I got this fabulous book for Christmas: It’s called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. When I went through and counted up all the ones I had read off that list it came to 43! So I think it’s safe to say that I have my reading pretty much sorted for the next 20 years!
Naturally the prospect of getting through all those books is quite daunting and there’s more enthusiasm at the thought of some than others. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been on my previous list for ages as has work by Doris Lessing and Georges Perec. Then there are those that feel like they must be endured, those corner stones of literature, quite literally, whose weight and/or unappealing fog of complexity burden the reader with their incomprehensible brilliance: War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Ulysses by James Joyce and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for instance . And then there are a few that are so incredibly miserable that I question if it’s worth reading at all when you come out at the end feeling simply depressed and traumatised, all of Thomas Hardy, and for the sake of ticking a book off a list? (In fact this is a harder question to answer then it might first appear because of how satisfying it is to put a tick on a list!)
Anyway it got me thinking about how much we admire stories that make us feel so miserable it doesn’t seem possible the world can go on the same as it did before and in fact I’ve been criticised in the past for wanting the books that I read to have a happy ending because, for some reason it is much more noble to suffer than to be happy.
It’s not that I think stories that reduce you to sobbing your heart out onto the carpet/ bed/ train carriage (or is that just me?) can’t be incredible but I do think that portraying a world in which there is redemption, joy, a sense of fulfilment, is one of the most powerful things to write about.
I’ve been told that this is painting a picture that is unrealistic and purely escapist fantasy…… like that is a bad thing?!?!
To begin with it seems to me that, to generalise greatly, writing about people falling in love and getting married is no more or less realistic then writing about someone being raped and forced to marry their abuser but, importantly, the very idea that stories are a realistic portrayal of life is where the argument begins to lose ground.
A story is a carefully constructed creation and its resemblance to life is transitory. Of course writers draw upon human experience as a tool to infer a world that has a hallmark of familiarity to the reader but even a memoir has been rigorously structured, stripped, padded and presented in order to engage the reader in a certain narrative. Characters may have been written out, events not witnessed, imagined, superfluous details altered or eradicated. It may have been arranged to mimic life but it is essentially a world that may live and breathe but nevertheless, is a world unto itself.
So by simply picking up a book and opening it the reader is consenting to escape into a different world and isn’t that a good thing? And personally, since I have a choice, I’d rather escape to a place where people fall in love and get married instead of getting raped and forced to wed their abuser. Reading and writing about excruciating horror and sadness doesn’t help me prepare for it in life and I get too involved in the characters to be able to distance myself from what’s going on. In the end I feel frustrated and helpless. On the other hand, when I read and write about the triumphant fulfilment of happiness I finish with a feeling of inspiration and a desire for positive action. If a happy ending can inspire us that life doesn’t have to be so painful, that things can change, we can change, that we too can strive for happiness, doesn’t that deserve to be the most celebrated literature out there?
This is the literature I enjoy and value most and it’s the reason I will continue to read and write stories that end with happily ever after.