The feel good and the literary writing

I was at the Sacramento airport one bleak winter morning trudging up the escalator managing several scraps of paper in my two hands (ticket, baggage tag, ID to name a few) while balancing my roller-board with my elbow on the moving surface.

I am not a morning person from any angle and I always find early morning flights depressing, more so if they are preceded by long commutes in shuttles and long waits in the dark when you inevitably turn out the first passenger to be picked up by a van at 4 am.

So needless to say, I was yet to appreciate the beauty of the morning.

But today, a strange surprise was waiting for me at the long security queue at the end of the escalator.

An elderly man in a full-sleeved shirt and gray trousers was weaving his way around the queue smiling at the children, exchanging pleasantries with people who would. This was not that unusual. I’ve often seen such cheerful people even at such time of  day.

But one moment he was talking and another moment this nice, elderly gentleman had broken into song. A very sudden song.

A very loud song.

He had a rumbling voice rather out of place amongst the TSA announcements on the loudspeakers and the clicks of people’s shoes and laptops and belts hitting the conveyor belts and the stern but polite voices of the security personnel.

It was a song about waking up every morning and keeping yourself going. About smiling everyday. And something else about sunshine.

When we finally recovered from our stunned silence and the song ended, he told us that he was a motivational speaker, waiting for a different flight. He had no further motive behind getting into songbird mode than motivating us.

I am usually rather sceptical about songs which have the words  smiles and early mornings and sunshine and new days in them.

But today, he somehow made me feel different. A little better about things.

Since that day, whenever I see motivational writing anywhere, I think of that man.

For example, the other day, a piece by a celebrated self-help writer jumped out at me linked from no less than the New York Times. The topic was loneliness.

It was a piece as such pieces usually are. Mellifluous writing that moved like a soft feather over your mind soothing you down, the flute-like tone calming the thinking parts of the brain, giving you hope out of some deep part of yourself but little in the way of concrete instructions that you might remember.

Why then did I read it?

Why then do I click on a dozen such other pieces?

More importantly, can I pull off some such piece of writing myself? Can I give people hope?

Hope for the future, the idea that the individual matters, that solutions can be found within oneself without locking horns with things one is powerless about, that negativity from others don’t matter–some common themes that shouldn’t be too hard to pull off. Right?

Escapism. Very hard to pull off, as a matter of fact.

Is that why there is so little hope and so much of inward turning despair in current literary writing? Or is it really true that the world is much worse off than it ever was before?

A lot of high-quality literary pieces I read these days are very depressing. It’s almost a given.

It almost makes you think that hope equals frivolousness. That hope equals pandering to crass populism.

And yet there was Oliver Twist. There was Jane Eyre.

Is there some deadlock between literary merit and hope that they have to be inversely proportional in books nowadays? I mean in books of high literary merit. Not our Harry Potter’s of the world. [insert smiley face here].

Few of us will ever become completely motivational speakers or writers.

But the current scope and tone of literary books does make one wonder whether elements of hopeful writing (such as unequivocally happy endings or miraculously good characters) are incompatible with the tenets of good writing of the current literary canon.

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39 thoughts on “The feel good and the literary writing”

  1. I struggle with this myself, in my own writing. I want to be real, but I don’t want my readers — or viewers — swimming in a sea of dour water. The long form pieces that I’m currently wrestling with do tend towards the bittersweet, but the “sweet” is the most “human” part of it all. We all strive for “more” in our lives. We push upwards. We value the light in our lives, not the darkness. In fact, we need the duality. Escapism leaves those with thinking minds bereft for more, and our hearts need meatier stuff.

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  2. An interesting post, indeed. I used to carry juggling balls with me when I traveled a lot on business. Long waits in an airport can be better when you’re making someone smile, especially if you’re entertaining kids. But back to writing, I write in what’s been identified as “comedy-drama,” both my plays and my novels. And yet I consider myself a writer of literary fiction. I sat in a seminar with Grace Paley once who spoke of given her characters “an open destiny.” For me, those are exactly the right words to describe the best literary fiction. Paley’s words, combined with Faulkner’s statement that the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself” (in his Nobel prize speech), have provided a mantra that keeps me going. Whether it’s memoir or fiction, a piece of writing unleavened with light and hope – an open destiny – won’t hold my interest beyond the first five pages.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post…and Happy New Year.

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  3. I agree with many others who’ve commented here that most good literature reflects the full range of human experience (and thanks, Kylie, for the examples). 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, realistic characters–because I find more comfort in facing the darker realities of the human condition with others than in escapism.
    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. The hope in good literature is the way it affirms the incredible joy and richness of life, and the way this joy can be glimpsed and experienced even in the most unlikely situations.
    As for “happy endings”, Margaret Atwood wrote a short story by that name–a kind of fun little exercise, but its point was brutal: the only authentic ending is “John and Mary die.” So writers create a happy ending simply by cutting off their story before that point.

    One more point is that almost everyone loves a good story, and this post told the one about the old man singing at the airport beautifully. Thank you!

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  4. I don’t know, I think literary fiction has always skewed towards the darker end of exploration and the human condition. I enjoy both lighter fiction and literary fiction, I even write some of each; but when it comes to fiction that resonates, that I remember years later, it tends to be the works that looked at the deeper questions and left me still thinking and asking questions at the end.

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  5. I love literary fiction but I also love happy stories. Some lit fiction doesn’t appeal to me at all. In January, when I open my micro press to submissions, I’ll be looking for quiet, character driven novels, but as a reader I know I’ll be drawn to the more upbeat ones, the ones with surprising moments of grace, like someone singing in the airport.

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  6. I agree. I prefer what you’d call a boom full of hope, a happy ending, sure a bit of conflict along the way, but generally a positive outcome. I read to escape the rubbish of everyday life, not because I want to reflect on it further. And yet I often feel the need to apologise for my choice of reading material as it doesn’t seem like “proper” fiction; it’s not intelligent, provoking, nor beautifully written. It’s just a feel good story. Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine the two?

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  7. I smiled as I pictured the man singing his song 🙂 I tend to not read literary fiction. I hadn’t contemplated why, but perhaps it is because of the lack of hope. Perfectly happy endings do not strike me as being real…but I do believe that there is hope to be found in the darkest of situations. I want to find it!

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  8. Hey I was composing a comment but it began to grow much larger than I intended as the more I wrote the more loose threads I uncovered and cannot resist pursuing, so thanks to this post I’ve now got a few new post ideas to peck at.

    In a way I skimmed or skirted near a related vein in my
    ‘in fear of… Yuck’ series
    (http://cometotimmy.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/in-fear-of-1/)

    Shorter answer: both ends pose potential for ripening into yuck (speaking only for myself) but if I had to choose, I will go with the one that is most entertaining.

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  9. Perhaps it’s because happiness doesn’t need exploration as much? I myself don’t question happiness too much. It’s nice to enjoy as-is, without too much thought.

    Also, the Sacramento airport–at least the old section–is a horridly depressing place to be. Bummer.

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  10. You could use television to explain this. You know the thoughts going through most peoples’ minds when they hear tragic news is, “Glad it didn’t happen to me.” Makes them feel falsely better about their own lives. And so, they seek out more drama, more depressing and shocking news. Is it any wonder that’s how reporting is geared toward? I guess some authors think this way, too.

    Then there are the authors who seek to express their own depressive, so-called “deep” thinking, through their stories. Maybe to share with the world; I don’t know for sure. But I know that if you keep feeding people negativity, that’s what they’ll get filled with. This is how motivational speaking and self-help works: positive action and messages. Not the mantras, but just a better outlook on life itself.

    Used to be a time where musicals and wholesome family entertainment was the order of the day. I’m not sure where the switch came from, but I can only guess the reason why was someone felt oppressed and wanted to share their suffering with the rest of the world in an attempt for others to feel sorry, or that they’re not alone.

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  11. I think fiction can skillfully draw from the full range of experience (good and bad) and still end up being life affirming or encouraging. I don’t think that negativity and cynicism are somehow more ‘realistic’ than hope. Nor does something have to deny the difficulties of life in order to be motivating. I like writing that is hopeful despite the difficulties and uncertainties we all face.

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  12. Hmmm, this is an important and huge question, one I’ve sat with many times over the years. In response to your final summing up question I’d have to say that, though I wish it were otherwise, I think it would be hard to write something entirely positive and receive wide critical acclaim. Literature/Art reflects life and life is balanced and though I admire and seek out motivational writing at times I ultimately honour and seek out balance, the dark and the light, for this to me is reality.

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  13. Interesting question.
    I think the most memorable literature reflects both the best and worst in life; tragedy mixed with hope. Some recent examples: “Fall on your Knees,” “The Lacuna,” “Bel Canto,” “The Kite Runner.”

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    1. I think the most memorable literature reflects both the best and worst in life; tragedy mixed with hope.
      Agreed. I’d say the same for television. If something is either too serious or too silly, it loses me. It’s stories that capture the essence of life, in its glory and its hardship, that resonate most with me.

      All that being said . . . were I forced to choose, I’d choose inspiration. (May I never be forced to choose!)

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  14. I thought this was a very interesting post. I tend not to read motivational writing. I realize it’s very popular, but I often find it annoying. That’s just me.

    I agree with MishaBurnett’s comment (above) on literary fiction. Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, and other books now considered to be classics were written as popular fiction. I suppose “serious” works are often considered to be more thoughtful or important. The same is true of movies (and I have to admit, I tend to see those serious independent movies more often than the popular ones). I believe that a piece of good writing lasts through the ages whether it is serious or hopeful, or whether it was originally written as literary fiction or as popular fiction.

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  15. I love bursting into song or dancing in the super market. Motivational? Don’t know. I feel good and I’m not hurting anyone. My books are about women who survive and thrive just as I’ve had to do. As an elder, I’m happy to wake up each day. I do enjoy your thoughtful posts. Happy New Year.

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  16. I’m with you all the way, which is why I mostly read non-fiction now, diaries, biographies, auto-biographies, history, Mostly, funnily enough, being about real life, they actually are positive, often have an ending – even a happy one, and reading other people;’s lives and challenges is inspiring to me !!!
    I find ‘significan’ books tend to be politically correct books in that they never have a happy ending, if they have an ending at all, and as you say they are mostly about the miserable aspects life . Too many people seem to think you have to have great drama and suffering in your life in order to write or be a great artist. Angst is a pre-requisite for art! ( did kafka start this trend???)
    Great piece.

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  17. I think it’s a reflection of the taste of those who define what is “literary fiction”. The self-styled intellectual elite tend to be very pessimistic, in the name of “realism” they tend to embrace the worst that humanity has to offer.

    It’s hardly a new phenomenon, G. K. Chesterton complained about the same attitude a hundred years ago. Oliver Twist and Jayne Eyre are considered classics now, they were dismissed as “popular fiction” when they were written.

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  18. I just read “Drawing on the Power of Resonance” by David Farland. Do you think that maybe very literary work is written by people who are mostly depressed, and that as a result, depressing work resonates with them and the people who read these works? Or that motivational, cheerful work is written by people who speak more simply but resonate with others like them? Just a thought. It does make you wonder whether it’s possible to create a motivational, highly literary piece.

    What a thought-provoking post.

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  19. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it literature, but the book I just published as well as the one I’m writing now have lots of unpleasantness, but both end on positive notes. I don’t think I can help but be at least vaguely positive. I’m quite sure that since the beginning of civilization there has been endless unpleasantness that can be easily dwelled upon. It makes for good drama and the tragic tends to impress. The movie Stranger than Fiction actually makes a good point about what is considered great in literature and art; in great things someone you care about generally has to die, sadness is easier to evoke in a reader than happiness, but you know, so it goes…. This is why I tend to doubt that anything I write would be considered great.

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  20. I so enjoyed reading this post. First, I smiled as I read about the singing older man at the airport. Yay for him, and Yay for you, putting skepticism aside and enjoying his motivation. Second, I nodded my head while I agreed with you and have also wondered the same question. Does ‘high-end,’ ‘good,’ ‘literary’ fiction have to be depressing as hell? In that case, I’ll keep writing my ‘escapism’ novels. Because, weird as it may seem, I prefer hope and love.

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    1. Me too. Also I think ‘escapism’ novels fill a void that literary novels don’t. I think adults need to pretend as much as children do, but we do it differently, through books and other forms of entertainment. As part of who we are, escapism becomes an art form in itself. But I see no reason why we can’t combine the two art forms!

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    2. I find that I hate a lot of the escapist novels targeted towards adults, so I tend to read books intended for kids and teens, frankly. Newbery winners often close with an optimistic ending. Real life is both up and down and literature should include them both.

      Frankly, I don’t think it’s writers faults so much literary fiction is dreary. I think it’s the faults of editors and execs in publishing companies.

      I’m glad I outgrew wearing black and reading Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath at a pretty young age.

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  21. i am not a morning person either so you have my sympathies there!
    My endings tend to be bittersweet… Maybe it’s just me but I like to be left thinking, ‘what if….?’, so, I tend to end without neatly sorting those loose ends 🙂

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  22. Ya – I agree – and as an aside, with movies also (not just books), my husband and I lately only choose movies if we have a feeling it has a happy and positive ending (how do we know? We guess?), or at least an open-end – leaving the reader to wonder and surmise the positive/happy ending…

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