Most of us like to make sense of our lives by explaining them in terms of stories.
On the last day of the year, we often sum up what has happened during the past year. We are happy to think of the New Year as a new beginning, perhaps the beginning of a new story that will be better than any we’ve yet created—or so we resolve!
A couple of days ago I read a post by one of my favourite bloggers that posed questions about “feel good” versus “literary” writing. She claims, “A lot of high-quality literary pieces I read these days are very depressing,” and asks, “Is there some deadlock between literary merit and hope that they have to be inversely proportional in books nowadays?”
I was driven to comment on her post as it contained many thought-provoking ideas. Ironically, she included a wonderful little feel-good story of her own, and I highly recommend you read her post.
Like many other readers who commented on bottledworder’s post, I don’t think that good literature (either past or current) is mostly depressing.
Good literature reflects the full range of human experience. Maybe the current fashion in literary writing is to write cynically, but most people will always want a message of hope, even if they don’t prefer the sheer escapism of genre fiction.
I, like many people, get more satisfaction out of reading “literature”—meaning books that have complicated, in-depth characters caught in real-life situations—than “escapist” books. To me, there is comfort in knowing that moral uncertainty, emotional anguish, and terrible bad luck or circumstances are parts of the human condition that are shared by everyone.
Literature can’t help but have darkness because the human reality is that we are all destined to die. Not only are the ways most of us get there pretty grim, but fewer people today have the solace of believing in life after death. Good literature helps us face darker realities because it does offer hope. It usually affirms the incredible resilience and strength of human beings by showing us that the joy and richness of life can be experienced even in the most unlikely situations. But it doesn’t evade the suffering, struggling, and doubts that accompany our journeys.
Bottledworder writes that she wonders whether such things as “unequivocally happy endings…are incompatible with the tenets of good writing of the current literary canon.” Well, Margaret Atwood wrote a short story called “Happy Endings” in 1983 (published in Good Bones and Simple Murders). It was a fun little exercise but its point was brutal: the only authentic ending is “John and Mary die.” So writers can create a happy ending simply by cutting off their story before that point.
Another thought I had after reading bottledworder’s post is that though much of contemporary literature may be cynical, the exact opposite is true about what is demanded by social media. I feel pressured to conform to the relentless cheerfulness of the Facebook world. Don’t get me wrong; I like to be inspired and to look at cute puppy/kitten photos as much as the next person. But I feel constricted: there are times I want to vent cynical or venomous thoughts on Facebook and I know I mustn’t!
Also, in case anyone thinks I’m a literary snob, I’ll report that I just finished reading (in two days!) an excellent escapist novel called A History of Pleasure, by Richard Mason. The writing is top quality, but the book (starring a good-looking character named Piet Barol who takes full advantage of his attractiveness to both men and women) is unabashedly escapist. It would make good reading for a day (perhaps New Year’s Day?) when you don’t want to read anything too troubling or demanding.