Last year, I read a lot of older works of fiction, like Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope and Scaramouche by Raphael Sabbatini. I also read a few more modern works, like The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, and excerpts from “modern classics” in the writing books, Reading Like A Writer and Revision. And I noticed one thing, over and over again.
Modern writing is generally depressing.
Not every passage or line, of course, but the overall tone seems to focus on angst and frustration, desperation and the inner life and struggles of the characters to the exclusion or marginalization of all else. The events in novels have almost always been unhappy or challenging in some way, but modern works seem to have lost the happy optimism the older works once had.
And it isn’t because we have gloomier themes. We may focus on loneliness, marital conflict, race, violence or abuse, but older novels did the same thing, yet maintained a happier tone. They could show the heartbreaking journeys of their characters without suffusing every line with that heartbreak.
For example, Anna Karenina is about marital conflict, jealousy, disappointment, and infidelity, yet the tone is hardly depressing from beginning to end. (At the beginning, one wonders if perhaps the characters are taking things a little too lightly, especially Anna’s brother.) There are moments of despair and unhappiness, but the very next chapter, you are uplifted by a description of springtime, or the sly, sarcastic way the narrator portrays the frivolous society of Vronsky. It doesn’t hit the same emotional note all the way through, and I think the novel is stronger (and more interesting) for it.
Another example would be Little Women, which shows the death of a beloved sister, and the coming-of-age of the other girls, yet the characters continually try to find something enjoyable in life. There are moments of sorrow and despair, but the overall tone is joyous, happy, or at least optimistic.
Scaramouche is also a coming-of-age story of sorts, focusing on a man’s self-realization in the midst of tumult as his country goes from one form of tyranny to another, yet the narrator maintains a steadily humorous tone throughout the novel.
Can You Forgive Her? has perhaps a most modern tone for an older book, as it deals with a self-absorbed young woman who is determined not to make the wrong choices regarding her life, future, and money, but it also is lightened by colorful characters and a humorous subplot.
The Portrait of a Lady is also modern in many ways—dealing with marriage and independent women and the limited roles offered them—but Isabel hardly comes across as angsty. Introspective, but never depressed or in despair. There are wonderful descriptions, and the ending is a celebration of her freedom from the roles offered her, as I examined in an earlier post.
And I’m not sure if I just haven’t found the right kinds of novels, but even some Christian works, where there is supposed to be hope, seem to focus on the same thought-centered frustrations and uncertainties (discussed further in this post). This isn’t to say that all novels must be happy, or even end happily, but I think there is a way to write which is intrinsically beautiful and powerful, regardless of topic. It’s like reading good poetry. Regardless of whether it is describing a vase or old age, the words can be so lovely that you go away feeling better for the experience.
And I think that a sprinkling of humor even in the midst of sorrow is what helps make life bearable. If we deny that in our fiction, what are we offering to our readers? Aristotle argued that art worked best when it allowed the spectators to release a burden, a heavy portion of themselves and their own struggles through true, deep sorrow, and I think the same goes for humor.
Either be sad—truly sad—or include humor, joy, and happiness, but don’t leave the reader bogged down in angst, some distance from deep sorrow and leagues from humor. Otherwise, the readers and arguably we, the authors, will remain where we were, our cares and burdens unshifted, our lives slowly suffocating from emotional overload.
This isn’t to say that older fiction has no flaws. Most of the books listed above feature a general lack of sympathy for women (and can be extremely racist and dismissive of the needs of other nations and other classes besides their own). They make comments about how the men look and act like gods to the women around them (a favorite phrase of Trollope’s), or they show women as dependent on men for their future, tied to the dishcloth and dustpan, or at least the general upkeep of the house and the raising of the children. They can hardly be said to embrace a viewpoint of empowering women.
But they many of them manage to be enlightening cathartic experiences, where you do feel better for reading the work (whether you laughed or cried your way through). And perhaps using an omniscient narrator helped the older works maintain a lighter tone, for when there is distance between us and the characters who are suffering, there is undoubtedly more opportunity for levity, for hope and optimism and joy. But surely, even in third person close narration, we can have characters who can find the silver in the clouds?
Otherwise, we may need to reexamine the kinds of people we’re “close” to in the books we write. If all our characters are the self-absorbed, frustrated and depressed kind, we need to start telling stories from the viewpoint of someone else, someone different, who can actually make the experience of reading enjoyable again.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren