Messud’s riposte got picked up by David Daley in Salon, who saw an implicit gender bias to the question, and praised Messud for calling it out.
I think the question says more about the dull imagination of the interviewer than sexism, but hey, they aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m more confused about the reaction Messud’s response provoked from readers. Seriously, is this what passes for controversy now? By all accounts, pretty tame. We’ve come a long way from Vidal and Mailer slinging vitriol at one other in Beefeater-tempered cadence on live TV. Ah, the good old days.
Is it her honesty that surprised people? Or is it the novelty of an angry woman? So meta! Without further ado, the pertinent excerpt, while in conversation about (the protagonist of) her new novel, The Woman Upstairs:
I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.
[Messud]: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”