Malcolm Muggeridge (an old English literateur) once said that George Orwell “was no good as a novelist, because he didn’t have the interest in character.” Well, I didn’t need to tell you who George Orwell was, so you may doubt the judgment of the largely forgotten Muggeridge. But I think he was very close to an important factor for the novelist.
Here’s why: Character creates empathy in a novel. It puts the reader in a relationship with the work. Muggeridge’s point was that politics were more interesting to Orwell than the people on whom he hung them. In “1984” we feel for Winston Smith because we imagine what it’d be like to be him – but we don’t really care that much for him as a character. In other words, if Orwell hadn’t had such a fabulous idea behind that novel, it would’ve failed because Winston was too much of an everyman.
Nonetheless, so much of today's fiction fails Muggers's character test. Read the short stories in The New Yorker – which are fairly representative of today’s “literary” fiction – and you’ll generally see an authorial voice greatly distanced from the emotions of the characters. You’re not in a relationship with the characters, and you wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with the smart-ass authorial voice.
The same is true on the other side of the Atlantic. Ian McEwan’s distance and restraint makes me feel…distant and restrained. Which isn’t why I read a novel.