To talk about 'liking' a character may be a literary faux pas, but I don't care

I'd be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy the simple pleasures of Elizabeth Bennett's company

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The Independent Online

Sometimes the chance for a cluck is simply too inviting to pass by. So it is with the Times Educational Supplement’s list of the Top 100 works of fiction that “every student” should read before they leave secondary school – and childhood – behind.

Harry Potter at number six? Cluck! Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging sharing 79th place with On the Road? Cluck cluck! Perhaps the teachers invited to vote by the TES just bumped those two up in order to give Michael Gove an aneurysm.

You sort of hope there’s some funny business going on. With all the books in the world to choose from, and with the power to cleave the necessary-for-life from the on-the-beach-if-you-must, doesn’t it feel crabby to go for titles that might actually get picked up by young people without an adult having to nudge? It’s sort of like saying: “Here’s a ticket to travel the world, children, but we recommend you pop in to the Caffé Nero next door.”

Book snobs and aspiring book snobs (a badge I claim) can relax, though, once they’ve recovered from the shock of Full-Frontal Snogging. Wherever your feet stop, any trip through the TES list brings a giddy sense of impending joy: stride from 13 (Jane Eyre) to 23 (The Kite Runner); hop to 24 (A Clockwork Orange); roll down to 59 (My Family and Other Animals) and take a moment at 72 (The Bell Jar). If there’s an agenda here, I don’t see it. It could be that that’s the value of a democratically produced canon: all the agendas cancel each other out.

Acolytes of the OCR exam-board may want to open teenagers’ eyes to foreign worlds, the Govians to raise up Victorian classics, feminists to remove some of the inevitable testosterone overload.

Here they just get a vote and duke it out. A truly fun book list – and this is one – ought to remind the reader of herding cats. Picture A Clockwork Orange’s Alex sidling up to The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood. Miao!

Teachers being teachers, some wise words have been appended to the list that don’t do it any favours. Nineteen Eighty-Four – which comes top – draws praise for instructing young minds to think for themselves. Couldn’t they just call it a fabulous book and leave the moral Chinese burn as a surprise?

Secretly, I’m coming to think, I have an agenda too. The realisation struck at seeing both Pride and Prejudice (8) and The Catcher in the Rye (10) scrape into the Top 10. (Of course they should be higher, but that’s by the bye.) As readers gain their chops, they are expected to drop the habit of judging books by how likeable they find the characters. In academic circles, and authorial ones too, to talk about “liking” a character is the literary equivalent of kissing with too much tongue in secondary school: a hopeless combination of romanticism and naivety. “I hate the concept of likeability,” Jonathan Franzen told the New Yorker in 2013. “It’s given us two terms of George Bush… and Facebook”.

Granted, top novels (and Franzen’s are such) do not have to feature protagonists you’d like to find sitting to your left on a night bus. (Who wouldn’t run for the doors if Lolita’s Humbert Humbert started peeking over the edge of their newspaper?) Granted, too, a reader who has been around the block a bit shouldn’t admit to treating bookshelves as a cruising ground for imaginary friends.

But I’d be lying if I said that it was the evocation of a family on the edge of financial ruin that struck me square on the nose in Jane Austen’s classic love story. The same if I said it was the portrait of alienation in 1940s New York that knocked me out in The Catcher in the Rye. It was Elizabeth Bennett and Holden Caulfield. The characters. Who, Franzen be damned, I like. A lot.

No A-level English Literature exam paper is ever going to pose the question: “Do you enjoy spending time with the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice? If so, why?” But wouldn’t it be sort of fun if one did? Students, if I remember rightly, are pretty astute judges of likeability and put some value on it, day-to-day. Their answers might even be more interesting than those steaming with thematic cross-references.

For me, for what it’s worth, it was Ms Bennett’s mix of strength and self-mockery (When did you first like Mr Darcy? “I believe I must date it  from my first seeing his grounds at Pemberley.”) Ten points, Elizabeth!

As for Holden? Well, how could he not just totally kill you?

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