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I like them. But I fear I'm in the minority.
I have a partial draft of a short story (or maybe it wants to be a novella) where the character is unnamed, but shares a significant amount of backstory and life history with Tucker Carlson.
Tucker Carlson the public person isn’t particularly interesting or nuanced. In the aftermath of his firing from Fox News there’s been a handful of think pieces attempting to parse the complexity of his views - Sometimes he criticizes corporations! - but there is no nuance to Carlson. He is a white supremacist who believes that American society is properly organized around racial hierachies where people like him are in charge.
But of course inside all of us there is a more complex story, an interior existence that has the potential for fascination, and the exploration of which is the sole province of fiction.
My impulse to write about Tucker Carlson came from a story about his first grade teacher, Marianna Raymond, whom Carlson had described in his book as “a parody of earth-mother liberalism” who “wore long Indian-print skirts. … She had little interest in conventional academic topics, like reading and penmanship.”
Carlson went on to claim that his father needed to hire outside tutoring in phonics for Tucker to even learn to read. (He’s written elsewhere of a reading disability in his youth.)
The Washington Post tracked down Marianna Raymond (age 77 at the time) and asked her about Carlson and his remarks. Ms. Raymond remembered young Tucker as “very precious, and very very polite and sweet.” Also she did not wear Indian-print skirts and that outside tutor who was hired to help Tucker learn to read was…her.
It is not particularly noteworthy that Tucker Carlson would lie in order to pander to his audience’s prejudices. It is the story of much of his career, with his Fox News Qanon/white supremacy hour merely an intensification of a pattern that goes back much further. The through line of Tucker Carlson’s life is not that he is a conservative.
He is an asshole. He is a terrible human being with a demonstrably malevolent effect on the world. Some people from the small upstate town where he lives say he’s a nice and friendly guy, but none of that mitigates the fact of his impact on the world.
He’s not a particularly compelling character to write about, either, since being an asshole is neither unique, nor interesting.
But at some point, he was also a “very precious, and very very polite and sweet” boy to his grade school teacher. That is kind of intriguing.
Tucker Carlson would’ve been in Ms. Raymond’s class not long after his mother walked out on her family in order to live a so-called “bohemian” lifestyle. Tucker’s father who had been some kind of diplomat/businessman, and who was actually probably in the CIA, remarried to an heir of the Swanson fish stick fortune, and Tucker went from being quite comfortable to indisputably wealthy.
I began to wonder not so much about Tucker Carlson per se, but about that boy whose mother left him in a way that would be very confusing to a six-year-old, and perhaps liked it when that nice Ms. Raymond would come over to help him with his reading, so that even when the words on the page start to make sense to him, he pretends to be struggling.
Maybe that boy fantasizes about Ms. Raymond being his new mother, rather than the fish stick princess his father has been seeing and that very precious, very sweet, polite boy sets out to sabotage his father’s new relationship on the hopes he will notice Ms. Raymond who makes the boy’s favorite snack, a celery stalk, filled with peanut butter, raisins dotted along the stalk’s length, ants on a log.
I don’t know what happens after that. It looks like I got about a 1000 words in plus a bunch of fragmentary notes. At some point judging from the notes, I also saw a thread in the present where the adult Tucker is in his home compound during the pandemic, sealed up with his wife and four children and his children’s significant others. He is waiting for a private delivery of the Russian Covid vaccine, ready months before the American versions. While he waits he considers his life. I guess that I thought it might be a clever joke to tie Carlson’s fondness for Putin to him getting a Covid vaccine from the Russians.
The metadata on the file says that until the time of this writing I hadn’t opened it since 2021. It’s not unusual for me to noodle on a project for an afternoon and then stow it away forever. Most ideas are fleeting and completing even a short story requires many hours of commitment.
But in this case, I knew that even if I remained interested in that story, whatever time I spent on it would be “wasted” in terms of delivering something that would ultimately be embraced by audiences because when it comes to characters, Tucker Carlson is far too unlikable.
I don’t have like, hard numbers behind this, but it seems as though one of the most common complaints readers have about a book they didn’t care for is “I didn’t like the character(s).” This was my book club’s primary complaint against Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust in our most recent meeting. Look, I get it. A book is an investment of time, and that time is often more pleasantly spent when in the company of characters you like and/or can root for.
Reading a novel that mostly reminds you that people are not so great to each other (or themselves) and live lives of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation, in which they primarily damage others and the world around them can be a tough sell, even if it’s, you know, accurate, or insightful as to the nature of the human condition.
That said, there is a narrative chock-full-o unlikeable characters that lots of people seem to be enjoying right now, Succession on HBO. (Possible mild spoilers for the show ahead.)
We should acknowledge that even though the show seems to saturate the cultural zeitgeist, it absolute terms, it’s not that popular. Many network television shows have more viewers on a weekly basis.
I’ve also seen a handful of takes on the show suggesting that we’re supposed to feel some rooting interest for the children of Logan Roy, or a that there is something admirable about them. The people who believe this are watching a different show than me. I saw one Twitter thread that referred to Shiv Roy as a “girl boss,” and another comment describing a moment in the most recent episode when Roman confronts the Swedish billionaire who is trying to buy the family company as him “coming into his own.”
Maybe I’m missing the show, but these children are all abject failures. When Logan Roy tells his children that they “are not serious people,” he is correct. Shiv is an empty husk of a human, and decidedly not a savvy operator in the realm of business. Ken - with the help of his father - covered up a manslaughter, and the episode in a previous season showing his self-produced birthday party is a masterclass of cringe humor.
The show is about the varieties of little monster that are spawned from a big monster and the corrupting influence of money and power (as seen with the arcs of Tom and Cousin Greg, “the disgusting brothers”). This is not to say that the characters are inhuman, but the opposite. They’re all too human. We may feel some empathy for some of the characters in certain moments - Roman especially seems self-aware that he has been warped by the life he’s lived, though he also revels in it - but under no circumstances are we meant to be rooting for them, and if anyone is anticipating a redemptive arc as the show concludes, I expect (and honestly hope for the sake of the show’s storytelling integrity) they will be disappointed.
I think Succession succeeds with its unlikeable characters because of its commitment to their unlikability, combined with the heightened milieu of the show. I have no idea about how “real” the show is in terms of media and finance, but the integrity of the fictional world a portrayed on the screen makes the viewer feel like they’re a voyeur into secret society to which we’d otherwise never gain entry.
The characters become an object of fascination. They are, above all else, interesting.
When it comes to characters and story, personally, that’s all I need. Just give me someone (or someones) that I’m going to be interested in. In fact, some of my favorite reads have unlikeable characters, and the unlikeable come in a lot of different varieties.
Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a monster, an eloquent even charming monster, but a monster. While Nabokov famously decried attaching moral interpretations to his work, he also always took pains to separate the character from the author saying he had no sympathy for Humbert Humbert and once even called him a “vain and cruel wretch.” I believe the reader’s interest in the story Humbert Humbert tells is similar to what draws people to Succession, an expose of a kind of American grotesque that makes us voyeurs to depravity which is simultaneously made to seem - if you’ll pardon the choice of word here - seductive.
In the end, because the narratives maintain sufficient ironic distance, the audience (most of it anyway) is not wholly seduced. We do not find Humbert Humbert admirable. The world of the Roy family, for all its wealth and access to power, does not look like anywhere a sane person wants to live.
But to get close to it for a time makes for a compelling audience experience.
(For a gender-flipped response to Lolita, I recommend Alissa Nutting’s Tampa.)
I consider Patricia Highsmith one of the great geniuses of English-language literature, with her Ripley novels her masterpieces, the first of which is The Talented Mr. Ripley. These masterpieces focus on a murdering conman, a seemingly unlikeable character that we come to root for in his various schemes.
Ripley is a classic anti-hero who does manage to seduce the audience, which creates all kind of disconcerting turbulence in the reader’s mind, but ultimately delivers a unique reading experience.
One of my continuing pet peeves is when publishers try to sell suspense novels as “Ripley-esque” because they inevitably disappoint. There is only one Ripley.
Marcy Dermansky makes a sort of speciality of novels about “unlikable” women, but the fact that these characters are often viewed as unlikable is really an indictment of the double standard society holds towards women. Marie of Bad Marie is “bad” but also quite interesting in her refusal to beat herself up over her own badness. The novel opens with her getting out of prison and quickly getting entangled with an unsuspecting family that has some issues of its own. I’ve missed on a few recommendations with this book because Marie’s unapologetic nature can seem off-putting to some readers, but it is this very nature that makes her such a compelling narrator for a story that rips along, page after page.
I’m having a hard time thinking of a writer I admire more for just letting their characters be what they are
Similar to Succession, my friend Teddy Wayne’s Loner is about monsters inhabiting a monstrous world, in this case, the elite college culture of Harvard University. Our narrator is David, a smart, diligent, but uncool freshman who sets his sights on winning over Veronica, the most beautiful, popular girl on campus. On the surface, it’s the stuff of a romcom, but what Teddy does in this book is truly a masterpiece of character development and drawing the audience along as the story unfolds. It is difficult to describe the novel without spoiling its effects, but those effects are very powerful, even unsettling, and if that sounds interesting to you, I recommend checking it out.
It’s the kind of book where people respond by saying “I can’t believe you told me to read that!” Followed quickly by “I can’t stop thinking about it!”
(For a similar psychological journey, also see Herman Koch’s The Dinner.)
One of the things I recognize about my own forays into writing unlikable characters is that they may be much more fun to write than to read. The narrative spelunking required to try to render a satisfying narrative about a character as loathsome as Tucker Carlson that does not try to redeem or mitigate his actions, but instead explores and contextualizes them in a way that reveals something true about our world would be a real challenge.
I think one of the reasons that Succession has so many people talking about it is because it really is rather unusual. We’ve had plenty of characters doing bad things in prestige TV shows (Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, Sopranos), but in these shows make the protagonists into anti-heroes, rather than fully committing to a telling a story with lousy human beings at the center. The closest analogue I can think of is Veep, which gets away with it because all those awful people are being awful in the service of comedy.
I’ll be honest, successfully rendering a story with a Tucker Carlson-like character at the center is a challenge that intrigues me, but even if I were to pull it off - something for which the odds aren’t all that great - I fear I’d be bumping into the reality that most people don’t want to spend time with those unlikable characters, no matter how expertly they’re rendered.
And in this world, who can blame them?
(Even though I don’t share that point of view.)
This week at the Chicago Tribune I write about the truly infuriating process that saw Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye removed from Florida school libraries based in the informal challenge of one person. This is no way to run a democracy.
Speaking of censorship, back in 1958 some racists in Alabama objected to what they saw as an endorsement of interracial marriage in an illustrated children’s book, The Rabbits’ Wedding, in which a rabbit with white fur gets married to a rabbit with black fur. How awesome would it be to read this as an example of backwards attitudes society has evolved beyond, rather than simply an earlier version of the ongoing backlash against the push for racial equality.
Can’t really argue with a single one of these “10 Screen Adaptations Much Much Worse Than the Books They’re Based On” from LitHub.
Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? has finally been adapted for the theaters (and getting positive reviews). At the New York Times, Elisabeth Egan makes a case for the novel’s ongoing importance.
And for this week’s literary-themed piece from my friends at McSweeney’s, and in honor of this past week’s “Take Your Child to Work” day, “Take Your Kid to Work Day Reports from Greek Mythology.”
No requests that I can see in the queue, which means there’s currently low wait times to receive your custom reading recommendation based on the last five books you’ve read. Instructions for submitting your request for a recommendation are at the link below.
Yesterday was Independent Bookstore Day, so I hope everyone celebrated accordingly.
But really, shouldn’t every day be Independent Bookstore Day?
For those of you who, like me, don’t mind an unlikable protagonist, what are your favorite examples? Share them in the comments, won’t you?
Have a wonderful rest of your weekends, all.