Writing About Unlikeable Characters: Household Words by Joan Silber

In the quest to find novels that focus on families, loss, and conflict by female Jewish authors, I recently discovered Joan Silber.  In May,  her novel,  Secrets of Happiness,  was reviewed by Joshua Ferris in the New York Times. Ferris refers Silber’s signature style as “the relay narrative” and this intrigued me because I like using different voices in my work so I added her name to my “must read authors” list.  I didn’t however choose to read Secrets of Happiness. I decided to read her first novel, Household Words.

 I’m completing a first novel. My ethnic identity is Jewish and my protagonist is Jewish, so I wanted to see how the immigrant experience came through in Silber’s novel about a Jewish family in northern New Jersey.  I also wanted to examine the building blocks she began with before moving on to more complex work. Start simple and build from there, I remind myself.

Written in 1976, Household Words  won a PEN/Hemingway Award in 1980.  Silber has written five more novels and has also authored three short story collections. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in addition to a PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel Improvement and she was a National Book Award finalist and Story Prize finalist for her novel Ideas of Heaven.  I mention these honors because in Household Words  Silber doesn’t follow the standard “rules” for writing a “prize winner.” Her protagonist, Rhoda is unlikeable.  In MFA programs and post graduate classes, writers often talk about flawed characters, but the usual goal is to develop some form of empathy between the reader and the main character.

Writing workshops often talk about conflict when critiquing the work.  Tension. Pacing. Fiction in 2021 seeks to shock, wow, and amaze the reader.  Household Words is simple story, the life of an upper middle class Jewish housewife, widowed young and painfully disconnected from her two daughters.  Set in the time period 1940 to 1960, the book concludes with Rhoda’s death. There is no strong climactic peak in the plotline, but I couldn’t put the book down. This is the important thing to emphasize, I was totally absorbed in the story.

And when I put it down, I kept thinking about it.  I imagined various situations where Rhoda could have asked others for help with designing an educational program for her eldest daughter, who was only interested in science. And then reminding myself that in the 1950s, education for women was severely limited by pre-determined role models. I debated with myself as to whether Rhoda’s persistent gentlemen suitor during her widowhood, who she eventually rebuffed as inferior and coarse, would have provided her with some needed love and emotional support.  Never seeming to  fully understand the emotional complexities of her late husband Leonard during their marriage, did Rhoda finally appreciate him during her final years of living?

While I didn’t feel strong empathy for Rhoda, I felt badly for her children. They could see her flaws. Could they find ways to heal themselves once she was no longer part of their life?

A book you enjoy reading and a book you that keeps you ruminating is a good book. I therefore recommend putting this novel on your summer reading list, even though it is not the style of novel currently popular with agents and publishers. Maybe that’s because it’s not simple entertainment. The story calls out for the reader to emotionally and intellectually participate.  The journey is not always pleasant, but it’s stimulating.

 In the reading guide of the paperback edition, Silber states, “As a writer, I’ve remained interested in getting under the skin of characters whose behavior isn’t always likeable.” I admire that challenge, to use fiction as a writer to stretch your imagination to put yourself inside the perspective of characters who are troubled and unkind. Why do they behave the way they do? What can we learn about ourselves? Self-knowledge makes us better writers and better humans.

Writing Challenge (prompt) Remember something that happened in your past that made you very angry. Now write the scene from the perspective of the person who angered you.

Follow me on Twitter: SN Maril. Thank you for reading.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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