fiction doesn't always have to be downbeat
Sun-Times, November 27, 2005
of the 2005 Pulitzer and Heartland Prizes for fiction, I became
conscious that something felt different from the usual literary novel.
Was it the letter-to-my-son style of the narrative? The point of view
of a small-town preacher?
No, the difference wasn't the book, but my
response to it. I felt happy.
realization suggested an answer to a puzzling question:
Why is it that
someone who presumably loves to read fiction has been having trouble
finding novels she wants to read? Could it be because literary fiction
the term used to distinguish
serious fiction from the commercial
is often grim?
Consider, for instance, the overriding
element in some selections of my book group: Suicide in Sylvia Plath's
The Bell Jar
and Richard Yates' Revolutionary
Road. A lonely death in
Balzac's Pere Goriot.
Cynicism in Voltaire's Candide
West's Miss Lonelyhearts.
Brutality in Anthony Burgess' A
Orange. Perversion in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Bleak
satire in Evelyn
Waugh's A Handful of
Dust. Alienation in Albert Camus' The Stranger.
Even a novel by Barbara Pym
— an author who was my
whose novels are considered high comedies — left me feeling
the underlying loneliness of her characters.
"Literary fiction," says a
Web site I came across as I was searching for some possibly upbeat
titles, "rarely has a happy ending." When did this become literary
dogma? Maybe it was always so. Shakespeare could be plenty gloomy. But
he also wrote comedies.
literature and happy endings aren't
incompatible in Jane Austen. So I read and reread the six Austen
novels, and then I read critical interpretations of them.
exhausted Jane Austen until the next time, I read mysteries, which have
the happy ending of sorts
— everything is wrapped up.
dessert, mysteries are enjoyable in the consumption but offer little
sustenance; I want more character development and wisdom about life
than they generally afford.
Why can't serious literature have a
positive outlook? There is joy in life as well as sorrow, laughter as
well as tears, hope as well as despair. I'm not looking for novels
without moral dilemmas, loss, struggle, and conflict; I'm looking for
novels that leave me feeling that there's reason to go on living.
a pleasure, then, to read Gilead.
An indisputably serious novel, Gilead
has a thoroughly good narrator for whom we want the best. No one is
hopeless; even the character with the most questionable past turns out
to be more misunderstood than villainous. The book isn't painless;
there is an abolitionist grandfather who may have blood on his hands; a
prodigal son whose sin is a mystery until the end; an abandoned young
mother and her young child who dies; the imminent death of the
narrator, which will take him from his much loved and much younger wife
and child. But there is transcendence in the goodness of ordinary
people and the celebration of everyday life. There is love of spouses,
friends, parents, children, and God. There is forgiveness and hope.
Change, the book is clear, is possible.
It isn't just personal taste
that drives my quest for hopeful fiction. I am prone to depression,
along with more than 10 percent of the population, if estimates are
accurate. Does it make sense for people like us to take Prozac and
struggle to keep a positive attitude, then turn around and read fiction
that presents life aseven worse than we've
feared? Does it make sense
to put down Norman Vincent Peale'sThe
Power of Positive Thinking and
pick up Jerzy Kosinski's The
I've been cruising
the Web, putting words like "upbeat" + "serious" + "fiction" in the
search box. I haven't found a lot yet, except for a list compiled by a
North Carolina librarian. (Google on "Positive Literary Fiction" and
you'll find it on several sites.) Titles such as The Kind
of Love That
by Amy Yurk,
The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love, by
Joan Medlicott, and The
Answer Is Yes,
by Ellen Cohen, certainly sound
list's recommendation of Bachelor
Brothers' Bed and
by Bill Richardson, a Canadian humorist, was
right on the
mark; the book is funny, warm, and cleverly written. So I'll keep
reading through the few dozen books on that list, even though the names
of most of the authors are unfamiliar to me. In other words, these
aren't the world's greatest novels. I think that will be OK. They will
be good enough -- reading them will feel good and be good for
time ago, the Chicago Sun-Times published a freelance
piece of mine titled "Literary
always have to be downbeat." You
can go to the link or read the article at right if you care to. I've
had a few indications since that I'm
probably not the only person looking for stories that leave me hopeful
about humankind. A coworker's sister wanted something upbeat to read as
she recovered from surgery. A librarian commented that she was looking
for "positive literary books" that her mother "would actually enjoy
reading." A British survey by the organizers of World Book
2006 found that 41 percent of 1,740 readers polled were "overwhelmingly
in favor of" novels with happy endings. The search isn't just for
books, either: Making the
news were a DVD club that mails its members uplifting films, and a web
site, HappyNews.com, that reports what its name says.
I decided there was an audience for a web site that would help readers
find fiction that's both serious and upbeat. Thus,
positivelygoodreads.com was born. As I read
a novel that was labeled upbeat by a reviewer, allreaders.com, or an
acquaintance, I write a short summary for this site. The upbeatness of
of the novels isn't always apparent to me, but to keep the list growing
and to let you decide for yourself, I'm not excluding anything for
now. The list
will expand as I keep reading and,
hope, entice my writer friends and others to contribute minireviews.
you've come to this site, you love words and reading, so I trust you'll
not be put off by the plain-text appearance. This site is a first
effort and will develop. If you find it useful, please let me know and
let your friends know about it. I'd love to get book recommendations
from you, too. Happy reading!