Tolstoy Lied?

Here is a little known fact about writers: Most of us are perfectly happy, sane people.  We work and write and have families and friends and hobbies.  Sure, the tortured, depressed artist-writer who taps away on a keyboard in an attic somewhere exists, but out of all the writers I know very few fit that stereotype; the rest of us are (relatively) normal.  We are the 99%.

Yet you would never know it from the things we write.  After years of participating in writing workshops and reading countless of manuscripts, you start to notice certain trends: namely, our subject material tends to be dark and depressing.  Lovers cheat, parents die, siblings stab each other in the back; worlds crumble and there are natural disasters, wars, suicide, racism, abuse, rape,  and painful pasts that come back to haunt characters.  All these stories are written by normal people who, after workshop, go out to gleefully socialize and then head home to get some sleep before getting up to work the next morning and continue on with their normal, non-depressing lives.

When I defended my graduate thesis, which entailed discussing 200+ pages of my fiction with three of my professors, one of my committee members laughed and asked me if I realized I was a nihilist.  I consider myself a happy, well-adjusted person, but I realized he was completely correct, at least when it comes to my writing.  I beat my characters into submission and force them to accept the fact that the world sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it– a worldview I would never, ever subscribe to in my own life.

So why do we do it?  Why do happy people write such dark stories?

A book or movie having to be dark to be considered “serious” has long been a trend.  Let’s take the Batman franchise, for example.  1997’s Batman and Robin is a campy, kind of stupid movie in which Chris O’Donnell runs around being the lamest sidekick ever and Uma Thurman somehow resists picking the wedgie that her green leotard surely gave her.  There is a villain and, of course, the superheroes have to save the day, but no one would consider it art.  In fact, this is what Rotten Tomatoes has to say about it: “Joel Schumacher’s tongue-in-cheek attitude hits an unbearable limit in Batman & Robin resulting in a frantic and mindless movie that’s too jokey to care much for.”

“What? No one takes me seriously?”

Compare it to this year’s The Dark Knight Rises.  Stylistically, the two movies couldn’t be more different.  The final movie in Nolan’s Batman trilogy is dark, depressing, intense; it assaults your faith in humanity for almost two and a half hours without reprieve.  Even though (spoiler!) the good guys win in the end, it’s depressing as all hell.  I had to come home and watch Stephen Fry affably bumble his way through a travel documentary in order to not want to kill myself after seeing TDKR.  It made $160M opening weekend and critics and viewers alike have been raving about it.  Its review on Rotten Tomatoes?  “The Dark Knight Rises is an ambitious, thoughtful, and potent action film that concludes Christopher Nolan’s franchise in spectacular fashion.”

Think about the most revered pieces of literature through the ages.  Shakespeare’s tragedies are taught in schools rather than his comedies.  Captain Ahab’s obsession destroys him and his crew in Moby Dick.  In The Awakening, the main character drowns herself at the end.  Everyone in every Thomas Hardy book dies.  The Great Gatsby is (loosely) about unrequited love and social classes… and ends with several deaths.  In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a salesman wakes up one morning to discover he’s turned into a large insect… and eventually dies a large insect after learning his family no longer wants him.  Of Mice and Men: Mentally disabled man unaware of his strength accidentally kills a puppy and a woman, friend kills him out of mercy.  Lolita: Pedophilia, revenge-fueled shooting, both main characters dying at the end.  An American Tragedy: Child death, cheating lovers, abortion, and murder.

So on and so forth.

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina— a novel not exactly known for its happy-go-lucky story itself– with this opening line in Chapter One: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

His eyebrows let us know he’s a true artist.

That quote has spawned a million literary discussions; several years ago, there was even a novel published called Tolstoy Lied, exploring whether or not it’s possible to write a good, respectable, artistic story that isn’t depressing.  And I’m not sure of the answer, because, in some ways, I think Tolstoy is right.  Writing happy-ending stories has been done (such as Huck Finn), but it’s not easy.  I know I’ve struggled with trying to write stories that end on a positive note.  (Try it!  It’s harder than you think!)  So much of art, particularly literature, is about digging away at the less-desirable parts of life, kind of the way you can’t stop pushing on a bruise even though it hurts, to fully capture the human experience.  A good book is poignant; it resonates, makes you emotional and thoughtful.  That’s hard to do if your main character takes a sunny walk to the farmer’s market, finds a good deal on kumquats, and comes home to enjoy a cheery dinner with her family.  Conflict is necessary in storytelling, or else no one cares.  Case in point: I tried to read Tolstoy Lied and gave up after about 100 pages because I just didn’t give a crap.

Besides– here’s a little confession– there is something almost fun about exploring those painful parts of life.  Sometimes, it’s a way to make sense of them; other times, it’s as simple as feeling something rather than nothing.  Of course, the downside of this is your grandparents staring at you like you just admitted to clubbing a bunch of orphans to death to sell their organs for drug money when they realize the kind of messed-up stuff your brain comes up with, but any job comes with occupational hazards, I suppose.  (True stories: I was traveling one summer and had all my mail forwarded to my parents’ house, and my contributor’s copy of a journal I was published in showed up while I was gone.  This particular story starts with a suicide and ends with a bloody child and extramarital fellatio.  They waited until I got back and then passed it around to the family during Sunday brunch.  My dad couldn’t look me in the eye for days.  Another time, my parents and my grandmother came to a reading and got to hear me yell out the f-bomb in front of a room full of people.  Fun times!)

And on that note, be sure to look for my upcoming novel, Susie Loses Her Scholarship Due to Budget Cuts, Drops Out of Harvard, Becomes a Stripper, and Gets AIDS, on bookshelves this coming spring.  It’ll be a gas, I promise.

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