say, Virginia Woolf. Mrs Dalloway unsurprisingly, becomes Anderson’s key modernist example, and she shows that rumination is a mode of thought that operates across the novel — though this mode ultimately ends up in a “frozen dialectic” with epiphany-oriented forms of decision and moral reflection.
Anderson’s commitment to this claim — the claim that the novel gives us access to the structure or form of experience and thought — is finally what binds her to the other contributors. One might say that Moi and Felski clear the ground for Anderson’s analysis of rumination. Her essay resembles Moi and Felski in another way, too: she tells a critical story in which we blinkered literature professors, trapped by our suspicion of liberal individualism as well as by our anti-humanist and anti-realist orthodoxies, have failed to recognize rumination. Yet, against this opposition, plucky rumination, the hero of her story, soldiers on, and, with a few critical helping hands along the way, is posed to finally attain the status it deserves.
Reality will out.
The return of the real in Anderson’s essay brings us back, indirectly, to Heti’s boredom with character and the rise of autofiction. As if answering Heti’s complaint that fictive characters are fake people, Anderson and her co-authors in Character try to demonstrate that even the most fantastical characters are, in many significant senses, quite real, and worth taking seriously. Like their autofictional counterparts, these postcritics are engaged in a critique of postmodern orthodoxies, taking issue with decades of claims about characters.
“Literary narratives engage us in forms of life, present us with ways of being, and they do so through complex formal means, one of which involves the presentation of ordinary thought processes, both momentary and sustained,” Anderson argues. This could be a credo for the whole book, a both/and solution to the question of whether characters are person-like or formal structures. It could be, too, the slogan of the autofictionists, a slogan for a post-postmodern moment that has lost faith in asking questions about the challenges — and the critique — of representation and instead wants to get on with the business of talking about reality itself, ordinary life, everyday attachments, and matters of concern. In an era of “decreased enrollments and plummeting prestige of literary studies,” as the introduction notes, who are we to deny our students the reality they hunger for?
And yet, one suspects that critics cannot simply wish away the division of fictional character between person and sign. You can certainly announce that you have come through your philosophical therapy with a clean bill of health, free of baleful pictures of reality, yet such a therapy can only claim success if there really is no underlying dilemma. The idea that there is no question about the division between characters as people and characters as textual structures is easier to accept if one accepts the division between academic and ordinary readers proffered here.
But what if thinking critically about the divided nature of character is, in fact, the most ordinary thing? What if ordinary readers do treat characters sometimes as signs and sometimes as people? What if this oscillation were, in many cases, part of the pleasure of thinking about fictive characters? What if authors, directors, and showrunners were themselves quite aware of this division, and sometimes made this division the basis of their art? What if the nature of thought were not solely something the novel represents well or badly, but a phenomenon bound up with difficult political questions?
Indeed, even when our enrollments finally hit zero, I suspect that readers and viewers will continue their exploration of the line between person and page (or screen), reinventing the baleful academic orthodoxy that these critics have hoped to dispel. Websites like TV Tropes and self-conscious cultural products ranging from Rick & Morty to BoJack Horseman to Russian Doll will continue exploring the patterns of representation that dominate culture. And on Twitter and elsewhere, we are likely to find many ordinary readers and viewers debating the political meaning of different representational strategies, asking fundamental questions about character. No English professors necessary! Those representational habits and interpretive conflicts might provide fodder for the next wave of character-focused critics, becoming the subject of future research, if university departments of literary study are eventually reestablished.
Lee Konstantinou is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (2016). With Samuel Cohen, he co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (2012).