I received an e-mail yesterday from Marianne Goss, who wants to promote her site, www.positivelygoodreads.com, “an upbeat reading list for people who often find serious novels depressing”. In the event that there are a lot of like-minded readers out there, I’m happy to share the link. But as someone who thrives on darkness and despair, I don’t think I’ll be consulting the list myself.
Here’s an excerpt from an essay Goss wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times (“Literary fiction doesn’t always have to be downbeat“):
Why is it that someone who presumably loves to read fiction has been having trouble finding novels she wants to read? Could it be because literary fiction — the term used to distinguish serious fiction from the commercial variety — is often grim? . . . “Literary fiction,” says a Web site I came across as I was searching for some possibly upbeat titles, “rarely has a happy ending.” When did this become literary dogma?
It’s not dogma, but because so many hack novels end with happy endings, serious writers tend to avoid them like, er, the plague. Writers who attempt “serious” or “literary” novels are usually investigating the messiness of life and the deeper truths of human existence. And given that one of the deepest truths of human existence is that our time on this planet is measured in double-digit numbers, there may be a reason for the shortage of happy endings.
But isn’t there pleasure in even these kinds of explorations? I’d hardly consider Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker to be easy reading–or, for that matter, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–but there’s a certain kind of solace in seeing mature minds tackle sadness. We read them and we know that we’re not alone in our fear and unknowingness. And when we’re ready for a change of pace, we read Will Self or P. G. Wodehouse.
You know, the more I think about this, the more I’m mystified by Goss’ complaint. Is it really that she wants literary fiction to be more uplifting–or does she wish that happy endings felt more important? Maybe this is a simple case of genrephobia. Would it help if we got rid of the term “literary fiction”?