Is a book that makes you ugly-cry worth more than a book that makes you belly-laugh?
Can a book’s worth be measured in milliliters of tears produced?
Does a book that feels like a punch in the gut mean more than one that feels like a hug?
I’ve seen some great Twitter threads lately that tackled these questions with passion and smarts. And though I probably can’t add many blazing new insights to the conversation, I want to say something anyway. Because that’s what writers do when they aren’t mid-book, and have way too much time to think about the Art and Theory of Writing instead of the Sweat and Tears and Agony of Writing.
The connection between pain and artistic merit is something I think about a lot, especially when I’m between book projects, pondering my next move. My last YA novel, A&B, was an f/f (female/female) romantic comedy of the rainbows, pop-songs, and cute-dorky-banter variety. It was fun to write and hopefully fun to read. But now, while I’m letting new story ideas marinate, the Gremlin of Insecure Rumination has come back to squat in my brain and pass a stinky cloud of judgment.
Gremlin: Whatcha got, kid?
Me: Two ideas. One’s kind of heavy, one’s light and weird and fun.
Gremlin: Which one are you leaning toward… OH, NO. WAIT. DON’T TELL ME!
Me: The light funny one. Okay? Because the world is a trash fire right now, and dear God, do I need to entangle myself in a story that makes me smile. I bet other people do, too.
Gremlin: Okay, but…
Me: People like rainbows! People like unicorns! People like nerdy banter about pop music, and why goats are terrible creatures!
Gremlin: Yeah, but like, when are you going to write–
Me: DON’T SAY IT!
Gremlin: —Something that actually matters?
We have this conversation a lot, the Gremlin and I. Maybe she visits you, too. Sometimes, she comes in the guise of true concern for your career, but then she hunkers down and puts a pot of poison on the stove to simmer. Before you know it, you catch yourself stirring up all kinds of bullshit.
I’ve caught myself thinking the heavier story is automatically more legitimate. More artistically respectable. More “real.”
I’ve caught myself thinking that if I don’t write books people call brutal and important and a searing indictment of such-and-such, or an uncompromising look at the way we live today, I’m not a real writer.
I’ve caught myself thinking that peddling joy is an endeavor that serious writers grow out of.
Judging by the stream of tweets I’ve favorited lately, other writerly folks wrestle with these thoughts, too. So, what’s behind this? Why do we lionize stories that devastate us and trivialize stories that comfort and restore us?
I think the core of it is, we tend to believe painful stories tell the truth and happy stories sell sweet lies.
It’s easy to jump on this train of thought in 2017 United States of America where we’re all basically Podlings held hostage by gluttonous Skeksis in moldering robes, their craggy beaks picking off hunks of our democracy (please stop reading this and go watch The Dark Crystal if that didn’t make sense to you). Every day, there’s so much to fight, so much to cry and rage about, so many mountains to drill through on our dark uncertain path to a future we can live with.
But in the valleys between mountains, the sun still shows its face.
Great pain, sadness, and injustices swarm the world, but people still fall in love, overcome odds, pitch their battered tents in valleys of happy. Those stories are as true as the tragedies. It’s as essential a part of the human experience.
Gremlin: Yeah. Yeah, cool. But the purpose of real art is to challenge, right? Not to placate.
Here’s what you say, when the Gremlin tries this line: Joyful stories are a direct and powerful challenge to a world that routinely conspires against our happiness. While downbeat stories brilliantly challenge and expose human shortcomings—our complacency, our prejudices, our basest instincts and dearly held illusions—upbeat stories challenge our frequent inability to see past these shortcomings.
Love is absurdly flawed and transient, the downbeat story whispers.
But love still exists, says the upbeat story, and the happiness it brings should be celebrated, even if it sometimes doesn’t endure.
People are shits, the downbeat story grumbles, with an endless capacity for selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy.
But sometimes people are good shits, says the upbeat story, who balance their flaws with extraordinary acts of kindness and defiant acts of love.
Pain is an ever-present thing, the downbeat story cries!
True, says the upbeat story, but pain is not the only thing.
If a key role of fiction is to mirror life, then our bookshelves need a balance of dark and light.
We should value both types of stories equally, as two sides of the same human experience. Because when we devalue stories that bring joy, it implies that we think pain is the only truth. All we can hope for. All we deserve.
In 2017 United States, that’s a tempting thought. But it’s one I can’t bear to submit to.
So, writers, I’m gonna say this to you now, in the hope that we both believe it: If you write funny books with kissing and banter, funny misunderstandings, obstacles overcome, and happy or happy-for-now endings, you are needed. YOUR BOOKS MATTER. Now more than ever.
If you catch yourself thinking your evolution as a writer depends on an obligatory descent into darkness, then stop that shit, ‘cause that’s the Gremlin talking.
If you don’t have it in you to write a searing indictment of anything, and if your rage is real but doesn’t fuel your writerly engine, try to see that as a feature, not a bug. Recognize the particular gift you have to contribute, and don’t try to be anyone else but you. You’re enough. Your books are enough.
Readers and bloggers, you can help too. Actively confront and dismantle the notion that painful stories have the market on depth and quality cornered. Review rom-coms and lift up light reads. Talk up the merits of the books that make you laugh out loud when you thought you’d forgotten how. Take joy seriously. It takes a lot of voices to challenge a myth, so raise yours whenever you can.
And if you-know-who comes with her pot of poison, then send her my way. I’ve got Gremlin spray in my office, and I’m not afraid to use it.